Budget airlines: Tips and tricks for a smooth flight

With a family of five, we often fly on budget airlines, and while abroad, budget airlines in Europe. While we certainly enjoy the comforts and perks enjoyed on higher-priced air carriers, on many trips, the savings on these low cost flights outweigh the lack of perks. However, it’s important for families to know what to expect (or more accurately, what not to expect) when buying budget airline tickets in order to have a pleasant flight.


Tip #1: Book directly through the budget airlines.

Go ahead and find deals on an airfare deal finder like Kayak or CheapOAir (we use them all the time!), but then click over to the budget airline’s website and look for the same flight to book directly. Why? We found out the hard way after booking a Frontier Airlines flight through CheapOAir. We found ourselves with an extra carry-on item (a homemade souvenir our son Tobias had crafted and couldn’t part with), and had to pay to bring it onboard, even though he didn’t have any additional carry ons with him. Had we booked through Frontier directly, we would have been entitled to free carry-ons*. It’s also helpful to book directly through the airline website when you find yourself in need of extra help at check in, or have any routing issue. Just like when booking hotel rooms, brands are happier to help their loyal customers. Buying through a second-party site screams ‘deal finder’ not ‘loyal flier’.

*Check Frontier for current carry-on baggage policies.

Tip #2: Consider upgrading to priority boarding:

I know, I know, the whole reason you’re booking a budget airline is to save money! But when you buy the bare bones ticket on airlines such as Allegiant, for example, you’re almost guaranteed to find yourself at the end of the boarding line. If you’re carrying on bags, you’re likely to have them re-directed to checked baggage. If this is ok with you (hey, free checked bag!), then do not upgrade to priority boarding. But if having your bags with you is important (we usually want to get going immediately upon landing, not wait for bags), upgrade!


Tip #3: Read the fine print regarding carry-on bags:

Remember our Frontier flight? On many budget airlines (including Frontier and Spirit, last time I flew both these carriers), there is a charge for carry-on baggage. There are exceptions: travelers who book directly through the airline are often entitled to free carry ons, but you have to read the rules…which change regularly. Southwest still offers free carry ons and even two free checked bag for travelers who book directly through their site, for example. Always do your research, and find out if the budget airline you’re considering has a partner airline, such as Delta, American, and Alaska. If so, your loyalty mileage plan membership may entitle you to free carry-ons or checked luggage.

Tip #4: Book two one-way tickets to save money, and search by single passenger.

Because most budget airlines are regional, they often offer extremely cheap fare on select days of the week. Use the airline’s fare calendar or ‘flexible dates’ tool (like the one below) to find the cheapest days to fly. Compare the cost of two one-way tickets vs round trip fare. Likewise, if you have older kids who can sit alone if needed (best for short flights), always check ‘one passenger’ when searching for fares, even if you’re shopping for your whole family. Airline ticket generators find the lowest fare in the seating tier that accommodates your whole party, so if there are two remaining lowest fare seats, but four people in your group, all four of you will be ‘upgraded’ to the next lowest fare tier. If two budget seats and two slightly more expensive ones will be ok with you, check ‘one passenger’ when searching.


Tip #5: Consider paying more for long haul flights.

When our whole family traveled to Cancun last year, we flew on (now-defunct) Air Tran. We got a great fare, but the brutal truth is, our red-eye, five-plus hour flight across the country from the Pacific Northwest was pretty miserable on a bare-bones airplane. Forget about food service (or even complementary drink service), or comfortable seats or decent in-flight entertainment. We don’t mind skipping these perks on a shorter flight, but for a few more hundred dollars, we would have been far happier on a higher-priced air carrier for this long flight.

If you take heed of the tips above, it’s entirely possible to have a happy, contented flight on a budget airline, and save money to boot. We’ve happily flown Frontier Airlines, Allegiant Air, and Southwest without issue, when we knew what we were getting, booked directly, and leveraged our bigger budget frequent flier reward memberships where possible.

About the author

Amy Whitley AUTHOR: Amy Whitley is the founding editor of Pit Stops for Kids and content editor of Trekaroo. She writes on staff monthly as a family travel expert at Go Green Travel Green and Practical Travel Gear, and contributes to Outdoors NW as an outdoor adventure traveler. Find Amy at Google.




  1. I don’t think we’ve tried tip #5 other than out of necessity–great idea to consider. And yes, #1 just worked when I was recently helping my mom with booking her flight–cheaper on the actual airline’s website than on one of the big search engine sites–it was only about $10 difference, but every little bit helps!

  2. Great tips! I had never thought about searching for single passengers to find the lowest fare (#4). Will keep this one in mind!

  3. We swear by #1, and agree wholeheartedly with #5. We are all about budget flights, but sometimes the extra comfort is worth every penny.

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