Low Cost Airlines – tips from around the world

A global travellers guide to saving money and flying to interesting places on low cost airlines around the world.

Regular travellers can get a nasty shock when they first fly on one of the new ‘low cost carriers’ (LCCs). Sure the fares are very low (US$15 or less at times) but it’s a far cry from my first flight on a Qantas 707 back in 1969 with lounges, silver service and even free playing cards on board.

On the other hand, I’m writing this on a side-trip from the United Arab Emirates to Kuwait and instead of paying around 1,900 Emirati Dirham paid only AED740 return on Air Arabia – saving over US$300. Next week I’m paying just $65 to fly from Kuala Lumpur to Medan, Sumatra on Air Asia.

My friends sometimes complain about a low cost flight after their first try . Some comments are fair but many arise from unrealistic expectations or simply from not reading the details provided. In this guide I’ll explain how I approach LCC flights after using them around the world.

Low cost airlines strip away many of the ‘extras’ to focus on getting people around at bargain prices. If you want something more than transport, you’ll have to pay for it and that includes meals, entertainment and, in some cases, luggage and check-in! LCC’s are a boon for global roamers like me, not just because of cost but also the destinations and routing options they open up.


Who are they?

LCCs are in most areas of the world, although they are rare in Africa and South America where the concept has yet to get a major foothold. Most serve short-haul routes but the larger ones are extending into long-haul .

Asia is the main growth region at the moment with carriers like Air Asia, Jetstar Asia, Tiger Airways, Viva Macau, One-Two-Go and Adam Air

Europe has more LCCs than anywhere else. The leader is the (in)famous Ryanair but there are plenty of alternatives such as Easyjet and Flybe. Flylc.com has a good listing by airport and airline.

The Middle East is mostly covered by Air Arabia out of Sharjah (20 minutes from Dubai). It has useful routes to the Middle East, northern Africa and the sub-continent including Tibet making it practical to fly into the Emirates with a major carrier then use Air Arabia.

The South Pacific has two major LCCs, Virgin Blue and Jetstar (a Qantas offshoot). Both fly in Australia and New Zealand. Singapore’s Tiger Airways has started competing on Australian domestic routes. Virgin Blue extends to places like Fiji, Tonga and Cook Islands under the Pacific Blue name. Jetstar mostly heads north to Asia, Japan and Honolulu (the latter is an interesting option for North American visitors heading down under).

Africa has only a few LCCs, mostly in South Africa plus some in Morocco. Central and South America are also lagging behind with a few LCCs in Mexico and Brazil.


Where they fly

The internet is your best source of information about LCC’s. Most LCCs are not on the main travel industry booking system and often don’t show up on excellent fare search sites like kayak.com.

A general search for flights often gets cluttered with irrelevant results from the many airfare and travel sites. I go to Wikipedia.org which has a good list of LCCs by region as well as a page for each airport including the airlines that serve that location. This gives me, sometimes surprising, options and I go from there to the airlines own web site.

There are also public forums but tend to be biased towards complaints about an individual flight or service. With that in mind, I peruse them for an overview of customer reaction to an airline.


The fare is just the start

Once I’ve decided on a flight I don’t get too carried away with the fare because that’s just what you pay for transport, there are additional fees on top and some traps to watch out for.

There are taxes, airport fees, insurance and fuel surcharges. Sometimes these fees seem to bear little relation to the actual external charges the airline pays.

However it’s calculated, look for the real total price you’re paying not some ‘low price lure’ before the extras.

As I’ll note later, there are some options that are worth considering for your comfort.

Most LCCs offer a simple one-way fare system without the complex rules of major carriers. In particular there’s none of the nonsense of low return fares compared to higher one-way fares for the same city pair.

This gives me greater itinerary flexibility and the option to fly into one place, travel on land, then fly out of another city without fare penalty.

LCC fares can change a lot and at short notice but generally speaking the price increases as the date of departure gets closer.


Airports

I make very sure of the airports being used. The city described as the ‘destination’ might be a long way from the airport. For example the ‘Frankfurt’ airport for RyanAir is Hahn, some 120 km (70 miles) away. Mostly airlines make the real airport clear to passengers with labels like “Frankfurt-Hahn”, “Paris-Beauvais” or “London-Luton”.

While many of the airports are obscure, some are interesting for tourists, like the lovely ancient French town of Carcassonne, served by Ryanair direct from Brussels, Stansted and Dublin.

Usually the airline web site will direct you to the airport transport options, commonly a bus into the city. The buses sometimes are scheduled to match flights; if you miss the bus from town to the airport you might be up for an expensive taxi ride to catch up, sometimes more than the airfare!


Timing

The airlines run ‘point to point’ services and rarely provide ‘thru’ services with luggage checked to a final destination even if you buy a ticket for ‘connecting’ flights.

I always allow time before and after a flight and certainly don’t rely on connections of a few hours. Where possible I allow an overnight stay. LCCs run planes on tight schedules with little down-time so if there’s a delay it can affect other flights quite badly.

If you miss your flight for whatever reason, don’t expect much sympathy, let alone a refund, from the LCC staff. You’ll have to pay for another flight and that will be at the highest price – on most LCC’s the airfare gradually increases as the date of departure draws near. Mind you, in some places the ‘high’ price isn’t that expensive by Western standards.


Before Booking

Before booking I read the web site carefully and don’t skip over things I’d normally take for granted like luggage limit, check-in times, seat allocation and extras offered.

Generally speaking there’s no refund on tickets at all, although changes may be possible for a fee. Beware though, sometimes the fee for changing a ticket is more than buying a new ticket. Air Asia charges at least 50 Malaysian Ringit for a flight change which compares with fares that can be down to 40RM at times.

Some of the extras are worth considering, especially if you want in-flight services. Discounts are sometimes available for online purchase and can ensure availability onboard.

If there’s no seat allocation I’ll pay a small extra for preferred seating so I can take my pick of seats before the hordes.

Most LCCs have one-class planes but occasionally there are premium options for long-haul routes like ‘StarClass’ on Jetstar or ‘XL seat’ on Air Asia.

Other options are of less value. Air Asia really pushes their insurance option which I don’t need with my annual travel insurance policy. It’s possible to deselect the option but they don’t make it easy.


Luggage

Both checked and carry-on luggage can have different limits from what I’m used to. There’s no extra allowance for international travellers. The ‘piece’ system that applies to flights to and from the US can be a problem when transferring to an LCC.

For example, Ryanair has a limit of 3 bags with a total of 15kg with a charge for any checked lug