Flying Shitty Airlines: A Budget Airline Survival Guide

Shawn Forno

We’ve all seen the unbelievable budget flight deals—London to Rome for €10, Paris to Prague for a hi-five, Boston to Iceland for $99 (that last one is totally real). Fantasizing about jetting off to a new city every weekend for pennies is easy, but don’t be seduced by the bargain prices.

Flying on a budget airline sucks.

Discount airlines like RyanAir and EasyJet, can seem like a steal, but more often than not you’re the one who gets fleeced. Hidden booking fees, inane service charges, exorbitant checked baggage (and even carry on baggage fees), are just some of the more obvious ways budget airlines nickel and dime you into paying a lot for your “cheap” flight.

But, you can beat the system and see the world for just a few bucks. You just have to be savvy as hell. Below is a comprehensive guide to the most common traps and fees of bargain airlines, along with a few ways to enhance even the crappiest flight. Enjoy, bargain hunters.

Always Read the Fine Print: Avoid Unnecessary Fees

Read the fine print on your booking, on your boarding pass, and on the company website; I can’t stress this enough. Budget airlines are designed to screw you out of money by taking advantage of your assumptions. The norms of other airlines don’t apply when you fly on a budget airline.

Some commonly held assumptions are:

Budget airlines are practically a different mode of travel—like pogo sticks. If you don’t respect them, you’re gonna get hurt.

Arrive Early: Online Check-in Windows are Tiny (and strict)

budget airlines

Budget airlines make a lot of money from “service fees.” This is corporate code for “talking to a human being.” Human workers cost money to hire and train, so budget airlines try to use as few of them as possible. When the robot revolution comes, it will start at Gatwick.

If you miss your online check-in window (typically just 12-24 hours before departure), you have to pay a large service fee just to check-in at the airport. This fee can easily cost more than your original fare; sometimes double or even triple. I’m serious. Make sure you check-in on time and online to dodge this silver bullet.

Budget Airline Check-in Fees (lowest to highest):

My Brush with Budget Airline Blackmail

A few years ago, I booked a flight from Italy to Spain on RyanAir for just €25. I was thrilled. It was gonna save me time and money. However, when I arrived at the airport counter (3 hours before my flight left) they wouldn’t let me check-in for my flight without paying a “service fee” of €60.

€60 just to check-in for a flight I’d already purchased. I explained that the website wasn’t letting me check-in, so I thought I’d just come straight to the source and get a paper boarding pass. I was so naive.

They explained that online check-in ends 4 hours before the flight boards. I’d missed my chance to check-in for free, and so I now had to pay nearly three times the price of my ticket to print a piece of paper. I was livid. I nearly wasn’t allowed to board the plane, and haven’t flown budget airlines since that run in except on extremely rare circumstances. And believe me—I read the fine print.

Always Fly Carry On: Minimize Baggage Fees

budget airlines

Most people know about the steep fees that budget airlines charge for checked bags. What most people don’t know is that each low-cost airline has their own specific—and significantly smaller—carry on baggage allowance rules. And they are super serious about them.

You know that little suitcase shaped cage thing at the gate that says, “Your carry on bag must fit within these dimensions?” Yeah… budget airlines actually use those. If your backpack is stuffed to the gills and doesn’t fit in that little cage, you’re paying full price to check it at the gate. What’s worse, these size and weight restrictions are subject to change with little or no notice.

Here’s a guide to the latest Carry On Size and Weight Limits for popular budget airlines in the U.S., Europe, and Asia (in order of smallest to largest with special attention given to weight limits):

Spirit Airlines has the strictest carry on bag size and weight limits of any budget airline. Coincidently, they also have the highest fees. Funny how that works out.

On Spirit, even your first carry on bag costs money. Sure, you’re allowed (1) free “personal item” with their “Bare Fare” rate, but that’s only seriously small backpacks and purses. Think a thick fanny pack. If you go over that limit (which is getting smaller this April), you can look forward to paying one of the following fares for your first carry on bag.

And I repeat, these are CARRY ON BAGGAGE FEES:

budget airlines

Fun Fact: The price varies by destination

If you don’t pay an already insane fee for your carry on bag when you book your ticket, you could pay up to $100 for a checked bag. And don’t think they won’t charge you that fee at the gate. Spirit recommends buying your carry on baggage allowance right away in order to “save major moola.

I’m sorry about that anti-Spirit rant there, but I’ve been burned by those guys before. They’re cutthroat. Even savvy travelers can get stung by fees like that, let alone the hapless casual traveler who doesn’t read the fine print.

They’re so blatant about overcharging customers, there’s even a parody twitter account called @spiritairsucks. And it has hundreds of followers.

Budget Airline Approved Luggage

If you’re super nervous about checked bag limits and getting pinged with carry on fees, you can purchase “RyanAir approved” overhead luggage. Seriously. This luggage is built exactly to RyanAir’s ridiculous specifications, and is “guaranteed” to be accepted as cabin luggage (unless your carry on bag weighs more than 10kg).

