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Should you fly on traditional or low-cost airlines?

By Talia Klein Perez
 Getty Images: Oli Scarff
*Updated 2023
Travelers today seem to have a wider variety of options to consider when jet-setting. In addition to the traditional or legacy airlines we’re all familiar with, there are also a growing number of low-cost – or budget – airlines taking to the skies. While they may share some similarities, traditional and low-cost airlines each offer distinct experiences.  So, which option is more advantageous for travelers?
Here are three reasons to fly low-cost and three reasons to stick with legacy carriers.


Three reasons to stick with time-tested legacy airlines


Increased Responsibility

Major airlines are better equipped with resources to help passengers when needs arise, in comparison to their low-cost counterparts. In the event of flight delays, cancellations or luggage misplacement, traditional airlines have policies in place to offer passengers travel rerouting, refunds and compensation packages. This is something that low-cost airlines are not always able to do, as was seen with the 2018 Ryanair airline strike, during which hundreds of flights were cancelled. Another example is the case of Icelandic low-cost airline Wow Airlines, which left thousands of passengers stranded at Kaflavik airport in March 2019 when it declared bankruptcy and suddenly ceased operations . While traditional airlines are not perfect, they try to stick to relatively strict flight schedules and allow passengers to view their plane seats ahead of time. Low-cost airlines, on the other hand, reserve the right to make last-minute flight timing and seating changes, without due warning.


Better Flight Times and Airports

Passengers flying legacy carriers are offered better flight times and choices of airports. Unlike low-cost airlines, traditional carriers provide nonstop flight services from their (multiple) larger hubs to many smaller destinations. What’s more, as larger airlines have greater budgets, they can afford to pay steeper airport taxes, enabling them to obtain more optimal takeoff and landing slots at more central airports.


You Get What You Pay For

Flying anywhere – even for just a few days – is an ordeal. Arriving at the airport hours in advance, undergoing personal and baggage security checks, passing through passport control and then traveling from the airport to your actual destination is all time-consuming and exhausting. Therefore, having a good flight experience is key to having a successful vacation or business trip.


Positive in-flight experiences are more likely with traditional airlines, since you typically pay one fee for full service. Sure, today, even many traditional airlines have introduced separate charges for assigned seats, checked luggage and in-flight catering and entertainment, there still may be hidden fees with low-cost airlines, like check-in fees, taxes, or insurance costs that often catch many travelers by surprise.


Three reasons low-cost flights should rule the sky


Tickets Are Even Cheaper Than You Think

Today, the war in Ukraine is affecting oil prices worldwide and therefore airline ticket prices, too. However, low-cost airlines are still cheaper than traditional airlines. The biggest advantage to flying low-cost is the ticket price – which is often about 20% lower than that of larger airlines – but can be even lower when booking early. Intermediaries, like travel agents, are generally not used for booking, which cuts down on overall costs for the consumer. Low-cost flights also make off-peak benefits available, like lower ticket prices for traveling on red-eye flights when airport taxes are at their lowest.


More Money to Spend at Your Destination

Low-cost airlines take a no-frills approach, which is how they are able to keep their fees relatively lower than traditional airlines. They save on luxuries, like reclining seats, which reduces initial plane purchase and maintenance costs. This translates into less expensive tickets. Plus, flight attendants on low-cost airlines often cover many roles, including ticketing, in-flight services and cleaning. Having a smaller staff also means companies can reduce their ticket prices.


While the in-flight experience may not be as comfortable (to a degree) as with traditional airlines, travel is a means to an end. Who wouldn’t prefer spending their hard-earned money on the reason(s) they are flying – be it hotel, shopping, or exotic destination – than on the flight itself? Plus, if taking one of the many red-eye flights that low-cost airlines offer, you’ll also have fewer crowds to deal with at the airport, which leaves more time for sightseeing.


Newer, Safer Planes

Low-cost airlines tend to fly newer planes, which they can acquire at a large discount when placing bulk orders. For instance, Ryanair bought 151 new planes of the same model (Boeing 737) during the post-9/11 air travel slump; the large size of the order is what made each plane so cheap. Many of the air carriers that budget airlines use are newly built or recently retrofitted to meet current safety standards and requirements, and passengers are able to enjoy a smoother, safer flight. Some argue that the planes may also be more fuel-efficient. In fact, the fuel efficiency of younger planes offsets the more expensive purchase price of newer models. That’s how EasyJet has four-year-old planes and Spirit’s vessels average 5.7 years. This, unfortunately, is not the case of many traditional airlines, which continue to fly planes that can be 20 or more years old!


The Bottom Line: Low-cost airlines get you to your destination at a fraction of the price, but also with a fraction of the services and amenities traditional airlines offer. Considering that budget carriers seek to improve their passengers’ experience and legacy airlines look to lower overhead costs, how do you prefer to fly?



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