Low-Cost Airlines: Are They Really Cheaper?

Low-Cost Airlines: Are They Really Cheaper?

A few months ago, our local airport – once a major hub of a major airline that lost out big time when carriers started to merge – did something impressive: it invited a handful of low-cost airlines to occupy a slew of gates in an otherwise unused terminal. I was thrilled! One of the carriers flew primarily to warm, sunny locations in the South; I had visions of my family taking weekend trips to Florida for $100 a person.

Then reality set in.

As I was planning our spring break trip, I decided to try out one of these so-called low-cost airlines. How much would I save? The answer was surprising.

Spirit Airlines

Spirit Airlines operates much like low-cost European carriers like Ryanair. You pay a basic charge for your seat (Spirit calls it a “Bare Fare”), but everything else – from luggage (even carry-ons!) to seat assignment is extra. I wanted to see how much it would cost my family (2 adults, 2 kids) from our local airport to Orlando, Florida (MCO, not Sanford). Here’s what I found

The “Bare Fare” was $63.09 per person, per way. So the total roundtrip airfare for my family of 4 was $504.72. Not bad. Then, Spirit bombarded me with options to add hotels, car rental, and admission to various tourist traps at my destination – even though I’d declared from the outset that I was shopping for “flight only.” Annoying, but since I wasn’t buying anything, it didn’t cost me anything… but time…

A “personal item” is included with each ticket, but beyond that, you’re on your own paying for luggage:

  • 1 Carry-on item: $35/person
  • 1 Checked bag: $30/person
  • 2nd Checked bag: $40/person (so TWO checked bags cost you $70)

Spirit does offer baggage discounts to members of its “$9 Fare” Club – though annual membership will set you back $59.99/year. The program’s baggage fees are reduced, though:

  • 1 Carry-on item: $26/person
  • 1 Checked bag: $21/person
  • 2nd Checked bag: $31/person (so TWO checked bags cost you $52)

I wanted to see what the fare would be without the “$9 Fare” membership, so I skipped that. Based on our last flight as a family, I planned for 3 checked bags and 1 carry-on item. That brought our grand total to $629.72. Then I realized those baggage fees were each way – make that a grand total of $754.72.

Next came seat selection. Traveling with 2 young kids means I can’t leave it up to chance – otherwise, some stranger will end up stuck next to my 3-year-old for two enlightening hours. Spirit offers several tiers of seating assignments, ranging from $10/seat all the way up to $35. Trying to save money, I went with $10/seat – but for 4 people each way, it was another $80 added on to our total, bringing it to $834.72.

Spirit tried to sell me some more add-ons (including priority boarding, so I could get to my cheap $10 seats before anyone else, I suppose, and travel insurance) before revealing my grand total. And that’s when things got really surprising.

All along, I’d assumed that the prices included taxes and fees – after all, other airlines (nowadays) usually show you that information up front. Not Spirit. After adding on the government’s cut (roughly $160 bucks), it came out to just over $994.

So how would that compare to another low-cost airline? Let’s find out.

Southwest Airlines

In order to ensure that I was comparing apples to apples, I searched for flights to and from the same airports on the same days (even though I knew Southwest flew out of a nearby smaller, regional airport at a lower price). Here’s what I found:

  • The cost of a roundtrip ticket on Southwest was $251.50 – a price they told me right up front, without all the rigmarole Spirit put me through. The total came out to $1006.00 for my family of 4.
  • And that was IT. I didn’t have to pay for seats (Southwest, for better or for worse, does group boarding – typically, the earlier you print your boarding passes during the 24-hour pre-flight boarding window, the sooner you’ll get on the plane – and the better your seats), nor did I have to pay for luggage – your first 2 bags fly free.

The Difference

When all was said and done, Spirit was cheaper than Southwest – by $12. If I had ponied up for Spirit’s $9 Fare Club, I could have saved an additional $200, though $60 of that would have been eaten up by the cost of the membership itself. So really, I would have saved about $150 using Spirit.

So in reality, which low-cost airline would I have chosen for this “test” flight?

Southwest. And here’s why:

  1. Spirit Airlines has consistently received poor reviews by travelers and industry experts alike. Southwest, by comparison, has fared better.
  2. Southwest offered about 8 flights on the days I chose to travel (full disclosure: I based my dates of travel off of when it would have been cheapest to fly on Spirit; had I slightly altered my schedule and done the same for Southwest, that airline would have been cheaper). Spirit gave me just ONE option – boarding at 7:15am on the way to my destination, and arriving home at 11:25pm. Neither is ideal with young kids.

I’m curious if any of you have had experiences – either great or horrible – with these or any other low-cost airlines? Which would YOU recommend?

Libby Balke

Libby is a jack of all trades, master of… well, you know how the saying goes. Media consultant by day, mommy by night, you can usually find her with a glass of wine in hand, provided the kids are in bed!

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