How much money do you really save flying a low-cost airline?

Once upon a time air travel was a luxury experience. Then came the age of mass travel – the first Boeing 747 Jumbo jet service was in 1970 – and the glamour faded but the fares did not. Low-cost carriers began in Europe and elsewhere but Australia largely stayed the haven of the full-service carriers.

In recent years, that has changed with several low-cost airlines operating to and from Australian airports.

If you are planning a trip to Asia, it's worthwhile considering the low cost offerings from the likes of Scoot, Air Asia and Jetstar. The prices are surprisingly low but be aware of the tricks the airlines use to push the overall price up.

Imagine paying less for an overseas trip than a trip within Australia!

How cheap are the flights? Fortunately, Australian regulations require that the airline show the price of the fare including taxes so the prices quoted are similar to what you end up paying.

Examples of how low prices can go
Amazingly, it is possible to get all of these flights below for less than $300AU (depending on time of year and special offers).

  • Scoot is the low cost carrier of Singapore Airlines. Like the other low-cost carrier websites, the fares indicated are one way and show Melbourne to Singapore for and Gold Coast to Bangkok for as little as a few hundred dollars.
  • Air Asia will take you from Sydney to Bali or Perth to Ho Chi Minh City.
  • Cebu Pacific is the rapidly-expanding Philippine airline and flies Sydney to Manila.
  • Jetstar will fly you from Adelaide to Bali for or Sydney to Phuket or Darwin to Bali.

Be aware price quotes on airlines are one way only!

How different is the travel experience on a low-cost carrier?
As you'd expect, it’s more basic throughout the process but in some ways, less than you’d expect as many of the full-fare carriers are also reducing costs and services.

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While budget carriers offer competitive low fares, food, baggage and even seat selection come at additional costs (Photo: Sorbis/Shutterstock)

Booking
Booking a low cost carrier is rather like running across a pond of snapping crocodiles. There are traps everywhere. In a way the process is simple - you pay extra and get more.

  • Want to take luggage? Pre-pay for it or it'll cost you a fortune at the airport. Sort out your luggage before you book. When you may pay $20 for every excess kilo it's tempting to overestimate at the booking stage and pay for far more baggage than you’ll actually take. If you'll be shopping while away, you may want to pay for extra luggage on the return flight.
  • Food during your flight? Select and pay for food from a variety of deals (be aware you may need to pre-book to get a hot meals on certain flights).
  • So you book the flight and you get a seat (although beware you may have to pay for the privilege of being allocated a seat on some airlines). How about a seat with more space or at the front of the plane for a fast exit? It's all possible, at a price.

However, if you are checking every “extra” box you might want to check if there are deals from the full-fare airlines that match what you'll end up paying.

Beware: you may find a series of pre-checked boxes for services such as travel insurance and carbon offset. Don't just uncheck these and forget to check if they have stayed unchecked later. They may mysteriously be rechecked as you go through the booking process, even into the check-in stage.

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Excess baggage will cost you a fortune at the airport so make sure you weigh your luggage beforehand or pre-pay for extra kilos (Photo: Takashi images/ Shutterstock)

3 steps to check-in
1. Early check-in: Being able to check-in hours, or even days, before you head to the airport is great. You can secure your favourite aisle seat on the plan and you should simply have to drop your bag at the airport. Sadly, understaffed counters at all airlines these days (not just low-cost ones) can result in long queues simply to drop your bag so ensure you arrive early at the airport.

2. Print your boarding pass: If you do pre-check-in you need to either print your boarding pass or download it to your phone. You may be charged if your boarding pass needs to be printed at the airport. While printing at home isn’t a problem, you may have to ask your hotel to print your boarding pass for the flight home.

3. Arrive early: Jetstar's 30-minute cut-off for check-in appears to be universally known. Don’t be a minute late or you’ll be buying another ticket for a later flight. It’s a great incentive to allow extra time to make sure you're at the airport early.

Wouldn't it be great if passengers could make airlines pay us when they are running late or cancel a flight?

Flying
If you've paid for it you may get priority boarding. In any case, you may find that you're taking a bus to the plane because the airline doesn't pay airbridge fees.

It’s likely that the aircraft itself may be a pleasant surprise. The seats may be close together and leg room just the bare minimum but the aircraft is likely to be quite new with modern decor.

Scoot (this airline will soon be flying from Australia to India) has an all-Dreamliner fleet. These new Boeing 787s have larger windows, better pressurisation and feel like a new era in travel. It also offers the child-free “Scoot in Silence” class, a small peaceful area with its own toilet.

While low-cost airlines take out many of the frills, they have also been very creative. In-seat screens are expensive and heavy so you're encouraged to use your own phone, iPad or computer to tap into the aircraft's (usually free) wifi entertainment program. You'll probably need to download the dedicated app before you fly. Cebu Pacific offers in-air internet for a small cost. It’s rather slow but you can still stay in touch in the air.

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Low cost carriers will most likely not have in-flight entertainment so take a book or tablet to keep you occupied

A meal-and-baggage package is often the best value but, whether you pre-order or buy on board, don't expect too much. It's likely to be palatable but may be a long way from what's being dished up in business class in the Qantas aircraft in front of you. Just focus on how much money you are saving.

Perversely, low-cost airlines know their passengers have selected “cheap and cheerful” travel and deliver accordingly. I've found the service to be friendly and efficient and even somewhat playful. They still take safety seriously but announcements and service tend to be rather relaxed.

Passenger service
It's worth researching how well different airlines treat their customers. If they have a reputation for cancelling flights without notice – or being so late that you miss connections – use another airline.

If you're planning on flying in Australia's immediate neighbourhood then a low-cost carrier is certainly worth considering

The verdict
Flying to London or New York on a budget airline – or in a standard economy seat – is a feat of endurance. Paying for comfort is an investment.

If you're planning on flying in Australia’s immediate neighbourhood then a low-cost carrier is certainly worth considering. You may be slightly less comfortable but you’ll certainly have more money in your pocket for experiencing the destination.

For those who have the flexibility of time, it's worth enrolling for special offers from these low-cost carriers. You may not be planning a trip to Singapore or Manila any time soon but when the return airfare is the price of a great meal for two in Sydney or Melbourne it's tempting to be spontaneous. Budget airlines make this possible for a much larger number of people.

That's why budget airlines form the fastest growing aviation sector, carrying millions more passengers than their better-respected full-fare rivals.

Health Tip: Our nation's isolation means anywhere is a substantial flight away. You'll be sitting for an unaccustomed long period of time. No matter your age it's worth speaking to your doctor and consider taking low-dose aspirin for a couple of days before and after your flights to reduce the risk of blood clots.

What have your experiences been on low-cost airlines? Join the conversation below.