7 Best Budget Airlines

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Fly to Florida for $39! Act now and get round-trip airfare to Denver for $79! Budget airlines advertise ridiculously cheap flights to cities across the country. They can be enticing, but do the deals hold up when you read the fine print?

My wife and I jumped on one of those deals a couple of years ago to fly Allegiant Air to Fort Myers, Florida, for a long weekend for about $200 total. We could only take a backpack each, and had a dawn flight on a Monday to get home. Was the flight OK? It definitely wasn’t what I’d call “comfortable.” There wasn’t much leg room, the seats were thinly padded, and my wife was on the other side of the plane. But the price was too good to pass up, and we found sun and fun midwinter.

Expect tradeoffs with budget carriers, says Zach Griff, senior reporter at The Points Guy, a website that analyzes flight trends and credit-card points in order to uncover deals. Sure, he says, the fares are cheap, but these ultra-low-cost airlines are stripped of most of the inclusions you expect from traditional airlines. There are often extra charges to bring a carry on, reserve a seat, etc.

Wasatch Range and Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City comes into view (Photo: Amy Pickering)

“Once you start adding in all the ancillary charges,” he says in an email, “the deal isn’t as good as it might’ve looked.

“That said, there are certainly deals to be had. For some people who don’t value these extras, flying on a budget carrier can pay off. Even when factoring in all the extras, it’s often cheaper to fly a budget carrier.”

What about the reliability of these smaller airlines? When weather and other delays affect airports, larger network carriers have more planes moving, which adds a layer of redundancy in their operations, Griff explains. A company like Delta can absorb that delay and get you on another flight within a few hours. But smaller, budget airlines often only have one flight a day, or just two a week in some markets, which could leave you stranded.

I’ve analyzed some of the most trusted budget airlines in the business, as well as some promising newcomers, to see how well their super-low prices hold up. I’ve also figured out the most adventurous locales you can get to by flying the fare-reduced skies. Here’s what I found.

1. Avelo Airlines

canoeing in New Paltz, New York
August Popkin canoeing in New Paltz, New York, two hours from New Haven or New York City (Photo: Bryan Sillorequez)

Avelo is a relative newcomer to the scene, introducing ultra-low cost airfares in 2021. The company has hubs in Hollywood/Burbank, California; and New Haven, Connecticut. Avelo operates a small fleet and essentially offers two different route maps serving mostly small regional airports. If either of those airports are convenient to you, you can get cheap flights to some pretty great destinations. Avelo does charge for add-ons like carry-on bags, but the fees are more reasonable than in some other price-cutting airlines.

Best For: SoCal and Connecticut-based travelers looking for vacation escapes on the cheap.

Adventurous Destinations: From New Haven, you can get to Charleston, South Carolina; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. From Burbank, you can go to: Bend, Oregon; Boise, Idaho, Bozeman, Montana; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Kalispell, Montana.

The Deals: From Burbank, you can find really good prices to any of the above cities Avelo serves. I found relatively last-minute round-trip weekend flights to Bend for under $200, and flights to Colorado Springs for $225.

The Catch: Avelo has few daily flights, so for you to get a good deal to a smaller destination, like Bozeman, one of your legs might have to be midweek. Also, if that return flight is canceled, you might have to find another way home.

2. Breeze Airways

biking in Bentonville, Arkansas
Arkansas has become a major biking and mountain-biking destination. This airline flies to Bentonville, shown here. (Photo: Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism)

Breeze Airways took flight in 2018, serving mostly smaller, regional airports on the East Coast, but has steadily grown to reach more than 35 cities, including several key destinations in the Western U.S. The cheapest flights go through the company’s hubs in Charleston, South Carolina; Provo, Utah; Tampa, Florida; and New Orleans, Louisiana. Breeze offers some of the cheapest cross-country flights around, with three different fare classes—Nice, Nicer, and Nicest— to choose from, so you can pick how plain you want the experience to be. The airline never charges change or cancellation fees.

Best for: Flying across the country on the cheap.

Adventurous Destinations: Charleston, South Carolina; Las Vegas, Nevada; Los Angeles and San Francisco, California; Provo/Salt Lake City, Utah, Bentonville, Arkansas.

