As much as I complain about most of the major airlines, it’s time for a reality check. It could be worse. I could be flying an ultra-discount carrier. When infrequent travelers hear this moniker, their mind normally jumps to Southwest. But Southwest isn’t in this category. It is now considered a “discount” or “low cost” airline (note that these terms are kind of misnomers now that the legacy airline fares can be equal to or less than Southwest).
The ultra-discounters, in contrast, are airlines you may not have heard of unless you live in a city where one of them happens to fly. They include Spirit and Allegiant. And Denver-based Frontier, formerly lumped into the discount category with Southwest, is trending in this direction as well.
The ultra-discount airlines offer some fare steals, but you have to be extraordinarily careful when booking these flights, especially when traveling with kids. These airlines make almost all of their money on ancillary fees, and it is often hard to avoid some of these fees when you are juggling little ones.Here are some of the fees that you may not expect when booking a flight with the ultra-discount airlines.
- Checked bag fees: Sure, everyone expects to pay checked bag fees these days, but did you know that some of the low-cost carriers charge differing fees depending on when and where you pay the fee? Fares can easily exceed the $25 threshold that most of the major airlines charge.
- Carryon bag fees: Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant all charge carryon bag fees, but the rates can vary depending on when and where you pay for the item. Strict dimension rules often apply as well. Check their websites carefully, as these fees increase quite regularly and may go up again in the future.
- Seat assignment fees: If you want advance seat assignments to make sure you and your children are seated together, you’ll have to pay for that privilege too. Like carryon bag fees, seat assignment fees are variable and often undisclosed until you are making an actual booking, so check the carrier’s website (Spirit seat fees, Allegiant seat fees). Frontier is a bit more generous than Spirit or Allegiant in this department, as every passenger who books on FlyFrontier.com is entitled to an advance seat assignment. Only those of you who still use a travel agent get stuck with a fee!
The only thing that still seems to be free on all these carriers is lap children!
The fees, although inconvenient, may be avoidable if you plan appropriately. But the fun doesn’t stop there. There are other risks of flying the ultra-discount carriers, including:
- Poor re-accommodation in the case of cancellations and delays. These airlines have really small fleets with few extra planes to spare. Allegiant, for example, had a truly heinous spring this year with some of their Hawaii flights stranding passengers for 2 full days when mechanical issues arose. As much as I’d love being stranded in Hawaii for two extra days, my job doesn’t let me take that kind of unexpected extra time off!
- Really poor service and communication. Hear about that recent Allegiant flight that was stuck on the tarmac in 110 degree Vegas weather for more than two hours with no functioning AC? It went viral for a reason. Or what about the 19 hour Spirit flight from LA to Ft. Lauderdale. Not well-handled either.
Would I fly an ultra-discount airline with my child? Yes, but only in extremely limited circumstances. I’d probably choose one for a fairly close destination like Phoenix or Las Vegas if the price was right and I knew that an an alternate airline like Southwest could still get me home if the ultra-discount airline fell completely flat on its face. Up until now, however, the calculus has not been right. So I’ll keep flying the majors and perhaps complaining a little less.