Put on your Discount Airline Vacation Pants

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Airplane Life. Taking Jet Blue to somewhere fabulous. -2014

I know it can be scary to go for that cheap deal and take a discount airline instead of a name you know and love.  The price often seems to good to be true.  Many times, if you don’t know what to pay for, and what not to pay for, the prices are too good to be true.  As someone who has taken my fair share of discount airlines over the years, I will share with you my tips and tricks if you decide to go on one of these airlines.  I also rank them in order of preference, so you know if it is worth the discount.

First off, don’t go in expecting the same things as a regular airline.  Think of it as a two star hotel, as opposed to a three star.  You are going without some conveniences.  But those conveniences are then forwarded to you in the form of a discount.  Do you really want that bag of pretzels anyway? The reason I am able to travel so much on a teacher’s salary is because I am always looking for ways to save money.  This is an easy way to trim some major buck-a-roos off our trip.

Discount Airlines vs.  Regular Airlines:  What’s the difference?

Okay, so they are still safe? Just because they are a discount airline doesn’t mean they don’t have to meet the same safety standards as the big guys.  You can do your own research and make sure you feel safe taking that particular airline, but it is NOT cheaper because it is unsafe.  The way they get it cheaper is because they charge for EVERYTHING!  For example, here is a list of things you may get charged for on a discount airline that you may not have to pay for with the other guys:

  • checked bags
  • carry-on bags
  • beverages
  • snacks
  • overweight luggage (with lower weight limits)
  • extra personal items
  • over-sized personal items
  • choosing your seat
  • sitting in an exit row
  • headphones
  • checking in at the airport
  • checking bags at the airport
  • getting on the aircraft first
  • having to print up your tickets at the airport
  • pillows and/or blankets
  • Calling to make a reservation
Your base fare includes a small personal item that can fit under the seat in front of you and an economy seat in the aircraft.  From there, things may differ depending on the airfare you choose to go with.  Let’s dig in from bottom to top, in my humble opinion.


Discount airlines sometimes fly out of smaller airports.  Less crowded, and sometimes you 
get to walk a ramp instead of a tunnel.  I think it is a cool experience.


