A Definitive Guide to Surviving Budget Airlines

What to know ahead of your next $50 flight

March 24, 2023 7:32 am
How to survive a flight on a budget airline

I recently attended a conference in New York City. Because I was a sponsored guest, the conference organizers asked that I book the absolute cheapest flight I could find, which meant flying a notorious budget airline that rhymes with “fear it.”  Which is appropriate, because I’m definitely scared I’ll be forced to fly them again in the future. If you’ve never flown this airline before, picture a Greyhound bus with two wings and fewer amenities, and you’ll have the basic gist. 

As a professional travel writer, I’ve flown lots of different airlines. I’ve flown first and business class before, but most of the time, I’m in basic economy with the rest of the huddled masses. But this airline and its cost-cutting comrades — let’s call them Low-tier and Deviant for the purposes of this article — are an entirely different breed.

Don’t get me wrong; not all budget airlines are created equal. Southwest gets a bad rap in some circles, but I’ve flown that airline for years and have few complaints. (If I were one of the passengers who got stranded last year after its computer system shut down, I’d definitely be singing a different tune.) I’m honestly convinced this particular airline’s corporate leadership is made up of auto executives who want to discourage Americans from flying or just hate humanity. Maybe both.  

Times can be tough, and sometimes the only way you can make it to a particular destination is to fly a budget airline. Here are a few ways to avoid paying more and to have the best experience possible.

Dying of thirst? Too damn bad.
Dying of thirst? Too damn bad.

Beware the add-ons

Budget airlines’ base ticket price is low, but they make their money charging for amenities we take for granted on other airlines. Booking a flight is like a scene from Goodfellas. Want to pick your seat? Fuck you, pay me. Want to travel with a carry-on or (cue scary music) a checked bag? Fuck you, pay me. Want a complimentary soda or coffee? Fuck you, pay me. If the airline could get away with it, they’d find a way to assign everyone middle seats unless they paid extra. If you were to add each of these items up, you’re actually paying substantially more than a flight on a major carrier. 

I thought I wouldn’t miss the complimentary snacks, but it does help break up the monotony of a long flight, the anticipation building as the drink cart gets closer and closer. Will they give me a full can of Sprite and not just a small plastic cup? Will I get the biscotti or the mini Ritz crackers? Will the nice flight attendant notice I’m going through alcohol withdrawal and discreetly slip me a couple of mini whiskey bottles? 

It’s just as well this airline doesn’t offer free snacks. I can’t imagine it going well.

“We don’t have Canada Dry ginger ale, but here’s a tangerine Faygo that expired in 2018.”

“No mini pretzels today, but you can stick your hand in this trash bag of stale movie-theater popcorn and grab a mouthful.” 

Even the plane’s seatbacks are seemingly designed to discourage drinks or snacking. There was no tray table, only a metal shelf wide enough to hold an iPhone on its side.

Buy a few candy bars at the supermarket before your flight. Use a refillable water bottle so you don’t have to pay inflated airport prices for a plastic bottle that won’t get recycled and spend the next millennia slowly decomposing in a landfill. TSA regulations allow you to bring a small flask filled with liquor in your carry-on or personal bag, although drinking it on board is a different story. (It’s up to you if you want to be a rebel or not.)

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Nothing a little Dramamine, or a dram, can't fix,
Nothing a little Dramamine, or a dram, can’t fix,

Prepare for the worst (and the easiest way to get through it)

Things got off on a bad foot weeks before my flight. I snagged an afternoon outgoing flight that would have touched down in the evening, giving me enough to make my way into the city, grab dinner, then slowly meander to my hotel where I could get to bed at a reasonable hour. Weeks after I booked my flight, I received an email announcing my flight would now leave at 5:45 am. No explanation, absolutely no shits given. What are you going to do about it? 

The morning of the flight, the line to board looked like a Waffle House dining room at 4 am. On the bright side, I’m reasonably sure everyone immediately fell asleep after take-off and didn’t wake up until the wheels were bouncing on the Newark International tarmac. The best way to experience this type of flight? Spend as much of it unconscious as possible. 

If I ever fly this airline again, I’m going to stay awake for three days straight beforehand, so the actual flight will be like I’m traveling in suspended animation, just like the Aliens movies. (Well maybe not just like them.)

The trusty Incase EO Travel Backpack
The trusty Incase EO Travel Backpack

Pack light (or roll the dice)

Some airlines are stricter about their restrictions than others. In theory, this airline prohibits carry-ons unless you pay extra, restricting passengers to one free personal item. Not a problem, I thought. For short jaunts, I typically use a Pakt Travel Backpack that neatly organizes all my clothes, work laptop and other accessories. It’s absolutely terrific, and I’ve flown across the world with it several times. But according to the fine print on the discount airline’s website, it’s also several inches longer than the allowed personal item. That meant I had to stuff all my clothes, laptop and gear for a four-day trip into a backpack about the size of an average grade-school student’s book bag. 

Luckily I also own an Incase EO Travel Backpack that I normally use for short overnight trips. Packing it to fit multiple days worth of gear was a challenge, but it worked. It also ballooned the depth of the pack to unacceptable parameters. The night before my flight, I was mentally calculating how many layers of clothing I’d need to wear in order to fit the bag underneath my seat. 

The next morning, no employees looked askance at my pack. They simply didn’t care. Boarding the plane, I half expected there to be a credit card swiper attached to the luggage bin, but thankfully I was able to store my pack and have at least a little more legroom. 

So should you roll the dice? I guess it comes down to risk tolerance. I could have gotten away with it on this trip, but If I brought my larger-than-regulation pack and an employee made a fuss, I’d have been forced to pay an additional $55 each way.

Don’t take your frustrations out on the crew

I can’t say this enough. The check-in staff and flight attendants didn’t come up with all these restrictive policies. It’s not like baggage handler Eddie is emailing the CEO saying, “You know what we can do to screw over passengers today?” Each and every employee I spoke to was incredibly nice and polite; most had the vibe of someone embarrassed about their cheapskate step-parent. 

Folks grumpy because of the early morning hour were given extra smiles. (Smiles are free, after all.) The flight wasn’t full, so as soon as everyone boarded, they let people change seats. (Only the exit rows where passengers had to pay extra were left vacant.) Each crew member tried to be helpful and make the best out of the situation. That’s all you can really ask for.  


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