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There’s no doubt that the rise of the low-cost carriers has had a significant leveling effect in the travel world with airlines like Spirit, Frontier, EasyJet, and Ryanair all helping to make travel considerably more affordable for a huge number of people. For those of us with mid-tier or higher airline elite status, however, choosing a low-cost carrier over the airline with which we hold elite status can often be a poor decision. This is why.
When I’m planning to fly domestically or within Europe, I’m always looking for the best deals that I can find, and that usually means that I find myself comparing the cost of travel with my preferred legacy carriers (e.g. American Airlines and British Airways) with the cost of travel on low-cost carriers (e.g Spirit and EasyJet).
A little amazingly, it has been over 7 years since I last found an example where booking a trip with a low-cost carrier made more sense to me than booking with a legacy carrier, and that’s entirely down to the fact that my oneworld elite status makes the low-cost carriers unattractive.
I’ll show you what I mean with a couple of examples.
For the purpose of this article, let’s assume that I only hold American Airlines Platinum Elite/oneworld Sapphire status and that I don’t actually have British Airways Gold/oneworld Emerald status as that will make this article relevant to considerably more people – your elite status doesn’t have to be top-tier for it to make a difference to how you view the options you have.
Before starting to write this article I selected some random dates for a fictitious trip from Los Angeles to New York and I then checked the fare for those dates with an airline that prides itself on being one of the more basic and low-cost airlines around – Spirit.
For the dates that I chose, the base price that Spirit quoted me for non-stop travel was $549…
That fare includes a randomly selected seat and a personal item that can measure no more than 18x14x8 inches. That’s it. Nothing else.
If I was to choose to book a Basic Economy fare with American Airlines (with whom I have mid-tier status), these are the key benefits that I would enjoy:
- Business Class check-in
- Complimentary seat selection at the time of booking (including exit rows)
- Priority boarding (Group 3)
- Complimentary personal item
- Complimentary carry-on bag
- Complimentary checked bag
There are other benefits that I would also have (e.g mileage accrual, upgrade privileges, and free same-day change options) but let’s assume that those aren’t particularly important.
In fact, let’s also assume that Business Class check-in isn’t important, a complimentary checked bag isn’t important, and that priority boarding isn’t important.
Let’s work on the assumption that all I want is a 1-bag carry-on allowance (as well as a personal item) and an extra legroom seat. I don’t think that’s too much to ask and I suspect that those are probably the two key things that most frequent flyers would be looking for.
These are two things that I would get included with any fare that I book with American Airlines but as yet, the fare quoted by Sprit doesn’t include either.
More than a little annoyingly, Spirit’s bundles don’t include one that includes just a carry-on bag and not a checked bag…
…so I ended up with two options open to me:
- Purchase a carry-on bag allowance and extra legroom seat separately
- Purchase the ‘Just For You’ bundle, accept that I’d have to put my carry-on bag in the hold, and pay a top-up fee to select an extra legroom seat (the bundle only includes standard seats).
This is how those two options priced up:
In the real world (if I was forced to fly with Spirit) I would choose the more expensive option because I would happily pay $22 extra not to have to check a bag in both directions. For the purposes of this article, however, let’s focus on the cheapest option which costs $708.
That’s how much it would cost me to fly to/from New York on a randomly selected set of dates, with Spirit, if I wanted to bring a carry-on bag with me and if I wanted access to an extra legroom seat.
On the same dates (remember, the dates were randomly selected), the cost of the same trip with American Airlines is $653.
As someone with mid-tier American Airlines status, I have the option to pay $653 to enjoy a whole host of benefits during my trip, or I have the option to pay $708 to enjoy two benefits that most people (with elite status) consider to be key and nothing more.
Why would I fly with Spirit?
I can show you a similar example for travel with EasyJet in Europe.
I happen to know that I will need to fly between London and Cyprus for a 6-7 day trip in January 2023 so I’ve been checking fares for that route.
As I don’t much care which dates in January I travel, I used EasyJet’s pricing calendar to allow me to choose the cheapest 7-day option that the airline is currently offering. An entry-level roundtrip fare costs approximately £68/$87…which looks fantastic.
As is usual with low-cost airlines, this fare comes with nothing but a randomly selected seat (on the day of travel) and an allowance for a small personal item.
If I was to choose to book a Basic Economy fare on the same route with British Airways (with whom wwre’s assuming I only have mid-tier status), I would automatically also be given a carry-on allowance, I’d have access to a BA Business Class lounge at Heathrow and as well as a host of other things that we’ll pretend aren’t important, I would get to choose an exit row seat (free of charge) at the time of booking.
With EasyJet, if I want to bring my Briggs & Riley rollaboard with me and if I want to select a seat, I’ll have to pay more.
I can either choose from EasyJet’s bundles…
…or I could go down the a la carte route and price things up separately.
Essentially, I can end up with two fare options.
- A fare that includes a carry-on bag and an exit row seat
- A fare that includes a carry-on bag, the best seat in the cabin (1C), and priority boarding (which is part of the bundle).
As you’ll see from the screenshots above, the fare has now risen dramatically. What started out as a £68/$87 trip, now costs at least £117/$140.
For travel on the same route and on the same dates (remember, I chose the dates based on the cheapest fares that EasyJet is offering), British Airways would charge me $114/$137.
Heathrow (where BA flies from) would have to be considerably less convenient for me than Gatwick (where EasyJet flies from) for me to consider the EasyJet option.
Yes, if all I cared about was flying from one city to another and nothing more, the options offered by the low-cost carriers would be the obvious ones to go for. That’s why low-cost carriers exist – to serve people who care about little more than cost and to gouge those who aren’t paying attention to what they’re actually buying – but that’s not the type of person that I am and that almost certainly not what a person who flies often enough to earn mid-tier airline status is like either.
I know that I’ve only offered up two examples here but if you think that I’ve cherry-picked these itineraries to fit the narrative of this article, go take a look for yourself. Check fares on routes that you know and take a look at what it really costs to fly with a low-cost airline if you want to keep a couple of the more important benefits that mid-tier elite status offers. Some people may be surprised.
Low-cost carriers are often only low-cost in comparison to the legacy carriers if the legacy carriers aren’t prepared to give you a few benefits for free. If you hold mid-tier elite airline status or higher, always make sure that you’re thinking things through and comparing like with like when pricing up your trips, and make sure you’re taking into consideration what you would be giving up if you went down the low-cost route – that’s the only way to avoid making a poor booking decision and to avoid a bucket-load of regret 😁