Best Budget Airlines
Fifteen minutes from check-in to gate sounds far-fetched, but it’s already a reality for travelers who fly Peach, a new Japanese low-cost carrier that operates from its own terminal at Osaka’s International Airport.
Cost-conscious fliers already know about Europe’s biggest budget airlines, easyJet and Ryanair. But as low-cost carriers like Peach continue to proliferate around the globe, it’s become increasingly easy to nab cheap fares on short-haul flights in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. We’ve rounded up some of the best low-cost carriers—worthy of becoming household names.
South Africa–based Mango airline, for instance, not only offers low fares but also prioritizes customers’ in-flight experience. Its updated seats come with three extra inches of legroom, and passengers can check a bag for free. WestJet, a Canadian low-cost carrier, keeps fliers entertained with live satellite TV.
Norwegian has long offered free Wi-Fi on most flights and, in 2013, became the first budget carrier in Europe to offer long-haul transatlantic flights on new Boeing 787 Dreamliners. The fleet is equipped with larger overhead bins and entertainment systems that also take orders for snacks and drinks—an amenity that will be much appreciated by fliers on the new Copenhagen to Orlando route.
In most cases, however, booking a low-cost fare still means bracing for a barrage of add-on fees. Consider that the fare quoted on a search engine like Skyscanner or the airline’s own website usually doesn’t include hidden charges for paying with a credit card, choosing a seat, or checking a bag. Many budget carriers enforce strict carry-on luggage restrictions, so even light packers must ensure bags are the correct size and weight to avoid hefty penalty fees.
Still, these can be small concessions when you’re flying Vueling from Barcelona to Rome for $42. Find out which budget carrier to book on your next trip.
Canada’s second-largest airline is giving Southwest some competition as it expands the number of routes around North America, while also inaugurating transatlantic flights with its first route to Dublin earlier in 2014. Some planes have seatback satellite TV; others have rental tablets with preloaded shows. All fares include a checked bag.
Main Hubs: Calgary, Canada; secondary hubs in Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Winnipeg.
Where It Flies: About 90 destinations in Canada, the U.S., Mexico, and the Caribbean.
Norwegian is attempting world domination, flying to 126 cities, including, most recently, routes to New York; Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, FL; and a handful of West Coast cities. Its new planes have free Wi-Fi and larger overhead bins.
Main Hubs: Oslo, Stockholm, Copenhagen, London Gatwick.
Where It Flies: 126 destinations in Europe, North Africa, Thailand, the Middle East, and the U.S.
Launched in 2012, Japan’s first low-cost carrier excels in efficiency, with streamlined check-in kiosks and security that whisks passengers to the gate in mere minutes. Food-for-purchase menu includes local specialties like octopus-stuffed takoyaki. Flex fares—which are approximately 30 percent higher, depending on the route—include one checked bag and seat selection. Kansai’s low-cost terminal has limited seating, and boarding process is by seat (window, middle, aisle) rather than by row, which separates groups traveling together.
Main Hub: Kansai (Osaka), Japan.
Where It Flies: 10 domestic destinations, plus six international routes to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea.
EasyJet’s founder has a stake in this rapidly growing low-cost airline, which debuted in 2012. Expanded international routes mean lower fares to Johannesburg, South Africa; Lusaka, Zambia; Harare, Zimbabwe; and Entebbe, Uganda. Fastjet’s new SmartClass fares include premium seats, free checked luggage, and unlimited date changes without penalty, although its fares rival those of traditional carriers.
Main Hub: Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Where It Flies: Seven destinations in Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.
Launched in 2006, IndiGo is already India’s largest airline, and its fleet of new Airbus A320 planes operate on an increasing number of routes, like the new daily flight between Delhi and Jaipur. Free checked bag before boarding. In-flight food and beverage menu includes flavored cashews and vegetarian samosas; water is always free. The new Airbus A320s aren’t fitted with in-flight entertainment or Wi-Fi.
Main Hubs: New Delhi and Mumbai, India.
Where It Flies: 31 domestic destinations, plus Bangkok; Dubai; Kathmandu, Nepal; Muscat, Oman; and Singapore.
Mexico’s only low-cost airline counts Ryanair’s founder as one of its major investors and has announced plans to upgrade the entire fleet to new Airbus A320s by 2016. The VivaExpress service, which can be purchased for an additional fee, lets passengers bypass lines at check-in. This is another bare-bones airline, like Ryanair and Fastjet, that keeps prices low by offering no in-flight amenities.
Main Hubs: Monterrey, Guadalajara, Cancún, and Mexico City, Mexico.
Where It Flies: 49 domestic destinations; five in the U.S.: El Paso, TX (via shuttle service to Ciudad Juarez's airport), Houston, Las Vegas, San Antonio, TX, and suspended service to Chicago.
