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Flying Budget Airlines: Everything you need to know

At first glance, budget airlines look like a deal. But that flight might end up costing you much more than you realize after you add on bag fees, fees to check in with an attendant, and other extra fees. Find out everything you need to know about flying budget airlines before you book your ticket.

For more help, check out all of our posts about flying.

An airplane waiting at a gate with a sign about paying for luggage next to it and the words "Flying Budget Airlines: Everything you need to know" digitally written above it.

If you’re reading Drugstore Divas, it’s because you’re frugal and you love saving money. Me too. That’s why I started this blog.

Saving money on things like groceries allows us to have extra money to go on vacation. But not that much extra where you can fly first class. No. Just enough money that you can book some cheap flights on a budget airline.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. The budget airline still gets you to your final destination. But, before you book your next flight, let’s chat about budget carriers. Because budget airlines are not as budget friendly as you think.

The low price you see on your screen looks great. But it’s missing a bunch of other fees. I’m not talking taxes, which are a lot, but more like kind of hidden fees, like paying extra to check in with a human, bringing a bag onto the flight, or sitting with your travel companion.

An airplane outside an airport with the words "5 Useful Tips For First Time Flyers" digitally written on top.

Is this your first time flying? Our Tips For First Time Flyers will be a big help for you too.

Flying Budget Airlines: Everything You Need To Know

Affiliate links are included in this post and Drugstore Divas may make a small commission if you use them.

When I say budget carriers, I think you know what I mean. There are the large airlines that are common at major airports and then the budget airlines that only have a handful of flights out of some airports. Most of those budget airlines have discount programs you can join to save even more, the airline often has coupons, and there are less flight times than what’s offered by legacy airlines.

Budget airlines are great because the upfront cost of the flight is so much cheaper than a flight on a large carrier. And a flight is a flight is a flight.

But, a budget airline is so different once you book that ticket. Those low fares come with additional fees that you don’t see initially, which means you might not be getting that good deal you thought you were.

A sign at an airport telling about fees for a carry on bag.

Personal items are really small

On international flights, most airlines allow a free checked bag. But, on domestic flights, you have to pay for your bag. So, most fliers try to save money by packing into a personal item or carry-on bag, which are generally allowed on the flight for free, instead of a checked bag, which you have to pay for.

Airlines have caught on to this. But still, those airlines usually still allow a personal item that’s large enough to fit everything you need for a long weekend. Those fit into the airplane’s overhead bins, so you’re never separated from your luggage (which passengers like because lost luggage is such a pain).

Budget airlines will allow a personal item, but the dimensions are usually much smaller than a traditional personal item. You can fit your essentials like your phone and wallet, but you can’t fit any of the clothes you want to bring on vacation.

So you have to pay for a bag.

If you’re going on vacation, you need to pack a bag with clothes, shoes, etc. Budget airlines know this. So they charge you extra for carry-on baggage. And (and this was my headache recently), you have to pay that baggage fee twice when you book a round trip ticket — once for the flight there and once for the flight back. Which makes sense. But I thought I was paying for my entire trip, not a single leg.

With some airlines, the price changes as you get closer to your flight date rather than there being a standard price per bag. So it kind of makes you panic-buy your bags without thinking about what you’ll actually be packing and what size bag you need.

Of course, baggage fees are often non refundable, so you can’t book a bag at the time of ticket purchase and then cancel if you change your mind.

A woman getting luggage checked by a TSA agent at airport security.

Bag weight is often less

Standard bag weight is 50 pounds at most airlines. Budget airlines often allow less weight. When we flew Frontier Airlines, the weight limit was 40 pounds.

Of course, you could pay ahead of time for extra weight. And the cost of paying for extra weight was more than the original cost for the bag.

If you’re flying a budget airline, definitely check the luggage restrictions. And make sure to weigh your bag before you get to the airport so you don’t have any surprises.

A luggage scale is great for this. If you don’t have one, here’s my family’s favorite hack: Stand on a scale and weigh yourself. Then, get on the scale holding your bag. The difference in weight is the weight of the bag.

A piece of blue carry on luggage outside of a home.

Bag size is often smaller

I was flying Spirit Airlines once and its allowed dimensions for carry on bags was smaller than other airlines.

A woman ahead of me tried to bring on a bag and the gate agent stopped her and asked her to measure her bag in the designated area. Of course, her bag was above the allowable size.

“This is standard size,” she said.

“Maybe standard for a different airline, but not standard for our airline,” was the reply.

She was required to pay $100 to gate check her now checked luggage. The gate agent was sure to remind the passenger that the fee would have been cheaper if she had paid for her checked bag at check in.

The check in counter for Avelo Airlines.

It will cost you to check in with an agent 

I don’t love the idea of mobile check-in. I’m always worried that I’ll check in, something will happen, and I won’t make my flight. But then I can’t get my money back because I was already checked in.

This isn’t that irrational of a fear.