The Outbreaker 35L travel backpack is well within the carry on dimensions of all of the budget airlines listed here and is your best bet if you’re going to fly with these companies regularly.

Budget Airlines Checked Baggage Fees

If you absolutely must check a bag, book it online well in advance of your flight. Otherwise,you’re really gonna pay.

Don’t even get me started on oversized luggage fees or special items, which are brutal. RyanAir for example, charges €60 for musical instruments. Each way. For each connecting flight. You might as well just buy a new guitar every time you fly. Seriously, if you have a large bag, it’s worth it to find a different carrier.

Upgrades & Extras: Nickel & Dime Budget Airline Fees

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Carry on and checked baggage fees are just part of the hassle of flying crappy budget airlines. We all know that. The real crazy-town fun happens when you see the list of “options” that you have to pay for.

When you purchase a flight—budget or otherwise—you’re bombarded with optional upgrades, premium add-ons, and options like priority boarding, meals, and status. Some of these are actually worth the extra couple of bucks, and can take a lot of the headache out of traveling on a budget airline. Some of these are the airline equivalent of “rust-proofing.”

Here’s a breakdown of all the options and extras for your next budget flight:

Seat Assignment Fees: Every Flight Counts

Honestly, priority boarding or reserving your seat isn’t the worst idea. The peace of mind from dodging the middle seat bullet and avoiding the “general boarding” call purge are worth a couple bucks. If you’re not an assertive person ready to scrap for your spot, you could end up in the middle of the back row with no overhead space. Say goodbye to your laptop.

Luckily, priority boarding and assigned seating don’t cost that much, and can actually save you checked baggage fees, not to mention the stress of collecting your bag on a connecting flight. Unfortunately, even “priority” boarding has tiers.

RyanAir Priority Seating & Boarding Fees

RyanAir, the lords of larceny, only charge €2 for priority boarding, and the best part: “Passengers who have purchased Priority Boarding will not be asked to place their cabin bag in the aircraft hold, unless necessary due to operational reasons.” They can’t ask you to check your carry on bag (as long as it fits the carry on dimensions). That’s… nice?

If you do reserve your seat, be careful. Seat assignment fees add up when you pay for each segment of your trip. And each flight home. Make sure you do the round trip (and connecting flight) math right.

Other Miscellaneous (Totally Real) Budget Airline Fees

Priority seat fees, tiny carry on bag limits, and boarding pass reprint charges are not the end of the story. Budget airlines are designed to wear you down. You pay so many taxes and fees that eventually you just give up, click “I Agree” and board the plane like the lemming that you are.

It’s ok. I don’t judge you. Here are some super real miscellaneous fees from various budget airlines:

Spirit Fees

RyanAir Fees

What wonderful human beings. Babies, unaccompanied minors, and pets all cost more than you think.

Budget Airline Packing Tips

The little things, comfort items and decent food, make an uncomfortable budget flight bearable. Don’t think the airline is going to provide any of those, that’s entirely up to you.

Pack Your Own Meal

The cost of a terrible meal at 30,000 feet is downright criminal. Odds are you’ll be flying at the crack of dawn or the middle of the night, so try to bring your own snack so you’re not at the mercy of the in-flight meal cart. It’s expensive.

Here’s an incredibly comprehensive guide to delicious carry on friendly snacks from Tortuga writer, Jessie Beck. She even has gluten-free options and snacks for kids.

Pack Good Headphones

Buy good headphones. Use the money you saved on your flight to buy the most expensive and awesome pair of noise cancelling headphones you can afford.

I’m a big fan of the ME05 earbuds from the audio nerds over at Master + Dynamic ($199). Seriously, budget flyers are the worst. We will annoy you.

Pack a Quality Neck Pillow & Eye Mask

I don’t care if you think neck pillows look stupid. They are amazing, especially when you’re flying at the crack of dawn and/or the middle of the night. Budget flights are cheap because they’re often redeye flights. No one with money would ever deal with the uniquely Faustian bargain of trading sleep for a discount flight.

If you find yourself on a redeye to Dallas, make sure you pack a quality neck pillow and eye mask. Here’s a huge list of budget and luxury eye masks and neck pillows (also from Jessie Beck).

Load Your Podcasts & Music

Wi-fi (when it’s available) is terribly expensive on a discount flight. Southwest brings up the rear with daily wi-fi plans for $8, but in-flight wi-fi can quickly climb to $45. If you’re a Spotify zombie and haven’t downloaded your playlist ahead of time you’ll be stuck listening to that one Justin Bieber song on repeat for five hours. You know which one I’m talking about.

TL;DR

Budget flights are a tradeoff—money for sanity. You can get to your final destination unscathed by “service fees” and “happy fun time charges,” but you have to know before you go. Budget airlines are basically traps designed to siphon money. Channel your inner G.I. Joe because, “Knowing is half the battle.”

Image Credit: ETTTO, Unsplash