The Jetstar group has grown to include Jetstar Asia, based in Singapore; Jetstar Pacific, based in Vietnam; and Jetstar Japan. The newest affiliate, Jetstar Hong Kong, awaits regulatory approval before beginning flights to mainland China, Japan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia. Seatback entertainment systems or loaded iPads available to rent on flights longer than 90 minutes. The airline is less generous with baggage; prepare for a 15.4-pound limit on carry-on luggage for domestic flights. On international flights, the only food option is prepurchased online.
Main Hub: Melbourne.
Where It Flies: 60 destinations in 16 countries from Australia and New Zealand to the Pacific and Asia.
Iceland’s only low-cost airline announced plans to expand to the U.S. with transatlantic flights to Boston and Baltimore beginning in March and June 2015, respectively. Newer planes and cheery onboard staff make up for the lack of in-flight entertainment. The for-purchase food and beverage menu includes Starbucks hot chocolate.
Main Hub: Reykjavik, Iceland.
Where It Flies: Limited selection of European destinations in winter; more than a dozen in summer months. For winter 2014–15, destinations are Berlin; Salzburg, Austria; London; Copenhagen; Paris; Alicante, Barcelona; Warsaw; and very limited service to Vilnius, Lithuania, around Christmas.
Of all these budget airlines, Vueling offers an experience most similar to flying a major airline—preassigning seats, operating out of major hubs, and providing the possibility to book connecting flights. It also provides the opportunity to earn frequent-flier miles and elite points on code-share flights with Iberia and, as of 2014, British Airways. The catch? Legroom and seat pitch are on the low end of the comfort spectrum.
Main Hubs: Barcelona and Rome.
Where It Flies: 141 destinations in Europe (including almost every city in Spain) and the Near East.
An independent member of the Air France KLM Group, Transavia is an airline partner of Flying Blue so award tickets can be purchased using miles on certain flights to and from France and the Netherlands. Another sweet perk: tasty caramel-filled stroopwafels on the in-flight menu (about $2.50). As with many low-cost carriers, you should pack light: there’s a carry-on limit of one piece of hand luggage and no additional personal item.
Main Hubs: Amsterdam and Paris Orly.
Where It Flies: Varies by season, with a focus on dozens of leisure destinations around the Mediterranean.
Great perks—updated seats with three extra inches of legroom; a checked-luggage allowance of 44 pounds (up to two bags); Wi-Fi on most flights for a nominal fee—make up for a somewhat limited route map. Since launching in 2006, this state-owned subsidiary of South African Airways has earned top marks for on-time arrivals.
Main Hubs: Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa.
Where It Flies: Eight domestic routes, plus one flight to Zanzibar in Tanzania.
This pioneering low-cost carrier in Asia has been named the world’s best low-cost airline in the Skytrax annual World Airline Awards for the past six years. Hot meals are available for purchase on flights longer than 75 minutes; drinks and snacks are sold on shorter flights. On long-haul flights (called AirAsia X), business-class cabins come with flat-bed seats, premium economy quiet zones, and Samsung tablets loaded with movies and games available to rent.
Main Hubs: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with additional hubs in Singapore; Jakarta, Indonesia; Bangkok; Tokyo; and Clark (Manila), Philippines.
Where It Flies: 88 destinations across Asia, Australia, India, and Saudi Arabia.
Owned by Lufthansa, this business-traveler-friendly carrier has taken over most short-haul flights in and out of Germany (except from Frankfurt and Munich). Travelers who book Smart and Best fares get extra legroom and complimentary drinks and snacks. The absolute lowest fares, advertised from about $42, often require “blind booking,” with the destination revealed after purchase.
Main Hubs: Cologne, Berlin, Hamburg, and Düsseldorf, Germany.
Where It Flies: About 110 destinations in Europe, Israel, and North Africa.
Tigerair is a favorite among Southeast Asia travelers. Carry-on limits aren’t as strict as at many low-cost carriers, and drinks and light meals are available for purchase. The downside? Fees, fees, fees (for checked bags, seat selection, and credit card payments).
Main Hubs: Singapore, with Tigerair Australia affiliate hubs in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane.
Where It Flies: More than 50 destinations in Asia and the Pacific.
One of the few low-cost carriers in South America, Gol has seen investments increase significantly in advance of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. Keeping passengers entertained is a priority for Gol, which offers free videos and music via a Wi-Fi–enabled laptop or mobile device. Carry-on allowances, however, are limited to 11 pounds. The airline reaches 60 cities, with Comfort Class—roomier seats, free alcoholic drinks, a hot meal—available on some flights.
Main Hub: São Paulo, Brazil.
Where It Flies: South America, the Caribbean, and the U.S.