When we flew home from Orlando one Christmas, our flight was moved up 90 minutes. I didn’t get a text or email about it. I checked the flight the night before and it was on time. I checked at 5 am on the way to the airport and saw it changed.

Seventeen people missed that flight. Imagine the mess if they had done mobile check in the night before, then missed the flight due to the time change.

So, things happen and I will always just wait until I get to the airport and check in at the kiosk.

But, we flew a Frontier Airlines recently, and it was required that we checked in via the airline’s mobile app and got our boarding passes on my phone. If we wanted to check in with a customer service agent, it would be $25 per passenger.

I didn’t know that until we got to the airport, so I had to download the airline’s mobile app once we got there, sign up for an account, and then check in. Good thing we got to the airport early and had plenty of time to spare. 

Changes are expensive

We were checking in at a budget airline once when I overheard another flier with a ticketing agent. He said that his name on his ticket was incorrect. His first name was listed as his middle name and his middle name was listed as his first, so his boarding pass wouldn’t match his ID.

He didn’t know how to change it.

“A name change is very expensive,” the agent said. “It’s actually cheaper to just book a new ticket.”

And that’s true.

We flew a budget airline and I saw that the flight price had gone down. It wasn’t within 24 hours of booking, but I still inquired to see if I could price adjust our airline tickets.

It was $150 per ticket to make any changes. So it would cost me $300, basically the cost of one of the tickets, to change it. So much for that idea.

A woman wearing a mask sitting on an airplane and holding a coffee cup.

There aren’t any complementary snacks

Flying usually means getting a tasty airline cookie.

Funny story. Someone once asked my then 5-year-old nephew what his favorite cookie was and he said, “Airplane cookies.”

They are delicious. And they are only available on non-budget airlines.

On budget airlines, if you want a snack, you have to pay for one of those overpriced airline charcuterie boards that come with a few grapes, a couple pieces of cheese, and not enough crackers.

On these airlines, don’t expect a complementary beverage. Expect to incur another extra cost for a can of soda or a bottle of water.

Rows of seats on an airplane.

There’s no first class

Budget airlines don’t have first class sections. They have a first row, which offers a little bit more leg room, followed by a priority section in the main cabin. All you get in that priority section is the ability to leave the plane sooner. Seriously. That’s what it says in the fine print.

So get ready for basic economy only on your economy-friendly flight.

A woman in a pink sweatshirt sitting on an airplane.

You have to pay to choose your seat

Pete and I are two adults flying together. When we fly, I refuse to pay for our seats. We flew to San Juan and it would have been $49 to choose seats next to each other. It’s okay. We can spend the 2:59 flight apart.

Of course, you can’t do that if you’re traveling with a young child. You’ll need to pay the extra money to be seated together for safety and logistical reasons.

I do think, though, that the airline’s AI makes sure to sit people who booked together separately in an attempt to get that seat selection fee. And, even if you ask nicely to see if you can sit together, the airline will not budge without that fee.

We were on a discount airline once and saw a woman and her elderly mother talking to the gate agent. The mother, who was in a wheelchair, had a ticket for the back of the plane. The daughter was trying to explain that her mother was physically unable to walk to the back of the plane and needed a seat up front.

The woman didn’t pay for seat assignments, so the gate agent wouldn’t change it.

The woman turned to me in disgust, as if to try and find an ally, and said, “Can you believe they’re not giving her a seat close to the front and want me to pay for it?”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes I can.”

An advertisement for Avelo Airlines in the seat pocket on an airplane.

There are loyalty programs

Not everything about a budget airline is bad. In fact, the airline tries really hard to earn your loyalty away from those big carriers. So, the budget airline often offers a loyalty program.

For a nominal annual fee, you’re privy to lower fares that casual passengers don’t get to access. You also get coupons for discounts on luggage fees that non-members don’t get.

This is a really good business model for the airline and possibly a good choice for you if the cheap airline is convenient and/or if you fly a lot.

There are coupons

Avelo Airlines opened at the airport near us, so of course we flew it. It was definitely no frills and needed to get a jump start for one of the two engines from another airline before take off (which was a wild situation to me), but it got us to Florida and back.

Since I was the one who booked the ticket, I got on the airline’s mailing address. And every week, pretty much without fail, the airline emails me a discount code.

I’ve flown major air carriers numerous times and never once have any of them emailed me a coupon.

A crowded airport gate.

Are budget airlines worth it?

You really need to sit down and crunch the numbers before you decide if a budget airline is worth the cost — including the additional charges.

Work out ticket prices of flights on major airlines that offer free carry on bags, then compare that to the budget flights, plus bag fees. You might be surprised to know you might not actually be saving a lot of money with the budget flight.

If the budget airline is a lot cheaper than traditional carriers, just be ready to realize why. Make sure you know how to check in without an added expense, make sure to pack your own snacks and drinks (I pack an empty water bottle in my purse then fill it once I get through security), and get ready to enjoy your vacation once you land.

Because, like I said, that budget flight will still get you to your vacation just like an expensive flight will.

Do you fly budget airlines? Let us know your experience in the comments.