The 9 to 5 Voyager’s Guide to American Budget Airlines

We all know about the Deltas and the Uniteds and the American Airlines of the world. Increasingly, however, we as travelers are looking for the most cost-effective options.

Enter budget airlines. A large percentage of us have probably already flown on a budget airline, maybe without realizing it. While the major airlines might have the widest network of service, budget airlines make up for this by having the cheapest prices, the best customer service, or a mix of both.

There are a number of budget airlines in the United States, but in this article I’m just going to focus on four of the most well-known: Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, and Spirit.

Read on to learn more about the pros and cons of these major American budget airlines!

Frontier

Image courtesy of UpgradedPoints.com

Main Hub: Denver Int’l – Denver, CO

Established: 1994

Destinations: 111

Baggage Fees:

  • 1 Free Personal Item, limited to 8 in x 18 in x 14 in
  • $25 for Carry-On, limited to 24 in x 16 in x 10 in, under 35 lbs.
  • $25 for Checked Bags, limited to 62 in collectively, under 50 lbs.
  • $75 for Overweight Bags

Frequent Flyer Program: Frontier Miles

Credit Card Bonus: 40,000 miles with $500 spent within first 90 days

The eighth-largest commercial airline in the country, Frontier Airlines is distinguished by the images of wildlife on the tail fins of their planes. They have a number of domestic focus cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, Cincinnati, Miami, Philadelphia, and Raleigh.

Considered an “ultra low-cost” carrier, don’t be quick to assume that their super low fares include everything. There’s more than meets the eye, and this is true for other ultra budget airlines. For example, Kristen and I recently found tickets from Atlanta to New York for $28. An absolute steal, right? Well, keep in mind that you have to pay for everything. If you want to reserve a seat, that will be at least $11 extra. Anything bigger than a personal item? Another $25. Free snacks? Forget about it. So that $28 ticket, if you want to travel somewhat comfortably, is already going to cost well over twice as much. Also, keep in mind that the return ticket is likely going to cost a lot more, unless you’re flexible with your dates.

I’m not saying all this to scare you away from Frontier or from other budget airlines. In fact, even with all those hidden costs, you’re still getting an extremely good deal. It would cost less and take less time than taking Amtrak or a Megabus (not that it should be, but in America, you are basically forced to fly in a lot of situations; don’t get me started).

One of the major flaws with Frontier is that they are notorious for having some of the least comfortable seats in the industry. In fact, their seats don’t even recline. I know this has turned off some older travelers, but it might still be worth it for shorter, cheaper flights.

If you decide you like flying Frontier, you might want to consider their Discount Den subscription. For just $60 a year, you’ll receive exclusive access to their lowest fares and free tickets for kids under 15 for every adult ticket, among other perks.

JetBlue

Image courtesy of USAToday.com

Main Hub: John F. Kennedy Int’l – New York, NY

Established: 1998

Destinations: 102

Baggage Fees:

  • 1 Free Personal Item, limited to 17 in x 13 in x 8 in
  • 1 Free Carry-On, limited to 22 in x 14 in x 9 in
  • $30 for first Checked Bag, $40 for second Checked Bag
  • $75 for Overweight Bags

Frequent Flyer Program: TrueBlue

Credit Card Bonus: N/A

JetBlue Airways is one of my personal favorite budget airlines, mainly due to their generous nature with free snacks, legroom, direct flight availability, and of course, cost. They are the seventh-largest airline in the US, and their focus cities include Boston, Long Beach, Orlando, and San Juan. As far as flying goes, they are in my opinion one of the most comfortable options to travel with.

As an added bonus, there is complimentary Wi-Fi on all planes.

Southwest

Images courtesy of TravelUpdate.BoardingArea.com

Main Hub: Dallas, TX (rolling hub system)

Established: 1967

Destinations: 101 domestic, 10 international

Baggage Fees:

  • 1 Free Personal Item, limited to 8.5 in x 18.5 in x 13.5 in
  • 1 Free Carry-On, limited to 10 in x 24 in x 16 in
  • 2 Free Checked Bags, under 50 lbs.
  • $75 for Overweight Bags

Frequent Flyer Program: Rapid Rewards

Credit Card Bonus: 40,000 points after spending $1,000 within first 90 days

Southwest Airlines is the largest low-cost carrier not just in the United States, but in the entire world. According to Ranker.com, it’s also the most highly rated in the country, being notable for their excellent customer service and their transparent operating structure. They are noted for their brightly-painted blue, red, and orange livery.

Of particular note with Southwest is their lax baggage policy, one of the best I’ve come across. As long as your checked bags are pretty standard (see my Rule of 45), then you get two bags checked for free. I can think of no other airline that offers that.

Southwest uses what’s called the “rolling hub system.” Whereas other budget airlines and most major airlines have a specific home base (United Airlines based at Chicago-O’Hare, for example), Southwest does not have a single main hub. Instead, they have a number of cities that they operate out of, such as Dallas, Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, and Phoenix. Focus cities include Austin, Sacramento, and St. Louis.

Wi-Fi is available in-flight for an $8 charge.

My one major gripe about Southwest is that there is absolutely no assigned seating. The plane fills up exactly like a bus. It’s entirely first come, first served.

Spirit

Main Hub: Miramar, FL (rolling hub system)

Established: 1983

Destinations: 76

Baggage Fees:

  • 1 Free Personal Item, limited to 18 in x 14 in x 8 in
  • $26-$50 Carry-On, limited to 22 in x 18 in x 10 in
  • $21-$45 first Checked Bag, $31-$54 second Checked Bag, limited to 40 lbs.
  • $30-$100 additional fee for Overweight Bags

Frequent Flyer Program: Free Spirit

Credit Card Bonus: 15,000 miles after first purchase, plus another 15,000 miles after spending $500 within first 90 days

Based in the Miami area, Spirit Airlines offers some of the lowest fares in the industry. They have very good rates for international destinations, particularly in Latin America; in fact, I will more than likely be flying into Colombia on Spirit early next year. Their domestic focus cities include Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Las Vegas, and Orlando.

Spirit advertises the $9 Fare Club, which offers laughably low fares and up to 50% off baggage fees. Like Frontier’s Den Rewards, Spirit’s $9 Fare Club costs $60 per year.

Just like with Frontier, don’t let the ultra-low fares fool you. The flight itself might be very low, but nothing is included. You will pay extra for a carry-on, and that even includes travel backpacks. Note that the prices vary, depending on whether you add your baggage during the initial booking, or during the check-in process. It’s better to know about how much you’re going to be bringing ahead of time and add it while you book the ticket. Note also that checked bags are limited to 40 lbs., and not the usual 50 lbs.

Keep in mind, these are just the four major American budget airlines. There are other airlines, such as Allegiant and Sun Country, but those are smaller carriers and I’ll cover them in another post.

I’d love to hear about anyone’s experiences with these or other budget airlines. Let us know of any experiences or travel hacks in the comments below!

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