    • Spirit Airlines – Let’s start with Spirit Airlines.  Back in 2003, after a particularly bad experience, I swore I would never fly with them again, but then this year, they had an insane deal to Houston, Texas over my Spring Break.  Were talking $86 bucks round trip.  That was just too good a deal to pass up.  The reason I was hesitant to take them again was that when I flew from Los Angeles to Orlando in 2003, we booked online, and they didn’t book it for the time we chose.  The problem was (and they still do this) the website will change the information you entered at the last minute, and if you are not paying very close attention, you will have booked the wrong flight.  As a result of this sneakiness, they cut our trip a whole day short, and when we called them to fix the problem, they were unwilling to help us on the matter at all.  The plane itself was dirty and grimy.  The seat trays were falling off their hinges, and it just felt gross.  The reason I decided to go for it again was I am now a wiser traveler.  I know what to pay for and look for.  I know my rights when purchasing items on the internet.  I decided to take a risk.  I booked the airfare and typed in all the information and pressed submit, crossing my fingers, that it would work.  Well the page went blank and I didn’t get a confirmation page at all.  I didn’t receive an e-mail, but when I checked my credit card, it showed that Spirit Airlines was holding the funds against my account.  I immediately called the airline and was not able to get through to anyone.  A few hours later I got my confirmation e-mail and made sure it was booked for the correct dates.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  Before Booking:  This is a bare bones airline, no frills here.  All it includes is a seat and you can bring a small personal item.  Make sure the discount is worth the simple experience before you book.  While Booking:  Make sure you pay for your luggage when booking.  The price goes up dramatically if you pay afterward.  If you wait until you get to the airport, it will cost more than you paid for your whole flight in the first place.  Don’t pay to choose your seat or have early boarding though.  That ends up costing more than a regular airline.  DO NOT, I repeat do not resubmit your booking if you already pressed the booking button. You will get double charged by doing this and it is a pain in the behind to get a hold of someone at customer service for this airline.  While Packing:  Make sure you get their luggage rules here.  The weight and sizing requirements change often and you don’t want to get stuck paying extra fees at the airport.  The extra fees for this airline are horrendous. I watched a woman with a rolling backpack getting on the same flight as me, and they stopped her and pulled her aside and said it wasn’t a personal item.  She put the backpack in their sizing bin and it fit fine, but the handle was sticking out the top a bit and they told her she had to pay $100 to get on the plane.  She should have worn that thing on her back, and not rolled it down the aisle.  Also, if you are even slightly over 40 pounds on your checked luggage (most airlines allow 50 pound luggage) they will charge you an overweight fee.  Make sure you weigh your luggage at home before leaving.  Checking In: Make sure you check in at home before you go as well.  While you are on the trip make sure your hotel has a place you can check in for your flight and print up your tickets.  They charge a fee if you wait to check in at the airport, and another fee if they have to print up your ticket for you.  Save yourself some money and make sure you are already checked in ahead of time.  Flying:  The people who work for Spirit were nice enough.  We had no problems, but if you are rude to them, they will be rude to you, so treat them nice, and you will be treated nice.  The airplanes we took this time were actually really nice.  The seat is not super cushiony and the seats don’t lean back, but I kind of liked that the person in front of me couldn’t lean their seat back into me.  It was much nicer than when we flew them in 2003.  Bring dry snacks from home and buy your beverages in the airport after you have gone through security.  I made sure I stuffed them all in my personal item before boarding. Also, just a little tip, wear your jacket, sweater, or sweatshirt onto the plane.   You don’t want them thinking it’s an additional personal item.  Flying with Small Children:  If you bought them a seat, make sure you bring that stroller to the gate and bring their car seats as well.  You will not and can not be charged extra for your diaper bag, stroller, and car seats.  Also, they will sit you with your children, even if you didn’t pay for the seat selection.  They can’t have a small child sitting next to a stranger on a plane.  Also, they let you board early.  You get to go right after the people that paid to board early.  Although, with assigned seats, I like to stay off the plane as long as possible with small children.
      Verdict: If it’s way cheaper than other options, and you are prepared for all of their hidden charges, then Spirit can work for you.  Otherwise, avoid them if possible.
    • Frontier Airlines – I have taken Frontier a couple of times because they are based out of Denver, Colorado and my family used to live there.  You can get some mighty cheap flights to Denver if you’re thinking of traveling to the area.  Last December I flew to Denver from Orange County for $67 round trip.  INSANE!!!  Again, Frontier is not a super deluxe airline, but it will get you from point A to point B, and not always on time.  They do have many delayed flights, so keep that in mind when booking with them.  They did give me a voucher when I was delayed over three hours with them, but you had to use it in 90 days, and frankly, I forgot to use it.  It was for $100 bucks though, which was more than my round trip flight. Before Booking: Frontier is another airline that charges for everything but the one personal item.  You may end up paying $60 for one piece of checked luggage, more for carry on, and that is if you pay for the luggage while purchasing your ticket.  Make sure the discount is still worth it if you have to check a bag.  While Booking:  When Frontier has a big sale the website gets overloaded and it is really hard to get through to submission.  My tip is to book it through Orbitz for the same price.  That’s what I did and it totally worked.  While Packing:  Click here to get their luggage rules.  I felt they weren’t super strict about checking your personal items, but it is better to be safe than sorry.  Checking In: Like Spirit Airlines, you need to check in online and print your ticket ahead of time.  You can’t check in until the day before your flight, so again, make sure you have a place you can check in if you are traveling as well.  Flying:  The planes were really nice and it was awesome to fly out of Orange County instead of the much larger and more congested LAX, although they fly out of LAX as well.  Flying with Small Children:  The same rules apply here as above.  Take advantage of having small kiddos while you can.  It does not last forever.
      Verdict: Much like Spirit, it is essential that you pay close attention to Frontier’s fees and baggage rules.  However, they fly out of smaller airports, and their booking process is less blatantly deceptive.
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      I totally surprised my hubby with a weekend getaway.  I secretly packed our bags.
      He thought we were just out on a date, but we ended up at the airport. 
 