The Deals: If you live in a city that Breeze serves, there are tons of good deals, as long as you’re OK with the lack of frills, like paying extra for snacks and choosing your seat. I found round-trip flights from Phoenix to Provo/Salt Lake for $137. If you’re looking to go coast to coast, I found round-trips from Charleston, South Carolina, to San Francisco for $299. Keep an eye on their site for periodic sales with one-way cross-country flights for $29., which doesn’t seem like a fiscally responsible pricing scale to me, but who am I to judge?

The Catch: Destinations are limited and the base fare (Nice) is sparse on frills; you’ll have to pay to choose your seat, have a snack, or bring more than a small personal item. For the best deals on longer, cross-country flights you’ll probably have to fly midweek.

3. Allegiant Air

Fly fishing in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Fly fishing in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, accessible from Asheville, one of the areas served by airlines on this list (Photo: Clark Brewer/RT Lodge)

Allegiant, an ultra-low-cost airline that’s been around since the late 1990s, serves more than 130 destinations in the U.S. The routes hit mostly smaller, regional airports, and Allegiant typically only offers two or three flights a week to each city. Allegiant, too, has taken “add-on” fees to new levels. You’ll pay extra for everything from a carry-on bag to a printed boarding pass (yes, you read that right). But with an expansive route map and But with an expansive route map and a large presence in big destinations like Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and multiple cities in Florida, Allegiant may well fly where you want to go, and for cheap if you can pack light and don’t mind risking a middle seat.

Best For: Impromptu getaways, and people who work from home or for any other reason can fly midweek.

Adventurous Destinations: Asheville, North Carolina; Bellingham, Washington; Bentonville, Arkansas; Boise, Idaho; Bozeman and Billings, Montana; Denver, Colorado.

The Deals: Allegiant offers really cheap flights all over its route map. I found mid-winter flights from Austin, Texas, to Provo/Salt Lake, Utah, for $100 round trip. From Chicago, you can escape the freezing cold with a round trip to Fort Walton Beach, Florida, for $120 in January. I like their interactive map, which allows you to put in your origin city and the date you want to travel and shows you the destinations served from that town as well as sample fares of one-way tickets. If you can fly mid-week, you can save a lot of money.

The Catch: Watch out for those add-on fees, and be prepared to fly midweek.

4. Southwest

Meagan Martin bouldering
Meagan Martin boulders Belly of the Beast, grade V10, St. Vrain, Colorado, a little over an hour outside of Denver. (Photo: Alexandra Kahn/PlanIt)

Southwest is the oldest, and the king, of budget airlines. T, and feels the most like a traditional airline—the seats recline, and there are actually some free beverages and snacks. You even get two free checked bags, which is unheard-of, even on larger air carriers.

This airline has one of the most extensive destination lists, too, reaching 121 cities and 10 different countries. And now Southwest flies to multiple cities in Hawaii. It was also the airline that was hit the hardest during the winter storms that forced thousands of flight cancellations last Christmas. Flight analysts claim that Southwest was hit harder than traditional airlines because of their aggressive flight schedule (short turnaround times) and under-investment in staff. The airline returned to normal operations after the holidays.

Southwest isn’t classified as an “ultra-low cost carrier,” so you might pay a little more than for flights, but the extensive route map and quality experience might make the extra worthwhile.

Best for: Travelers who don’t want to sacrifice dignity for a deal.

Adventurous Destinations: Hawaii; Costa Rica; Bozeman, Montana; Salt Lake City, Utah; Montrose and Denver, Colorado; Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Reno/Tahoe, Nevada; San Diego, California, and more.…

The Deals: Southwest flies to Costa Rica, Belize, Puerto Vallarta, Havana, and the Bahamas, although they don’t fly to international destinations often, or from many U.S. cities. For good international deals, you have to plan your trip around the airline’s flight schedules. By checking their Low Fare Calendar, you can find really good bargains between the larger U.S.  cities that Southwest reaches. Skiers should definitely look into Southwest flights this winter. I found round trip tickets from Greenville, South Carolina, to Denver for a January trip for just over $300 per ticket. I found similar fares to Salt Lake City, Utah.

