With Fees Even for Carry-ons, Are Budget Airlines Worth It?

Frontier Airlines recently announced it will charge $25 for a carry-on bag. Although disappointing for Frontier customers who previously skirted this fee by booking directly on Frontier.com, the move isn't all that surprising. Frontier, after all, is a budget airline, and like its peers, seems increasingly wedded to the a la carte pricing model.

Which begs the question: Are the so-called budget airlines still a deal for frugal flyers? The answer, it seems, depends whether you value consistently low fares or free amenities (some of which you may not use) and how much flexibility you need in terms of luggage size and flight plans.

Who Charges What?

The new fee at Frontier is just one of several changes to its revenue stream. The carrier now charges for choosing a seat but slashed base fares by an average 12 percent. Like Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air, Frontier is luring customers with low ticket prices and making up the difference with individually-priced services.

An analysis of common fees charged by airlines reveals that only Allegiant, Spirit, and Frontier charge for carry-on bags and only JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines give travelers a free checked bag. The three legacy carriers -- Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and American Airlines -- allow one free checked bag for passengers who use their co-branded credit card.

Baggage fees are just the beginning for beleaguered frugal flyers. Budget carriers charge for onboard water or soda. (Tip: fill up a water bottle once you're through security). Allegiant, Spirit, and Frontier also charge for seat selection, which can seem onerous when traveling with a family. Allegiant and Spirit ticketholders also pay to print a boarding pass at the airport.

On the large fees, however, budget airlines charge less than legacy carriers. Changing a flight on one of the big three costs $200, but doing so on the no-frills carriers is just $75-$125. (Think of how many onboard sodas or seat selections that covers.) Passengers traveling with overweight or oversized bags likewise come out ahead with budget airlines, whose fees usually settle in the $50-$100 range compared with penalties up to $200 with the legacy carriers.

Most budget airlines don't try to hide the association between minimal services and low prices. Indeed, Spirit's CEO, Ben Baldanza, in interviews has compared the carrier to a fast food restaurant. And he seems less than apologetic about the lack of onboard amenities, asserting that passengers are happy to bring along their own snacks. Surely many travelers balk when caught off guard by fees for conveniences that once were free, but those who know the rules can save a lot of money. A travel blogger who writes for Heels First Travel details how she shaved more than $300 in fees for a family of four that booked with Spirit.

The Best Airlines for Frugal Travelers.

Should you commit to these no-frills carriers? Well, if you're a frugal spender willing to trade minimal leg room and a bevy of service charges for cheaper fares, than the answer is probably "yes." Low ticket prices paired with low fees (although there are many) ensure that no-frills airlines live up to their budget classification. But know what you're buying. If you'll be irritated by the nickel-and-dime approach, the unpacked pricing model at least lets you decide whether you want to pay for water rather than having the cost buried in the ticket price.

When Cheapism compared discretionary fees assessed by 10 airlines, the budget carriers landed at the bottom of the pack: these airlines charge for more services than the rest. Southwest, JetBlue, and Alaska Airlines sit atop the list owing to policies like no (or minimal) fees for a checked bag, a free carry-on, no charge for seat assignments, and reasonable rates for changing flights or travelling with oversize or overweight bags. The legacy carriers settle in the middle with policies that include some free amenities and hefty charges for others.

Bottom line: If base fares (plus taxes and regulatory fees) offered by the budget airlines (Spirit, Allegiant, and Frontier) are significantly lower than all the others, forget the list and book on one. You'll come out ahead even if you pay for a carry-on bag or a drink.