Budget Air Boom

Plane travel can be cheap, if you know the latest low-cost players—and their tricks.

The air travel business is constantly being reinvented. The rise of low-cost carriers is a trend that stands to continue. And that’s not just in North America, but also in Europe and the newest hotbed, Asia. Familiar names—Southwest, JetBlue, AirTran—have been joined by brands like Ryanair, AirAsia, Zoom and Oasis. A few of the new budget-minded airlines have even cracked the transatlantic and transpacific market, a traditional stronghold of the major airlines.

How can these upstarts afford to drop fares so low (on some flights, the taxes cost more than the fare)? Most limit themselves to economy-class seating and skimp on in-flight service—there’s no free lunch (or any other meal, for that matter), and many charge extra to check bags. The airlines also rely on Internet-based bookings and fast turnarounds, since there’s no money to be made sitting at the gate.

The number of lower-cost competitors that fly between North America and Europe has risen over the past few years, after an “open skies” agreement between the U.S. and European Union let airlines choose routes with greater freedom. In the Pacific, V Australia began offering flights from eastern Australia to the U.S. West Coast just a few years ago. This all means that flying on the cheap has gotten easier. Just remember to pack a lunch.


  • Search individual airlines’ sites for fares. Many aren’t listed on the big travel aggregators such as Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity or Kayak.
  • Plan travel dates for savings. Some websites show which days offer the lowest fares.
  • Book early. Fares increase as the departure date approaches.
  • Before you buy, compare the rates at major airlines—they often match reduced fares in competitive markets.
  • Expect extra fees for meals, checked baggage, even advance seat selection. (A few carriers include an insurance charge unless you click the box to opt out.)
  • The cheapest tickets are non-refundable, but you can change your travel dates for a fee.


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