Introduction

Low cost carriers (LCCs) have been hugely important in mobilizing the world, particularly in Europe and Southeast Asia. Thanks to efficiency-boosting technological advances (i.e. cheap planes!) within an industry that’s normalizing cost-cutting corporate business models (i.e. more fees!), running an airline is becoming increasingly less expensive (and far more profitable). New companies have since emerged in wake of these trends, such as Ryanair and AirAsia, and committed themselves to passing savings on to consumers.

Now, it’s common to see airfares starting as low as $15 in any given region (outside of North America). Prices for long haul tickets are falling too — you can fly transatlantic on Norwegian Air for under $150. While you get what you pay for — which is to say not much — the value to be had is indisputable. You won’t be getting an experience that’s typically covered at The Higher Flyer, so no champagne or fully enclosed first class suites, but for such cheap prices, who needs either of those? LCCs are champions of higher flying at its most basic principle: getting more for less!

Key Facts

  • Name: AirAsia, FlyDubai, Norwegian Air Shuttle, Ryanair, WOW Air (to name a few)
  • Code: AK (AirAsia), FZ (FlyDubai), DY (Norwegian), FR (Ryanair), WW (WOW Air)
  • Website: airasia.com, flydubai.com, norwegian.com, ryanair.com, wowair.com
  • Hub: LCCs usually refrain from establishing hubs, and instead opt to fly popular (and profitable) routes between any given pair of cities. Given the size of their home countries though, some airlines are limited in terms of accessible markets, so they run large operations at a “main airport” regardless. FlyDubai, for instance, is confined to the UAE, and WOW Air doesn’t have much of a presence outside of its hub in Reykjavik, Iceland. AirAsia, Norwegian, and Ryanair follow closer to the traditional LCC “hubless” business model, but they still are all huge players at Kuala Lumpur International, Oslo International, and London Stansted, respectively.
  • Loyalty Program: Unlike in the United States, a lot of internationally-based LCCs do not maintain loyalty programs; not having one is another way to cut costs. That said, AirAsia has its BIG Loyalty Programme, and Norwegian runs Norwegian Reward.

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.

wendover why are budget airlines so cheap
Check it out!

Three Notable Features

  • They’re everywhere: While I’ve only chosen to highlight five, mostly European-based carriers in this particular guide (in addition to some of the ones from the United States in another), all six inhabited continents have been enjoying the rapid proliferation of LCCs. The benefits of such a trend are obvious, even if you don’t have a background in economics. LCCs must provide products cheap enough and comfortable enough to attract travelers on board, and so far, they’ve been quite successful at doing just that. Consumers of all kinds stand to gain from these developments, as some can now afford to be travelers for the first time. Others can visit spots that were previously seen to be too costly. Look at the locations that have enjoyed greater prosperity as a result of increased tourism traffic; Siem Reap in the heart of the Cambodian jungle comes to mind, as does Reykjavik, Iceland, the Canary Islands, and other small towns that are booming as tourist hot spots. LCCs are partly responsible for delivering the visitors to these destinations, and higher flyers should use the reasonably-priced opportunities to their advantages to enhance their travels. They might take you to a place you hadn’t previously thought of going to, and you’ll likely save a ton of money in the process.

    standing at angkor wat IG
    A low cost carrier got us here! Photo taken at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
  • They’re just as safe as legacy carriers: I find it strange in a way that I have to mention safety as a “feature” of LCCs (although it’s not the first time that I have), but consumers assume far too frequently that cheaper fares come at the expense of passenger safety. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Air travel is significantly safer than any alternative means of transportation. Governments everywhere work to guarantee this. The key to a good experience is not worrying. LCCs all over the world combine to move tens of thousands of passengers each day, all of which go without issues. You won’t be an exception!
    airasia seat bulkhead legroom
    A safety card on board my most recent AirAsia flight; there wasn’t anything to worry about during the short flight!

    In fact, a lot of LCCs are starting to revitalize and replace their aging airplanes. With newer equipment, routine maintenance is easier and cheaper to perform. Norwegian Air and Ryanair and FlyDubai are taking delivery of new Boeing aircraft, including 787 Dreamliners and 737 MAXs, while AirAsia and WOW Air will be adding hundreds of new Airbus A320neos to their fleets in the coming years. You have even more reasons to not worry about a thing!

