There are many disadvantages of travelling on budget airlines even though, at face value, they offer great value to the customer. If any of the following are important to you, you might want to steer clear of the budget airlines:

  • Some budget airlines do not have preassigned seating.
  • In many instances, they fly into minor airports that can require significant travel time from central locations, for example, Jet Blue (Long Beach rather than Los Angeles) and Southwest (Baltimore rather than Washington, D.C.; Providence or Manchester rather than Boston; Oakland rather than San Francisco). Several European carriers fly out of Stansted or Luton rather than Gatwick or Heathrow in London
  • Meal service one of the disadvantages of budget airlines as it is the exception (peanuts and pretzels are typically as good as it gets!), even when flying five or more hours cross-country.
  • Some do not have frequent flyer programs, or the limited network of cities served reduces award redemption opportunities. (Hey— Southwest and JetBlue do not fly anywhere outside the U.S. mainland, so not even Hawaii is an option!)
  • Few fly long distances—from one major airport to another— without at least one stop, although Southwest, JetBlue, and America West do have nonstops on a few of their cross-country routes.
  • Southwest passengers who have purchased cheaper non-refundable tickets must pay extra to go standby.
  • Most do not have large fleets or extensive maintenance crews at all airports served, which can be a setback when an aircraft experiences a maintenance problem. Since tickets on low-cost airlines have limited transferability to other airlines, you may want to be cautious and plan for possible delays or cancellations by building in at least a two- to four-hour buffer between your scheduled arrival and a subsequent appointment.
  • If your flight on a low-cost airline is cancelled, you will almost always have to wait for another flight on the same airline or get a refund—but then you’re left trying to find a last-minute purchase on another carrier, which could be expensive. Conversely, major airlines do have agreements with competitor airlines, meaning that a major airline can validate your ticket to an alternative carrier in the event of cancellation. Major carriers may pay for a hotel room if the cancellation strands you overnight, whereas most low-cost airlines will not. Finally, if delay or cancellation of your low-cost airline flight results in a missed connection with another airline (such as when connecting to a cross-Atlantic flight), the responsible airline will owe you nothing. However, a missed connection when transferring flights within the same major airline will get you rescheduled to the next available flight at no extra charge.
  • Another one of the disadvantages of budget airlines in Europe is that low-cost airlines charge significant amounts for excess baggage. For example, Ryanair levies $6 per kilo for anything over 33 pounds. This restriction could mean that U.S. travelers, who are accustomed to a two-suitcase allowance, could incur a hefty baggage charge!
  • With the exception of Southwest and JetBlue, low-cost airlines have been known to operate with precarious financial support. Names that disappeared around the turn of the century include ValueJet, Sun, Pro-Air, Kiwi, Tower, Vanguard, National, People Express, and Eastwind Airlines. Make sure you pay only with a credit card for travel within sixty days or less, so that you can dispute the transaction with your credit card company if the airline should suspend or discontinue service.

Given the disadvantages of budget airlines described above, don’t blindly accept that a low-cost airline offers you the overall best deal. Before you go the value route, first compare prices and perks with your favorite large carrier(s). Where the prices are equivalent to the value carriers, we recommend you choose to fly on major airlines, such as United, American, Delta, Northwest, Continental, Midwest Express, or Alaska Airlines. The exceptions would be Southwest and JetBlue, which have managed to consistently combine excellent fares and on-time performance with financial stability.