Southwest is also a good option if you’re looking to escape winter. I could fly to Miami from Greenville in the middle of the winter for $100 each way. Or, I could fly round trip to Hawaii from Atlanta for $520.

The Catch: Southwest’s pricing is straightforward, even if tickets are a bit more costly than those of the ultra-low-cost carriers on this list. But pay attention to the flight times and durations; the cheapest flights could be red-eyes with purgatory layovers. I once spent six hours in Atlanta’s airport to save some money and spent most of that time roaming the various terminals cursing my frugality.

6. JetBlue

St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, the Caribbean, where you can sail, swim, snorkel, dive, hike, and bike. And the sky and water are blue. (Photo: SCStock/Getty)

Like Southwest, JetBlue operates much like a traditional airline, with reclining seats in a plane that’s divided by class—you can pay more for extra leg room. It also offers some free beverages and snacks, plus free wifi with seat-back entertainment. Some large carriers don’t even offer free wifi.

JetBlue isn’t classified as an “ultra-low-cost” airline, but offers tickets that are usually cheaper than the larger airlines to certain destinations, and serves more than 100 different cities. The company’s main hub is JFK International, in New York, but it also has bases in Boston, Fort Lauderdale, Long Beach, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, which means you can usually find pretty cheap flights between these hubs. Thanks to that San Juan airport, JetBlue serves a lot of Caribbean countries, such as the Dominican Republic, Barbados, and Aruba.

Best For: Escaping to some place tropical.

Hiking high in the beautiful jungle of the El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico (Photo: dennisvdw/Getty)

Adventurous Destinations: San Diego, California; Denver and Steamboat Springs, Colorado; Bozeman and Kalispell, Montana; Las Vegas and Reno/Tahoe, Nevada; Asheville, North Carolina; Salt Lake City, Utah; Burlington, Vermont; Seattle, Washington; Vancouver, BC; multiple cities in Puerto Rico; St. Thomas, Virgin Islands; and all over the Caribbean.

The Deals: Honestly, the airline’s flights between major cities in the U.S. often cost the same price as traditional airlines. But with escaping winter in mind, I found round-trip tickets to San Jose, Costa Rica, from Atlanta for $400, and weekend flights to San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the middle of winter for $300 round trip.

The Catch: If you go with the lowest fares, you have to pay extra to carry on a bag or pick your seat. Also, cancellations or flight changes will cost you if you choose their cheapest fare.

7. Play Airlines

Rocky beach at Mallorca
Rocky beach and shoreline at Mallorca, Spain, where you can boat, bike, climb (the place is famous for sport climbing and deep-water soloing), hike, and swim. (Photo: Austin Farrington/Unsplash)

An Icelandic-based company, Play Airlines recently started offering service from four American cities—Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; Boston; and New York City—that gives East Coasters cheap flights to 22 destinations in Europe, and especially good deals to Play’s home base in Reykjavik. Don’t expect frills on the long, cross-Atlantic flights. You’ll pay for seat assignments and any checked bags, but if you can handle that, there are good deals. Also cool: If your ultimate destination is one of Play’s other European cities, you can request an extended layover in Iceland for up to seven days between flight legs.

Best For: That trip to Iceland you’ve been dreaming about.

Adventurous Destinations: Reykjavik; Amsterdam; Dublin; Prague; Mallorca; Vienna; and more.

The Deals: I found round trip tickets from New York and Washington, D.C. to Reykjavik two weeks from the date of my search for $233. If you’re flexible and like the idea of flying to Europe at the last minute, Play could be for you; the airline announces relatively last-minute deals on their website regularly. When I looked well in advance, prices were also cheap. I found spring break trip options to Paris and Reykjavik in April from under $400 per round-trip flight.

The Catch: Flying to Europe last minute is a tough sell for some of us, and do you want to take that flight knowing you can only bring a backpack and can’t choose your seat?

Yes, I do.

Graham Averill is Outside magazine’s national parks columnist. He will always choose the cheapest flight option, even if it means he can only carry on what he can fit in his pockets and has to catch a flight home at 4 A.M.

 

author Graham Averill
The author en famille flying budget and heading somewhere warm. (Photo: Liz Averill)

 

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