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If you've searched for an international flight in the past year, you might've seen new airlines at the top of the results offering international flights for a fraction of the cost of traditional full-service airlines.
Say hello to the newest generation of low-cost carriers. Airlines such as Norse Atlantic Airways, Play, French bee and Zipair are now flying to the U.S., offering long-haul flights to Europe and Asia.
You might think a 6-hour (or longer) flight across an ocean isn't where you want to go cheap and the online reviews might be enough to give you nightmares without even flying. But, depending on the type of trip and traveler, these low-cost airlines might fit the bill.
It's hard to argue with the cost
The first reason anyone might consider flying with these airlines is the cheap airfares. Low-cost airlines have a bad reputation because of their endless add-on fees for baggage, seat selection, food and drinks. But even when you include those extra fees, low-cost carriers may still be the cheapest option.
Brett Bernstein, founder of Gatsby.ai, an ambassador marketing software company based in San Diego, and his wife were searching for flights back from their honeymoon in Paris last December. The couple ultimately decided to fly French bee because it was about a third of the price of other flights.
"It was $400 and change per person," Bernstein says of his one-way flight. "And when I was looking to buy a flight on a different airline, it was like $1,500 a person."
And he was pleasantly surprised. French bee flies out of Paris-Orly Airport, a smaller and older airport than Charles de Gaulle Airport, but it was easier and quicker to get to.
The seat was about as big as other airline seats and had a seatback screen loaded with plenty of entertainment options. Bernstein paid for a fare that included a carry-on, checked baggage and a meal. If anything, the most remarkable thing about the flight was how unremarkable it was.
"The thing about flying is it's a commodity," Bernstein says. "Like once you arrive there, you really don't care how you got there as long as it's safe and you're comfortable."
Low-cost carriers are held to the same safety standards
Bernstein was concerned enough about the safety of flying on a low-cost carrier that he had researched the issue beforehand. But it's worth noting that budget carriers don't cut corners on safety.
The Federal Aviation Administration ensures that any international carrier flying into the U.S. meets international safety standards.
Katy Nastro, a spokesperson for Going.com, a travel deals website, also pointed out that newer low-cost airlines typically have newer planes with updated equipment, since they lease or acquire new aircraft.
"These planes could potentially be nicer than some of the legacy carriers' big jets that they've been flying for 20 years that they've just been retrofitting," Nastro says.
Tips for booking, flying with a low-cost airline
Still, you should go in knowing what you paid for. Even with newer planes, you might not get the same amenities as you would on a full-service carrier, particularly for business class. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
Know the cancellation policies. Many low-cost airlines don't offer refunds on their lowest fares, so book only if you're confident you'll take the flight.
Look for low-cost carriers with airline partnerships for more reliability. Low-cost carriers that are subsidiaries of more prominent airlines usually share the same customer service, so getting help with your booking may be easier. If your flight is canceled, you'll also want to ensure the airline has codeshare partners to help you rebook.
Beware of fees. Ensure you include the add-on fees, such as bags and seats, when comparing costs across airlines.
Read the restrictions. Low-cost airlines often have more stringent rules on the size of your luggage or check-in times. You may be forced to pay extra for a bag that's just a bit too big or be unable to board your flight if you miss the check-in time.
Bring your own food and entertainment. Depending on the airline, you might not get seatback screens, Wi-Fi or complimentary drinks or snacks.
What low-cost airlines mean for international travel
The proliferation of low-cost airlines is expected to continue to grow. For example, Fly Atlantic, a Belfast-based airline, is expected to sell low-cost transatlantic flights in 2024. The global low-cost airline market, which was valued at more than $190 billion in 2022, is projected to reach more than $302 billion by 2030, according to data from Contrive Datum Insights, a market research firm.
But more low-cost airlines are good for consumers, even those who don't fly on them.
"People love to hate on budget airlines, but at the same time, the reason that we can get affordable airfare, in general, is because of budget airlines," Nastro says. "More competition actually puts pressure on those legacy carriers."