Does taking a low cost carrier really pay in the long run? Or do those added extras all build up to make the full service offering more appealing? Simple Flying investigates.
The exponential rise of low cost carriers has seen air fares plummet to their lowest ever levels. Some carriers have even struggled to survive in the face of so much bargain basement competition, whereas other airlines have driven their fares so low they’ve failed to turn a profit themselves.
For passengers, being able to travel great distances for a fraction of the cost of fares in the past is great. But does it really pay to take the low cost route? Let’s find out.
Short haul: Low cost vs full service
For the sake of comparison, I did a quick flight search between London and Lisbon, Portugal. This was a one way trip leaving on September 10th, 2019. Naturally, the low cost airlines such as Ryanair and easyJet came out on top in terms of cost.
However, the first full service carrier, TAP Air Portugal, wasn’t that much more. British Airways were a way off the mark in terms of price, so it’s clearly not a route their interested in competing aggressively on. The only reason to book BA would be if you’re a frequent flyer or are connecting from another Oneworld airline.
In terms of choice, when it comes to a couple of hours across the continent, why would you pay more than the lowest fare? Anyone can cope without complementary food and drink for a couple of hours, so the only real reason to consider a full service carrier would be because of the checked bag.
Indeed, in this case, checking a bag with Ryanair would cost around £20 – £30, and with easyJet from £8.99 to £33.99, depending on the weight and route. Adding a bag starts to swing fares towards the level of TAP Air Portugal. On this particular route, if travelling with luggage, it would probably pay to book the full service carrier and benefit from the free refreshments too.
But how do things change when you’re going a bit further away?
Transatlantic trips: Low cost vs full service
So, there are a number of airlines running trips across the Atlantic, but when we narrow it down to nonstop only, there are just a handful of choices available to us. At the budget end of the table, it’s long haul low cost stalwart, Norwegian Air Shuttle. At the other end, its flag carrying UK airline, British Airways. For the sake of comparison, I priced up a round trip between London and JFK leaving on September 11th and returning on the 15th.
Between the two, there’s only around £80 difference in the economy fare to travel from London to JFK. That’s not a sizeable difference, and begs the question, what do you really get? Let’s take a look.
What you get with British Airways
The lowest fare with BA is their economy basic, which is a hand baggage only fare. Although you do get food and drink service, there’s no checked baggage. Adding a checked bag takes the cost up by around £40 each way, and as we’re looking for all inclusive full service fares, this is the one I selected.
I also wanted to fly only with British Airways, which put the very lowest fare (American Airlines basic economy) out of the running. This takes the total fare for the round trip to £544.02, £294.02 more than the fare with Norwegian.
British Airways call their economy transatlantic fare ‘World Traveller’, which is an all-inclusive fare type. Checked baggage is included (up to 23kg) as are all meals and drinks. You also get complementary headphones, a blanket and cushion and a few added extras. This usually includes flight socks, an eye mask and toothbrush and toothpaste on request.
British Airways has seatback entertainment, including games, which is all free of charge. BA’s JFK flights from Heathrow are usually operated on the Boeing 747, which is an experience in itself. The 747s have recently undergone a refresh, which means you’ll enjoy new seat cushions and covers as well as the latest Panasonic eX3 IFE system with over 1,300 hours of entertainment.
You could even get one of their retro livery 747s!
What you get with Norwegian
That temptingly low round trip price falls under their LowFare tier. So, what does that mean? Well, with LowFare you essentially get a seat on the plane, one piece of hand baggage (up to 10kg) and that’s it. No reserved seating, no meals, no changes and nonrefundable.
If you need a checked bag, and let’s face it, most people would like to take a bigger bag if they’re going transatlantic, then it’s going to cost £35. If you want two, it’s £65. If you want to reserve your seat, it’s £25 per person for this. And, for a meal service, that’s another £25.
Of course, you can choose to order a la carte, which ranges from £3 to £7 for snacks, £8 to £9 for fresh food and from £3 for a soft drink.
What did surprise us, however, is that not all those airline essentials are included, even for the higher tier travellers. If you want a travel blankets, for instance, it’s £4, and for a compatible headset, it’s £3.
Norwegian do offer a bundled upgrade to LowFare+, which would give you meals, a checked bag and seat reservations. This costs £50 and they say saves travellers £35 over booking these things separately.
And remember, this is a ROUND trip, so you can go ahead and double all these costs to cover both the outbound and return flights.
The real cost
Let’s price up our fictitious flight to the USA from London, assuming we want to check a bag, eat, enjoy a couple of drinks and have a blanket and headset as a bare minimum.
|Total trip cost||£544.02||£414|
But is that all there is to our trip? Let’s consider that you want a hotel when you get there, or perhaps a car to rent. BA have an offer on car hire which, with discounts, only increases the flight price by around £140. Similarly, BA’s partnership with Hilton sees them offering flight and hotel for an additional £1,000.
Adding both of these offers onto the package takes our total to £1,743 with British Airways. Should we want to book equivalent services whilst flying with Norwegian, here’s how much they would cost:
Doing a quick currency conversion of the total brings us to approximately £1,164 for the equivalent car hire and hotel. Adding this to the flight with Norwegian, and we arrive at a total of £1,598. That’s still a £50 saving over BA, but it does mean you’ve had to do all the legwork yourself. And, of course, there’s no Avios to be earned.
Clearly, if budget is your motivation, a low cost carrier will tick all your boxes. If you can go without a checked bag, food and drink and reserved seating, then there’s no reason not to book. However, for those traveling with more luggage, on short haul it’s definitely worth checking out the full service airlines for comparison, as you could end up with a better deal.
For our example long haul flight, Norwegian is simply cheaper, even if you do buy the extras yourself. The difference is, you get to choose whether you have them or not. This type of unbundling of services gives passengers more choice and flexibility, letting them pay the very lowest for their fare and then decide if they want food, drinks, checked bags and other frills.
Of course, if your goal is convenience, then it’s worth paying the premium for a full service carrier. Pay once, book once and forget about it. You’ll be fed, watered, booked into a hotel and have a hire car waiting for you, all with one click of the button. And if, while in flight, you decide you’d like another G&T (or two, or three), you don’t need to worry because it’s all paid for. For many, this is worth the additional expense up front.
If you travel light and aren’t concerned about seat selection, then I’d personally recommend checking out the new ‘basic economy’ fares on offer from some airlines. BA’s basic economy fares are just a few pounds more than Norwegian’s prices, and include food, drink and all amenities, apart from a checked bag.
When I flew from London to the west coast of the USA, I was faced with very similar choices as this. At the time, both WOW and Norwegian would have got me just about where I wanted with pocket money fares, but nothing included. Full service airlines were making my eyes water at the cost. But then I found an awesome deal for basic economy on United.
The downside, as you might expect, was the lack of checked baggage. But, being an experienced backpacker and only away for a week, I managed to fit everything into a cabin regulation sized bag, no trouble. We didn’t reserve our seats but got seated together anyway. And, once on board, the service was just the same as those who had paid two or three times more than us; meals, drinks, blankets, headsets… it was all good.
Would you fly long haul with a low cost carrier? Have an experience to share? Let us know in the comments!