Are budget airlines a bargain? Read on

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I’ve always been a bit envious of people who live in Europe, where you can fly from country to country on budget airlines for only a few euros. So I was intrigued this week when a new discount airline was announced right here in Canada. Finally, we Canucks would be able to fly for next to nothing – or would we?

The new airline is called NewLeaf Travel. It’s based in Winnipeg, and plans to save money by flying into and out of smaller airports rather than the big ones, like Toronto’s Pearson International. Starting in February, it will fly a small fleet of Boeing 737-400s between places like Hamilton, Ontario (about 60 km (38 miles) from Toronto), Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon and Abbotsford, B.C., near Vancouver.

There was also news that two other discount lines intend to launch in the next few months:  Canada Jetlines, based in Vancouver, and Enerjet, flying out of Calgary. That’s in addition to another budget carrier that appeared in 2015: Iceland’s WOW Air, which flies between North America and major European cities through its base in Reykjavik.

airplane on runwayIt all sounds great. Budget airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet have been doing a good business offering dirt-cheap flights around Europe for years, and these new airlines are offering fares as low as $99 for a one-way flight. But seeing is believing: are budget airlines a bargain in real life? I decided to sample one of NewLeaf’s fares to see. The results were interesting, to say the least.

I did a dry run by booking a return flight from Hamilton to Winnipeg, in March. There was one outbound flight available, leaving at 6 p.m., and the fare was indeed an appealing $99, including taxes and fees (all figures Canadian). The flight back left at 10 at night and cost $104.55. That’s $204.55 for two flights, though at pretty inconvenient times.

But that wasn’t the whole bill. I could bring along a shoulder bag that would fit under my seat for free. After that, I was paying for it. A second carry-on the same size cost $25 if I booked it online, $35 if I booked at the airport. One checked bag, up to 23 kilos (50 pounds), would cost the same. A second checked bag would cost $35, $45 if booked at the airport. Any further bags would cost $75 or more. And these charges applied to each leg of the trip, so they cost double for a return flight.

NewLeaf also charged for seat selection: $15 for the front of the plane, $10 for the rear, $25 for an exit row (all $5 more expensive if booked at the airport). Priority boarding cost $10 – oh, and there was a $10 fee if you didn’t print your luggage tags at home.

My total fare, with a seat selection and one checked bag, came to $277. Curious to see how that stacked up, I visited Expedia.ca and searched for the same route on the same dates. I found a Westjet flight from Toronto to Winnipeg at 1:40 p.m., with an 8:40 a.m. return flight, for an amazing price of $189.93. That included a request for an aisle seat, though not a particular seat assignment.

A fare on an established airline for about $87 less than the NewLeaf flights — and there was no fee for a carry-on case, so I could have flown carry-on with no extra fees. A checked bag would have cost $25 for the whole trip, raising the price a little. But I wouldn’t have had to drive to Hamilton, or take two waiting at the airportnight flights.

Is that how it is with all budget airlines? I decided to check out WOW Air, which has advertised itself as a cheap way to get from places like Toronto and Boston to places like Amsterdam, Dublin, Frankfurt and Paris. All the flights stop in Reykjavik, and you can get a layover if you want to see Iceland.

I searched for a return flight to Dublin, a place I’ve always wanted to see, in September — not high season in Ireland. The best fare available was $335. But that was one-way. Add another $355 for a return flight and the total came to $690. Not bad – but then, again, there were those fees: $59 for a 12-kilo (26-pound) carry-on, $82 for a 20-kilo (44-pound) checked bag. And again, those were for each leg of the trip, doubling the displeasure. Ouch!

I selected a 5-kilo carry-on, which came free, plus one checked bag. That added $164 to the cost of my flight. After warding off all the website’s offers of hotels, cars and tours, I came up with a grand total of $854. Not exactly budget.

Again, I turned to Expedia to see how I’d do with conventional airlines. I quickly found a non-stop flight to Dublin on Air Canada, and another coming back on Lufthansa, on the same dates. The total bill was $795.43. No charge for travelling carry-on, or for a first checked bag up to 23 kilos, though a second checked bag would cost $100 or more.

So taking the same trip with one checked bag would have cost less on the major carriers, and there were no layovers to suffer through. Why would you fly WOW Air? I guess it might be worthwhile if you really wanted to see Iceland, but a cheap way to fly to Europe, it’s not. Even carrying nothing but a few socks and a toothbrush, you’d only save about $100.

people at airportI checked out Allegiant Air, the U.S. budget carrier NewLeaf is modelled after, and found a similar pattern: low fares and hefty fees: $36 U.S. for a carry-on, $50 for a checked bag. And like most of the low-cost airlines, lots of ads for hotels, rental cars and activities – part of the business model NewLeaf is following.

How about those European cheapies? A booking on Ryanair, Ireland’s pioneer in the discount business, looked much the same. A £32.99 fare from London to Seville turned into a £137.96 round-trip fare ($284.05 Canadian) after paying £50.00 for one 20-kilo checked bag and £21.98 for a seat selection. For that, you get bare-bones service: their new planes reportedly have non-reclining seats and no seat-back pockets.

So, are these budget airlines really cheap? They may offer real bargains on some routes, but the more I look, the more they seem like masters of the nickel-and-dime: lure you in with an impossibly low fare and then add extra charges till you find you’re not saving much, if anything. At the same time, your flight may be even less comfortable than usual. And while some major carriers do include food on some routes, you won’t be getting any on a budget flight unless you buy it.

I guess you can get a good deal on a budget airline if you’re just going somewhere for couple of days and don’t need to bring any real luggage – like a weekend bus trip. but if you do, here’s a hint: pack light.

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

1 Comment

  1. You’re right, Paul – the “budget” carriers are only budget if you stick to the bare basics. They are great for savings some cash on a short business trip, but those fees add up really fast! Some colleagues say the service is good (on Allegiant) but there have been so many horror stories that I have serious reservations. Actually, I don’t have reservations, and don’t plan to, on the low-cost leaders.
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