  • Allegiant Airlines – Our family loves this airline.  They recently got some bad flack in the media for some safety issues, but I have never felt unsafe in their planes.  Allegiant flies into small airports, so you can get to some really cool places for DIRT cheap.  We flew to Medford, Oregon for $132 round trip.  We flew to Montana for $147 round trip.  It was so cool to go to some really rural places for so cheap.    As for baggage fees, etc., everything above applies to this airline as well.  Before Booking: I feel like their website really pushes the upcharges.  It will alert you on every page. “Are you sure you don’t want to add this now?  It will cost more later.”  Don’t fall for it.  Try to avoid clicking on the extras and you will get your cheap flight. While Booking:  I have never had problems with booking online with them.  Just make sure you prepay your luggage if you need it.  It will cost you way more after booking. While Packing:  Click here to get their luggage rules. They have been strict about how much your checked luggage weighs, but they let me dump my heavier items in to my personal item at the luggage drop counter.  They accepted the luggage a couple of pounds overweight, but not much more than that.  Make sure you know how much your luggage weighs before leaving.    Checking In: Make surer you check in online before you leave or download their app and check in on the app.  I had my plane tickets on my phone and we just scanned and went.  I suggest taking a screenshot of your tickets in case you have bad reception in the airport. On our last trip back from Montana, the app was not working and I couldn’t check in for my flight.  I was freaking out because it said they charge for printing boarding passes at the airport.  I told the ticketing agent at the airport and she laughed and said the app doesn’t work for some reason at their airport, so she just printed my tickets for free.  She was totally reasonable and understanding.   Flying:  The planes are comfortable, clean, and nice.  No complaints here.  The staff is friendly and accommodating. They do charge for snacks and drinks, so plan ahead if you want food on the plane.   Flying with Small Children:  They have always been super nice with my children.  I even have gotten compliments from the flight attendants.  They sat us with other young families, so we had our own (slightly louder) section of the plane.  That was nice.
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    Admiring the quaint little airport in Kallispell. We were there on the longest day of the year
    and it stayed light until 11:00 at night. 
  • Virgin America – For a budget airline, Virgin America is swanky.  It just has a cool vibe, from their website to their flight experience, and it includes some major perks that discount airlines don’t usually include.  They do cost a little more than the airlines I have previously mentioned, but they have some great sales that you can catch and get a great deal.  Before Booking: Sign up for the Elevate Program and earn points on each flight you book.   While Booking:  Booking online is pretty basic.  Not too hard to do.  The tickets were on my phone and it was pretty easy to take care of.   While Packing:  They allow one free carry on per ticket which is a HUGE DEAL for a discount airline.  However, they are pretty strict about it, so make sure you follow their measurement guidelines here.  We went into the terminal and were waiting in line to go through TSA.  A Virgin American attendant stopped us and told us to check our bag in the bag measuring thing.  Sure enough, it was like a half an inch too big and she told us we needed to go check the bag.  Ugh!  That stunk.  I measured the bag before packing it, and it fit their specifications, but I didn’t measure it after it was packed, and I guess it expanded too much.  Lesson learned, make sure the carry on measures as a carry on.   Checking In: We were able to go right to the security line because we checked in online.  Make sure you do that as well.  Flying:  The planes are comfortable and have little screens at every seat.  Bring your headphones and you get to watch things for free.  Flying with Small Children:  We didn’t have any problems flying with our children.  They even let them sit in a row with their teenage aunt.
    Verdict:  You might be paying a little bit more, but the free entertainment and carry on is huge.  Just make sure you measure your bags carefully beforehand.

 

  • Jet Blue – Now, at the top of the discount airline chain, is my personal favorite…JET BLUE.  I seriously love this airline.  They are awesome.  They fly out of smaller airports for cheap, which I love.  They give a free carry on and personal item.  They give blue chips as a snack.  Plus a free beverage.  Their employees are funny and seem to really enjoy their job.  It’s just a great overall experience. Before Booking: Something really cool that they offer is different levels when you are booking.  Look at the chart below.

