A cautionary tale of budget flights.
Anyone who travels often has been in this situation: you’re planning a trip, putting Skyscanner/Google Flights through their paces with different flight paths and dates, and suddenly, you see it. A ticket that is hundreds of dollars less than all the other options you’ve seen.
Is it a sale you didn’t know about? The unicorn that is the error fare? No my friends, just a cheap ticket with a budget airline.
Before you drool all over your keyboard and hit the “Book Now” button, hold up a second. Take deep breaths, and do some research first. That super cheap flight could end up costing you more than it appears.
If you will be checking baggage, flying long-haul, or connecting more than one flight – read on before purchasing that ticket.
Evaluate Up-Front Savings vs Hidden Expenses
So, when can a budget flight end up costing you more? Definitely when you’re flying to the other side of the world. Cheap airlines tend to fly at awkward times, to take advantage of off-peak hours. Unless you’re really lucky, chances are your flights won’t match up conveniently. This could leave you with some really intense layovers, during which you’ll have to fend for yourself. Also, it’s pretty likely that if you’re making a big trip, you’ll be bringing checked luggage
(I have all the respect in the world for minimalist, carry-on travellers, but I. Just. Can’t. Do. It.)
I’ll use an example from my personal life to illustrate this.
In August of 2017, I had to travel from Queenstown, New Zealand to Toronto, Canada for ONE WEEK to attend my best friend’s wedding. I’d gotten a great deal to head to Canada, but for my return trip to New Zealand, I thought I could save some money by stringing together 3 budget flights.
On paper, it looked great. The ticket costs were:
Up front, that’s a saving of 500 dollars! Hell yes!
HOWEVER. Going the cheap route would mean more than doubling my travel time, adding 35+ hours of layover. HELL. NO.
For a minute, I was still tempted – 500 bucks is a ton of cash. But then I began to break down the real cost of saving money.
(Costs are converted into NZD, because that’s where my bank account was at the time.)
The first leg of the trip (Toronto – Honolulu) is the only one that includes a checked bag in the cost, so I would need to pay extra for the next two.
Flying Honolulu – Christchurch with Jet Star would mean I’d have to add a “bundle” to the super low starter fare. The bundle costs 145 USD (roughly 196 NZD). Already I’m starting to wonder if this is worth it.
The last leg, Christchurch to Queenstown would require a humane $10 NZD to bring a bag.
Hidden Costs: $206
I try so hard to avoid eating in airports, but you do have to feed yourself at some point during your journey. Budget airlines aren’t as liberal with their snacks like the bigger guys are, so you can’t just rely on eating airplane food (seriously, after a 17 hour Qantas flight, I’m usually FULL).
I knew during my first layover, 19 hours in Vancouver, I could survive off Tim Horton’s and barely spend anything. But what about the overnight in Honolulu (9 pm – 8:30 am), or the 12 hours in Sydney? I’ve had to sit around Sydney Airport a few times now – the food options aren’t great and they aren’t cheap. Being that Honolulu is such a massive tourist hub, I imagine it would be similar there. Please correct me if I’m wrong.
My estimations would be $50 on the low end, and that’s going with whatever cheap fast food I could find – not helpful for feeling great after a long plane ride.
Hidden Cost: $50
3) Overnight Stops
Staring down two overnight layovers, I had to do a bit of research to find out if there would be anywhere to rest and hang out in the airport, or if I’d have to book into a room somewhere. Sleepinginairports.com is a great resource for planning ahead.
My first layover in Vancouver was from midnight to 6 pm. Fortunately, there is a place there to shower and rest, so I’d be spending the entire time there.
However, Honolulu doesn’t have a designated overnight area, and from what I’ve read, you can be asked to leave if caught sleeping overnight. This meant I’d have to find a bed for this inconvenient stop (9:30 pm – 8:30 am). The cheapest option I could find was a hostel in Waikiki at $40 USD/night and $20 for the transfer to and from.
Hidden Costs: $80 NZD
If you have all the time in the world, a budget flight may be right for you. However, I was taking time off work for this adventure. With the extra days that would be added to my journey in layovers, I’d also need to calculate the cost of not being at work.
If I booked the more expensive, but more straight forward ticket, I would arrive back in New Zealand after roughly 30 hours of travel and probably return to work the next day feeling a little worse for wear, but I’ve done it before. Jet lag be damned.
With the “cheaper” flight, I’d be travelling from Tuesday – Saturday, and I’d definitely need a full day to recover from 60+ hours of travel. That would put me back to work on the 28th, meaning I’d lose 3 extra days of pay (roughly $300NZD)
Hidden Cost: $300NZD
Let’s do a price comparison again, with the grand total taken into consideration
Not only would I end up spending more on all the little things with the budget airlines, I’d also lose 2 days of my life and probably be a drooling zombie at the end.
I love trying to find the cheapest way to fly somewhere, but sometimes the “savings” aren’t just worth it.
Moral of the story – do your research!!
Have you ever ended up spending more on a budget ticket? Tell me your story in the comments!
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