Understanding Low Cost Airlines

Walk through the check-in counters at pretty much any North American airport or visit the social media timelines of any major carrier, and you’ll learn everything you need to know about the relationship between some consumers and the airlines.  Flyers seem disgruntled about value they receive given what they pay for air travel.  It’s a popular topic of conversation, and often mainline airlines are the punching bags of favour for travellers who feel robbed.

It’s against this backdrop that low cost carriers (also known as LCCs) have marketed themselves as a budget-friendly alternative for people wanting cheaper air travel.  With fares as little as $0, many LCCs have garnered attention and buzz.  But what exactly is a low cost carrier?  And what does that ticket actually buy you?

Getting to know low cost carriers.

Low cost carriers (LCCs for short – and sometimes called “no-frills airlines”) are exactly what they say they are.  These airlines operate regularly scheduled flights just like other airline, but charge you a pittance in comparison.  What your ticket price includes is a seat on the plane and possibly a small allotment of carry-on luggage.  Everything else will cost you.

I love low cost carriers.  Without Air Asia, I wouldn’t have been able to hop around Malaysia and Vietnam as cheaply or as quickly as I did earlier this year.  For the price I paid, the experience met or exceeded my expectations.  The planes were clean, the service was friendly, and I reached my destinations on time.

If a low cost or no-frills flight is in your future, or you are considering using them as part of your travel plans, here is my advice.

Nothing in life is free…

…especially on a low cost carrier.  For example, when you book a seat, you get a seat.  If you want a specific seat, be prepared to pay.  If you want a soda mid-flight, be prepared to pay.  There might be an in-flight entertainment system, but be prepared to pay.  If you need to use the restroom… well, thankfully that is still free.  But you get the picture – anything above merely getting you to your destination and putting you in a seat with a meagre amount of hand luggage, you need be prepared to open your wallet.

Adjust your expectations.

After reading anecdotes from dissatisfied travellers about their experiences with Air Asia, I went in to the experience of flying with them having relatively lowered expectations.

In the six flights I took from Japan and across Malaysia and Vietnam, I can say that every trip met or exceeded my expectations.  On some flights, the seats were wider and had more legroom than I thought they would.  The customer service staff were generally friendly.  Even the food on one flight was surprisingly tasty.

You wouldn’t stay at a budget hotel expecting the experience of a place with a five-diamond rating.  The same logic applies when flying a low cost carrier.

Weigh your bags.

If you’re checking your luggage, know how much it weighs before leaving for the airport.

For low-cost carriers, baggage is a big revenue stream.  Unlike a “per bag” fee you typically pay with North American mainline carriers, when you pay for baggage with some low cost airlines what you’re actually paying for is a weight allotment.  In Asia, these went up in 5kg steps and the allotment was usable across multiple bags (which explains why you see some families with dozens of suitcases coming off the conveyor belt on arrival).

I had heard some anecdotes as well that if your bag is slightly over your purchased amount of weight, you could expect to pay more on check-in.  I had weighed my backpack prior to going to Asia, and knew that depending on the amount of toiletries I had on hand (and depending on the scale), my bag weighed between 14.8kg and 15.2kg.  As a result, I purchased the 20kg baggage allotment – just in case I was over 15kg and encountered a customer service agent who was committed to sticking to the letter of company policy.

Expect the sales pitch.

One way low cost carriers augment their revenue stream is by selling products on-board.  These can include airline-branded novelties, blankets and pillows, earbuds, toys, food and beverages, and duty free items.  Luckily, flight attendants don’t make a hard sell.  But, for fliers who like to get some sleep during a trip, frequent announcements on the intercom about “items for purchase” can be enough to convince you to grab a set noise cancelling headphones off the trolly.

Know where you’re going.

In an effort to keep prices low, some low cost carriers will fly in and out of secondary airports in some markets.  These alternate airports offer the airline cheaper operating fees, and in return those savings are passed on to you.   If you’re not familiar with your destination, you could be in for an expensive or time-consuming adventure once you’re on the ground.

The use of secondary airports can impact connections to other flights if you’re using a no-frills airline to get you to a bigger city, with intentions to fly on a mainline carrier to an international destination.  For example, flying in to Chicago Midway on Southwest Airlines and continuing on to London on United (out of Chicago O’Hare) requires a travel time of anywhere from 1 to 2 hours between the airports, not to mention the cost associated with the journey.  That’s something to consider when booking those flights.

Always be mindful of the airport code that you’re flying in-and-out of.  When in doubt, search Google for more information about where the airport is in relation to where you need to be.

Read the fine print.

Nobody ever does this with anything these days!

If you ever watched the reality series Airline (the UK version focused on no-frills carrier EasyJet and the US version followed the crew of low cost carrier Southwest Airlines), you’ll know that so much customer dissatisfaction comes from people having inflated ideas of what is owed to them.  For example, most low cost carriers do not have partnership agreements in place with other airlines.  This means if a flight is delayed or cancelled, they cannot put you on a another airline to get you to your destination.  You are entirely inside their ticketing system, and so you’re at the mercy of their schedule.  That’s the price you pay for not paying full price.

Your ticket is a contract with the airline.  Any airline.  When you click purchase, you’re agreeing to what’s in it.  I’m a firm believer in knowing what are my responsibilities and what are the airline’s responsibilities.  If you’re unsure of anything, call the airline before booking – just to make sure you understand.

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Low cost carriers are fantastic options for travellers who are on a budget or might just want to save a few bucks on a routine trip.  In many countries, they’ve democratized travel and have given people who might not otherwise be able to see the world the chance to do so.

But like with any travel tool, low cost carriers are just that – a tool.  Knowing what you’re getting for the price you’re paying is critical.

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