  • On board experience isn’t THAT bad compared to legacy carriers: Flying on a low cost carrier is not a glamorous experience; it’s like taking a bus (but with wings!). Cabins are commonly plastered with advertisements and cheap plastic finishes, there’s minimal in-flight entertainment at best, and you’ll have to pay for most, if not all, food and drink options.
    ryanair-main-cabin-lcc.jpg
    On board Ryanair: a long way from Etihad Apartments
    airasia cabin advertisements
    Advertisements galore on AirAsia!

    But you have a seat at the bare minimum, and given the remarkably low ticket prices, the accommodations definitely pass as “good enough.” I think it would be unreasonable to expect more… but some airlines are actually working to offer customers more. Fun fact: Ryanair and American Airlines are both slated to be taking delivery of new 737 MAX aircraft. Ryanair, the LCC, will have greater seat pitch on board these planes than American will, the legacy (!!!). For those willing to pay more, higher flyers on a number of LCCs (including AirAsia, FlyDubai, and Norwegian Air) can opt for premium accommodations too. Standalone, they’re not bad offerings either!

    flyduabi business class
    Nice recliners on FlyDubai, perfect for the short-to-medium haul trips the airline operates.
    norwegian business class
    Nice, spacious recliners can be found on board Norwegian’s 787 fleet.
    airasia x business class
    There are (angled) flat beds on board AirAsia’s long haul aircraft!

    While none of these products are cutting edge, they’re tremendous values for higher flyers to enjoy, especially given the fact that they’re usually sold at fractions of what legacies would otherwise charge.

Three Notable Drawbacks

  • Minimal points or perks: Despite offering some nice looking premium products at remarkably low prices, LCCs aren’t known for being higher flyer-friendly. Many do not need to create incentives to encourage repeat customers — their airfares are so cheap that people will choose to fly them regardless — so they don’t devote resources to loyalty programs. While there are some existing reward schemes in place, like on AirAsia and Norwegian Air, I have yet to find anything particularly noteworthy or lucrative. The few points you might earn for your troubles won’t be very valuable, award charts will be vastly overpriced, and strange rules and restrictions will abound.
    air asia BIG points redemption chart
    AirAsia prices its award tickets based on flight time. Too bad accruing even 4,500 BIG points might require dozens of flown legs…

    It should go without saying, but don’t expect lounge access or priority baggage handling or any other sort of elite benefits on LCCs either. That sucks, but then again, if you’re flying on one of these airlines, it’s probably because of the great deal you got on a fare. When price is what matters most to you, by all means, budget carriers are your best option. But for those who want to fly higher in more ways than just that: look elsewhere.

  • Fees on fees on fees: Many novices are stunned by the cheap fares offered by LCCs like WOW Air, and they’ll often pounce at the opportunity to save money without much more thought.
    wow air base airfare cheap
    WOW, $110 to fly from Washington DC to Iceland!

    Don’t make that mistake! Budget airlines are notorious for charging for everything, and this includes all food and drinks (many of these airlines even charge for water), both checked and carried on bags…

    wow air airfare plus bags
    But then another $80 for carry-ons…

    …and even seat assignments…

    wow air airfare plus seats
    …And then upwards of $100 for exit row seats…

    If you’re not careful, the price of your ticket will balloon significantly, sometimes even higher than what the legacies charge. Then when you add in a much more expensive return…

    wow air return fare
    …And a return flight is nowhere near is cheap as the first!

    …You’re looking at a bill that costs a lot more than the original price.

    wow air airfare final expensive
    $490 is a long way from the original $110!

    So, not only would you be paying more for your ticket and getting less in return, you’d likely be forgoing an opportunity to earn valuable frequent flyer miles. That’s a higher flyer’s nightmare, and if you subject yourself to conditions like those, you’ll be completely defeating the purpose of flying an LCC: spending less. Be sure you know what you’re getting in to and plan accordingly!

