With summer just around the corner, many people are looking to make their vacation budget stretch further. And for those looking to fly international, one option may be to use a low-cost airline.
But the budget airline industry has had a rocky 2019 so far, with Iceland's Wow Air ceasing operations in March and Russian airline Aeroflot experiencing a crash landing on May 5.
Yet travel and safety experts say that the vast majority of budget airlines are a safe bet for travelers looking to save a buck. But while you may not encounter any major issues, you are probably going to give up some amenities and comforts in order to save that money.
"Budget airlines have built their entire business model around charging cheaper fares across the board ultimately giving travelers the option to choose what they pay for," Steve Sintra, Kayak's regional director of North America, tells CNBC Make It.
Here's a look at what you need to know before you purchase a ticket on an international budget airline.
It used to be that your airfare included not only a seat on the plane, but luggage storage, a meal or two and even a drink. But when you're flying budget, those amenities are extra.
"Make sure when you're booking your ticket, you know what is or isn't included so there are no surprises when you get to the airport," Sintra says.
- Your bags
With most international low-cost airlines like AirAsia, Norwegian Air, EasyJet and Ryanair, the base fare includes a seat on that flight and a personal item that you can put under the seat in front of you. Checked luggage stored in the hold is almost always extra, but for some flights, even larger rolling carry-ons that you need to put in the overhead bins may be an additional fee.
"Their carry-on rules are much different," says Charles Leocha, head of the consumer group Travelers United, tells CNBC Make It. Often the accepted sizes on international airlines are smaller than the traditional U.S. rolling carry-ons. For example, Ryanair only allows a personal item that fits under the seat in front of you with dimensions under 40cm x 20cm x 25cm (roughly 16 inches x 8 inches x 10 inches). Basically this is a purse, a laptop bag or a small backpack.
Plus, many of the budget airlines also have weight restrictions for all luggage, even carry-on bags. If you check-in with a carry-on that weighs more than 10 kilograms, about 22 pounds, you will typically have to pay a fee or check the bag. For example, Mexican-based Interjet allows you to bring a personal item like a purse and a carry-on,but both items have to be under 10 kilograms.
Even U.S. carriers have put major restrictions on carry-on bags these days, especially on U.S. budget airlines. Frontier, for example, charges a $35 fee for a carry-on bag (free for those with Elite status) if you purchase while booking online. It jumps to $50 if you wait to pay until you get to the airport and check-in.
Kayak has a Baggage Fee Assistant tool which lets you easily see whether your bags are included in the overall flight price when you're searching for ticket options.
- Your seat
In many cases, an international budget carrier will charge you extra for options like picking your seat, getting a meal and seatback entertainment. For example easyJet charges roughly $3 to $14 to pick your seat in the general cabin without extra legroom. You may even find that the actual seat is smaller than on a traditional carrier.
"Weigh the pros and cons before you book," Sintra says. It may be that you'll end up paying more in extras than you would buying a ticket on a traditional airline. If you're traveling with family members, for example, you'll likely want to sit near them, but that generally costs extra for each person. Norwegian Air charges €35 ($39) for seat selection per leg. For a family of four, that could add up to roughly $300 in extra flight costs.
"If you prefer the extra amenities you may want to consider an airline that you know has them," Sintra says. That said, if you're simply looking to get to your destination for the cheapest price, then it might be worth sitting next to a stranger in the middle seat or limiting your packing to a small carry-on.
One of the biggest surprises for those who don't fly budget airlines is the airports. Many low-cost carriers use alternate hubs.
"You should look at this very carefully" when booking, Leocha says. If you're flying to Venice, Italy, for example, EasyJet flies into the city's main airport, Marco Polo. But Ryanair flies into Treviso Airport, which is about 25 miles outside of the city.
These alternate airports may also be smaller and have fewer personnel and amenities. Norwegian recently launched flights out of New York's Stewart International Airport, for instance, which is in New Windsor, New York — over 60 miles north of Manhattan. The airport only has two restaurants: a Quiznos sandwich shop before security and a cafe after security.
Perhaps even more frustrating, there are only limited check-in, security and customs systems in place, which means it may take travelers longer to get through the airport at Stewart.
When you're searching for your flight, there are typically a dizzying number of options. You likely don't have to do in-depth research on all of them, but it can be helpful to look up some information in advance to avoid headaches. "If it's an airline I've never heard of before, I'll check it out," Leocha says.
First, you should check out their safety record and performance. The site Airline Ratings can be an excellent source to get a quick view of an airline's safety rating, which they base on seven factors, including the International Air Transport Association's Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) certification audit and the European Union's Blacklist, which bans carriers it feels are too risky.
Cancellations and on-time performance are also major factors, especially if you have a connecting flight. FlightStats has an excellent database of airline performance, including low-cost carriers. Last month, easyJet flights operated on-time arrivals 80% of the time, while Ryanair had 88% of its flights arrive on schedule.
Yet travelers generally shouldn't worry too much about an airline going under, despite the recent shut-down of Iceland's Wow Air.
"It is very unlikely that a budget airline would go under without an earlier warning or indication," Henrik Zillmer, CEO of AirHelp, tells CNBC Make It. Experts were speculating about Wow Air for months before it officially went under and ceased operation.
If you're worried, Zillmer recommends doing a quick Google search to look at airlines' previous performance and news before booking a flight.
When you go to book your ticket, it's best to book with a credit card over a debit card. If there are any issues, the money is not coming from your checking account and you have the right to dispute the transaction.
Plus, there are several credit cards on the market, including Citi Prestige and both the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Reserve, that offer travel protections. These kick in if your luggage is lost or delayed, or you're stranded because of a cancelled or delayed flight, or even if you have a medical emergency.
Booking through a well-known travel operator like Expedia or Priceline may also offer more protections, Zillmer says. For example, he says if an airline does go under before your trip, you may be able to claim a refund if you booked through a site like this.
It's also worth noting that travel agents or partner airlines may also step up to refund or rebook you, depending on whether flights are covered by travel insurance. If a trip was booked as a package, coverage should be guaranteed, Zillmer says.
If you are booking directly with the budget carrier, be aware that its website may be difficult to navigate, so check everything carefully and be careful with translations.
"The websites can get a little funky," Leocha says. If you do have issues, Leocha says he's found that low-cost carriers are fairly responsive on social media. He's cleared up several issues by shooting the airline a note on Facebook.
"Travelers should always be aware of their rights in case something goes wrong when booking their flights," Zillmer says. And while the specific rights can vary by flight route or departure and arrival destinations, they can be a big help regardless of whether someone has travel insurance.
Unfortunately, travelers in the U.S. have the fewest protections, Zillmer days. Essentially you can seek compensation of up to $1,350 from an airline if you are denied boarding due to overbooking and you ultimately suffered a delay in arriving at to your final destination.
If you're flying back from a European country to the U.S, flying on a European airline or flying within Europe, you have more protections. You can get up to $700 per person if your flight is cancelled or delayed more than three hours unless it's deemed an "extraordinary circumstance," such as a storm, medical emergency or political unrest. Under these conditions, airlines do not owe you anything.
In addition to financial compensation, if your flight is delayed more than two hours, you're entitled to food and refreshments, as well as a hotel room and transport if the trip interruption requires an overnight stay.
"When you're stuck waiting for the airline to get you back on track, you're entitled to necessary assistance from the airline, depending on your situation," Zillmer says.
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