Low cost carriers, like Southwest, JetBlue, and Spirit, play interesting roles in the landscape of the American commercial aviation industry. When Southwest Airlines was established in 1967, it made a business model focused on minimizing operating costs mainstream, and that correspondingly changed the dynamic of air travel forever. Airplanes soon became accessible to the masses, and as Southwest began expanding out of its home Texas market, other companies formed in its wake. Since then, these new airlines have developed into viable and cheaper alternatives to big legacy carriers like American, Delta, and United. They all cater to different niches of the market too; there’s Southwest and Sun Country Airlines, which emphasize customer service and creating fun flying experiences for all. Then there’s JetBlue and Virgin America (soon to be merged into Alaska Airlines), which have boutique vibes and a little bit of a “wow” factor on board. Then there’s Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant, which don’t care about anything other than offering the lowest possible price. Either way, you’ll get a plane ticket to where you need to be at a reasonable cost, and it’s for that reason that you shouldn’t forget about LCCs when looking to fly higher in the States.
- Names (in this guide): Southwest Airlines, JetBlue, Spirit
- Codes: WN (Southwest), B6 (JetBlue), NK (Spirit)
- Websites: www.southwest.com, www.jetblue.com, www.spirit.com
- Major Hubs: N/A. LCCs usually don’t establish hubs, rather they just fly between any given pair of cities; they can save some money that way! That said, Southwest operates a lot of flights out of Chicago – Midway, JetBlue is headquartered near JFK Airport in New York, and Spirit has a huge presence in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
- Loyalty Programs: Rapid Rewards, TrueBlue, Free Spirit
Before I get into this guide, I want to share this YouTube link: How Budget Airlines Work. If you’re at all wondering how these airlines can be profitable despite offering such low fares, Sam Denby provides a great explanation in his Wendover Productions video.
Three Notable Features
- Cheap fares: Perhaps the biggest draw to low cost carriers is the cheap fares they routinely offer, which in many cases, are substantially lower than what the legacies offer. If you’re someone who cares about simply getting from Point A to Point B, airlines like Southwest, JetBlue, and Spirit are the ways to go. You won’t get much more than the promise of safe travel, but if you’re okay with that, you can’t go wrong with these! Some are more accommodating than others, but all of them pale in comparison to what you can get on board, say, Delta. If you can curb your expectations at the beginning, and then adapt accordingly to avoid fees, you’ll have a surprisingly great experience.
The low fares are what make LCCs worthy of higher flying; you have the potential to get tremendous value at otherwise low costs.
- Extensive North American presence: Because low cost carriers don’t really operate hubs, they have a lot more flexibility regarding where they can operate — they just follow the money! They don’t have to worry about connecting passengers in the same way that their legacy counterparts do, nor do they have to allocate resources in the same ways; that’s one of the reasons why their fares can be so cheap. For consumers, this means that if their home markets are the slightest bit lucrative, then they’ll probably have access to at least one LCC. For those in smaller markets, you might have better odds at landing a direct flight too, especially if you want to go to leisure destinations. Not only do you get added convenience, but you’ll also pay less than what you otherwise would on a legacy airline.
- Just as safe as legacy carriers: In order to operate flights within the United States, low cost carriers must comply with the strict safety regulations imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration. Legacy airlines are held to the same standards too, so by that measure, you’re not risking your life by choosing JetBlue over United. There’s a common misconception that cheaper fares means that they come at the expense of passenger safety, which simply isn’t true. You don’t have to worry! I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that a lot of LCCs, especially Spirit and Allegiant, utilize older, previously owned aircraft in their fleets. This means that they require more maintenance, and are theoretically more susceptible to mechanical failures. This seldom equates to anything in reality though — you’ll have a smooth trip!
Three Notable Drawbacks
- Subpar flying experience: When you buy a ticket on a low cost carrier, you should never expect to fly in better conditions than you would on a legacy. Sure, there are some exceptions, as JetBlue has spacious seating arrangements and the industry leading Mint Class (more on that later), while Southwest is generous with baggage allowances and everyone gets a free snack (which is higher flyer friendly), but these cases are far from the norm. In many cases, huge savings come at the expense of a more pleasant flight. You won’t usually have a lot of legroom, your seat probably won’t be very comfortable, you’ll sometimes have to pay for basic features like seat selection, carry on luggage, and bottled water, and all of those issues can leave the most seasoned travel veterans pretty sour. You really are just paying to get from Point A to Point B; you’ll be nickel and dimed all the way there.