  • Potential for logistical issues (WOW Air excluded): Average travelers often overlook the LCC business model — the prices are just too good! — and they frequently fail to recognize how unforgiving an airline’s scheduling practices can be (in addition to the egregious fees). Unlike most traditional carriers, which devote substantial amounts of resources to connecting passengers through their hubs, many budget airlines operate flights solely on profitability without regard for much else. The management teams at Ryanair and AirAsia and Norwegian do not care about delays or minimum connection times or any other logistical matter. If you buy a ticket, you will have a seat on board a plane, and you will be taken to where it is you intend to go. Everything else is up to you. You won’t have a lot of recourse if some mishap occurs. And unlike on traditional full-service airlines, you might not be able to get on another flight a few hours later. Because most LCCs utilize irregular operations (trips only offered a few days of the week, really odd departure times), and stray away from alliances, you might be stuck in a place for days at a time.
    norwegian airlines cheap fare schedule limitation
    You can fly between Newark and Barcelona for $159 on Norwegian Air… but only four times a week!

    That’s not good if you need to get back home for work! WOW Air and FlyDubai get passes on this critique because they make huge profits on connecting passengers through their respective hubs in Reykjavik and Dubai. In this sense, both operate like a legacy.

Three Special Opportunities

  • Backpacking around a region: Low cost carriers are best for travelers who are looking to explore a region. Given how most budget airlines use similar business models — with irregularly timed operations and randomly priced fares — adventurers are generally best suited to take advantage of the deals offered. It’s easy to fly to one spot, spend a couple days there, and then get on another plane to a new destination. This is especially easy to do in Europe and Asia, where carriers like Ryanair and AirAsia own huge shares of their own home markets. It’s not uncommon to hear of travelers deciding on the next stop solely based on how cheap and convenient a ticket is. I mean…
    airasia airfare
    $70 for a round trip ticket on AirAsia to the home of one of the most famous temple complexes in the world? How can you afford not to go?!

    If you want to cover a lot of ground, work around the schedules of LCCs. You’ll save so much money over the course of your trip, especially compared to what it would otherwise cost on a legacy.

    price comparison lccs versus legacy bkk - rep
    It’s more than 600% more expensive to fly between those same cities on those same dates on a legacy!

    Yikes. When you consider that the difference in on board accommodations is minimal, it becomes nearly impossible to justify such a high price only to fly on Vietnam or Singapore. AirAsia, in this case, is a much more “higher flyer” option.

  • Some long haul travel for cheap: Here’s a thought exercise: what’s the difference between this airplane…
    united economy class midsection promo.jpg
    Some economy class seats on United…

    …and this airplane?

    norwegian air economy class seating
    …And some economy class seats on Norwegian

    Aside from the minor details in the cabin finishes (blue cloth upholstery versus grey leather, for example), they’re pretty similar. They are standard sized economy class seats, with decent but not great legroom. Every passenger will have their own entertainment system for the flight and will be able to recline ever so slightly. Both seats are even found on similar, if not the same, long haul routes. The key difference lies in the price. You could fly either product between Newark, New Jersey, and Barcelona, Spain, although you’d pay a lot more for the former than the latter…

    norwegian air united price comparison.png
    Same departure city, same destination, similar on board product, but one airline’s ticket costs 1,600% more than the other’s!

    It’s on long haul routes like these where international low cost carriers really show their value!

  • Icelandic stopover: While WOW Air isn’t the first airline to offer its customers complimentary stopovers in Reykjavik — Icelandair has been allowing that for years — it is the first LCC to do so. If you’re flying from North America to Europe (or vice versa), consider visiting a second destination: Iceland. You would effectively be extending your layover between connecting flights at no additional cost. Do note that your stay cannot exceed seven days, although you still have more than enough time to see the best that the tiny island has to offer. You can, at relatively decent rates, conveniently arrange for a tour guide or an airport transfer when you first book your trip too.
    iceland scenery
    Iceland-based WOW Air will let you extend your layover here for free while you’re on your way to Europe.

    For higher flyers, this is a neat opportunity to save money while traveling. Instead of taking two transatlantic trips, why not stop halfway through and bundle two vacations together at no additional travel cost? It makes plenty of sense, especially given that you’ll be transiting there anyway. Plus, Iceland is an up-and-coming tourist spot worthy of your attention.


Reviews


As is the case with the other airlines, low cost carriers 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 LCCs unique, and help you better understand how they fit in to higher flying collectively.