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Sometimes my husband and I split our reservation because the Blue Plus Fare includes a free checked bag.  He will book two tickets (one for him and one for a kid) and then I will get on and book a Blue Fare (one for me and our other kid) and presto, we just go two checked bags for less than it would have cost to add luggage.  The difference in the fare levels are pretty nominal, so see what kind of perks are worth paying extra for.
While Booking:  Booking is pretty standard, but one time I made a huge mistake and it was partly my fault, but partly Jet Blue’s fault.   I was booking a weekend getaway for me and my hubby.  I put in the dates we were flying and a little message popped up and said it was $50 cheaper a ticket to fly back on Saturday than it cost on Sunday morning, so I clicked the message and it put the lower fare in my cart.  Well it turns out it was the following Saturday and I didn’t notice the date was the following weekend.  I didn’t notice that I had booked the wrong day until we went on our trip, got to the airport to come back home, and I scanned our identification to get our boarding passes at the kiosk.  That’s when we found out we booked the wrong date.  UGH!!!  It would have cost like $600 to buy the ticket home, so we ended up renting a car and driving the 8 hours home.  I called Jet Blue and they were nice, but pretty much said that it was a nonrefundable fare and I should have checked the date.  I pleaded my case about the website tricking me in to buying the cheaper flight.  I ended up talking my way up to a manager and they gave me a $50 voucher for a future flight.    I think I only paid $125 for the trip round trip, so at least I got something out of it.  I wasn’t too mad because I didn’t check the date, and I didn’t notice until we showed up to the airport.  But needless to say, check your dates, especially if you are clicking around the flexible dates tool on their website!  One cool thing is it doesn’t cost money to pick your seats.  I booked some Jet Blue flights to NYC and my seats are already assigned and the trip isn’t happening until March.  Huge perk!!! While Packing:  They also allow one free carry on per ticket. They aren’t very strict about it, but is always a good idea to make sure your suitcase counts as a carry on.  Once you get through screening Jet Blue often offers to courtesy check your bags.  I know some people don’t like doing this because then they don’t have access to their bags, but I always take advantage of it.  I travel with my children, and it always gives me a couple extra pairs of hands to get everyone down the aisle and into our seats, which is important.  Just make sure you keep your medication, snacks, and important information with you. Checking In: You can check in online or wait to do it at the airport.  They don’t charge for it like other discount airlines do.  Flying:  I super appreciate the free beverages and snacks.  Also every seat has a free in-seat entertainment.  You can pay the $5 for movies with a swipe of your credit card, but they also have 35 channels of entertainment for you.  Make sure you bring those headphones.   Flying with Small Children:  Always super easy to fly with our children on Jet Blue.  They are very accommodating.  There is also always a kid channel on the TV for them to watch, while you find something you can watch.  The snacks and drinks also help for tired, hungry, and cranky kiddos.
Verdict: Jet Blue is my fave.  Free snacks, carry ons, and entertainment.  Great customer service.  Just make sure you are really careful to check those dates when you are booking.

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Here are a couple other domestic discount airlines I haven’t tried in years.
  • Southwest Airlines – I haven’t flown on Southwest since I was 13 years old.  I flew as an unaccompanied minor and everyone was really nice to me.  I even had to make a connecting flight and they helped get me to where I needed to go.  Good memories.  I didn’t think flying them over 20 years ago counted, so I didn’t include them in my rated list.  I know that some of their fares are dirt cheap, but they don’t show up on Google Flights, so you have to shop their website.  I have also heard that their credit card can get you free flights in a jiffy.  Person of Size Alert:  I am a person of size, so I can say this, I have heard Southwest Airlines will make you buy two seats if you are too large to fit in your seat on the plane.  Just an alert from one large person to another.  I am not making a judgement about this policy, this is just what I have heard.
  • Sun Country Airlines – I also haven’t flown this airline for about 20 years, so I didn’t think I could give an accurate rating.  I remember their planes being very small.  I once flew with Sun Country on a short flight and it had like 20 rows with 1 seat on one side, and two seats on the other.  I do not recommend these small planes for the faint of heart.  They shake quite a bit and the landings can be pretty rough.  But hey, if it can save you some moolah, why pass up the deal.

Alrighty, I hope you enjoyed my handy dandy guide to discount airlines.  Please share my post if you found this at all helpful.  Make sure you follow me on social media as well.  I appreciate you taking the time to read my blog.  Please never hesitate to ask me a question.

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The life of a mommy traveler.  Red eye flights are often cheaper!!! Yep, that’s my boarding pass in my mouth. 

 

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