Should you be willing to splurge a little bit more, it’s not like you’ll be unlocking some exclusive dining opportunity worthy of competing with on-the-ground restaurants. No, you’ll still be getting something that was clearly cooked/produced on a budget.
All of that can be pretty dispiriting.
- Few opportunities for international flights: North American low cost carriers, like most of their counterparts, practically only operate intracontinental flights. If you want to fly outside of the United States on Southwest, JetBlue, and Spirit, you won’t be going much further than Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. JetBlue’s management has expressed an interest in expanding into the transatlantic market, but that’s still a ways away. In the meantime, you’ll have to turn to a legacy airline, or a European low cost carrier like WOW Air, to get you there. Furthermore, LCCs are also notorious for operating independently, and in the United States, there isn’t a single budget airline that associates with any of the major alliances. While American and Delta and United can connect their passengers anywhere in the world thanks to their agreements with respective oneworld, SkyTeam, and Star Alliance partners, LCCs can’t do the same.
- Harder to fly higher: When you choose to travel on a low cost carrier, you forego a number of opportunities to fly higher. First things first, you’re not gonna earn a lot of miles, and the ones that you do aren’t particularly valuable. Neither Southwest, JetBlue, or Spirit price award tickets at standard rates like American and United (and NOT Delta) do. Instead, what you pay is variable and is determined by the actual cash cost of the ticket. Such a system is designed to make you pay more than you ordinarily would. For example, if you were flying to any city, one ticket might cost $110 or 6,450 miles, another might cost $150 or 11,725 miles, and a third might cost $500 or 57,600 miles. You also, for reasons that I explain above, can’t really upgrade your experiences to higher standards either. This is because the airlines don’t really offer these benefits to begin with, and they don’t partner with airlines that do. Lastly, there are a number of restrictions on when and how you can use your frequent flyer miles. Most infamously, Spirit’s currency expires only 90 days after first accrual. Better use those quick!
Three Special Opportunities
- JetBlue Mint: In 2013, JetBlue introduced a dedicated premium class, Mint, on its transcontinental routes out of JFK Airport in New York. The carrier, seeking to become more competitive, introduced completely lie flat seats, some of which are enclosed suites (!!!), new, refined catering, and wifi on board. It’s a really swanky cabin…
…that also happens to be quite cheap to fly in. Sure, you could redeem miles for these, but I’ve found flights from Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles for $450. That’s an incredible value, and it’s forcing legacy carriers to step their games up. JetBlue Mint is regarded by many to be the best way to get between the coasts, and it is available at the price point of a low cost carrier! Traveling in this class epitomizes higher flying.
- Southwest Companion Fare: Reserved for the frequent flyers who accrue 110,000 points or fly 100 segments per year on Southwest, the Companion Fare grants “plus 1” privileges. It doesn’t matter how you accrue those points — travel, credit card spend and/or signing bonuses, shopping portals, and more — any combination is valid so long as you meet the required standard. When you qualify, whenever you purchase a ticket or redeem for one, you’ll be able to get a second for free. This benefit has the potential to save hundreds, if not thousands of dollars per year. Granted, you have to fly a lot on Southwest, but if you do, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better deal anywhere else in the industry.
- Spirit $9 Fare Club: Spirit, in effect, offers two loyalty programs: Free Spirit and the $9 Fare Club. The former kinda sucks — the miles you accrue on a trip expire 90 days later, and when they’re gone, they’re gone (unless you have the Spirit branded credit card!) — and the latter is a bit of a misnomer. It doesn’t cost $9, it starts at $59.95 for the first year, then $69.95 from then on. That said, if you fly Spirit a lot, you can gain significant higher flyer benefits; you’ll save a ton of money. You’ll have access to some cheap air fares priced as low as, you guessed it, $9! Even when you do pay a little bit more, you’ll enjoy discounted bag fees too. You’ll make up your annual investment after only a few flights, and you’ll be traveling at a far lower price point than what you would on competitors.
As is the case with the other airlines, low cost carriers in the United States have their shares of strengths and weaknesses. While I appreciate their propositions, they’re not some of my favorite ways to travel, but that doesn’t mean that its competitors are definitely superior or inferior. You probably have different experiences, perspectives, and values than I do; what matters to me may not matter to you and vice versa. The point of this guide is merely to highlight the features that makes American LCCs unique, and help you better understand how they fit in to higher flying collectively.