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Budget Travel - The Low Cost Carrier
Summary: The low cost carrier (LCC) may seem like a new development in the aviation world, but the concept is anything but new. The first real low cost "no frills" airline was Laker Airways, which took off back in 1966 from the UK, and shuttled passengers to destinations all around the world for as little as $50.
Laker Airways provided the inspiration for many of the current low cost carriers, and even major airlines like Virgin Atlantic took a close look at Sir Freddie Laker's business model to learn from his experiences and mistakes.
A low cost carrier is exactly what the name implies - low cost. In order to offer these low prices, the airline naturally makes some cuts. You won't find anything "free" on the majority of these carriers. Everything from drinks to checked luggage will add to the price of your ticket, but in return you are able to book an insanely cheap fare.
Finding a low cost carrier: Several days ago, Jeffrey wrote about some basic ways you can find a low cost carrier. This information is very important, because almost all low cost carriers handle their own bookings, and do not participate in sites like Expedia or Travelocity. There are 100's of low cost airlines out there, so if you can't find what you are looking for, try entering your destination into Google, and a airline or other resource is bound to pop up.
When not to use a low cost carrier: As you navigate the low cost airline websites, you may notice a trend - many of them do not use the airport you expect them to.
For example; Ryanair flies from London to Brussels. Their destination is not to the "normal" airport of Zaventem, but "Brussels South Airport" in Charleroi. Zaventem airport is just 10 miles from the Brussels city center, Brussels South airport is about 50 miles with no direct rail link.
You'll need to take this into consideration when you book a ticket, as the trip from Charleroi to Brussels takes about an hour by bus and will add about $30 (round trip) to your ticket.
The same goes for many other airport destinations serviced by a low cost carrier. Before you hit "purchase now", always pull the airport up on a map, and check out the airport site to determine just how much of a hassle it will be to get to your final destination. Saving $50 on a ticket is meaningless if you have to spend another $50 just to get to your hotel.
The low carrier will not always warn you about these remote destinations, so make sure you do your homework. One more thing to keep in mind is that many of these airports are low cost themselves, so do not expect too many facilities.
Too good to be true? When you research a low cost carrier, and compare their prices with a normal carrier, you'd be forgiven if you wondered whether the whole thing is too good to be true.
If you come across a $3 fare on Ryanair, don't be too suspicious, these carriers sell millions of tickets, and many of them do indeed start that low. In fact, some of these airlines are amongst the largest in the world, all thanks to those cheap tickets.
Of course, you do need to keep in mind that even tickets on a low cost carrier are subject to taxes and other surcharges, so your $5 ticket could easily become $60.
Competition = good: Don't always depend on the low cost carrier. On routes within Europe where competition is stiff, you'll often be able to find similar rates on the legacy carriers. For example; easyJet charges about $42 for a one way ticket from London Luton to Amsterdam. But British Airways charges just $68 for a flight from the much nicer Heathrow airport to Amsterdam. If you are on a budget, but still have a little cash to spare, consider your comfort before committing to a low cost carrier.
Booking on a low cost carrier: As i mentioned earlier, don't expect to use your favorite booking site to book a ticket on a low cost carrier. All these carriers handle their own bookings. This means you'll have to select the cheapest airline yourself.
A great place to start is FlyLowCostAirlines.org, this site has most major low cost carriers in their database, and allows you to enter your destination to locate all the low cost carriers that operate on that route.
Low cost carriers are everywhere! When you think of low cost carriers, most people will think of the airlines they recognize - Spirit, JetBlue and Southwest are all very well known in the US.
There are however 100's of other low cost carriers around the world. Heading to India? Check out GoAir. Going to China? Take a flight on Spring Airlines. A convenient list of all the low cost carriers in the world can be found at Wikipedia.
Get your expectations straight: There is no easy way to say this - low cost carriers are not a luxurious way to travel. If you are used to flying in the first or business class cabin, and having a flight attendant look after all your needs, then a low cost carrier is going to be mighty disappointing.
Book your ticket with the correct expectations, and your flight will be just fine. Remember, most of these flights are under 2 hours, and the money you saved will go towards a nice dinner at your destination. If you board the plane expecting full service, then you are going to be in for a nasty surprise.
What to be on the lookout for: Every low cost carrier will do what it can to "upsell". During your booking process, you'll be offered all kinds of additional services, for a fee.
Some of these services may be cheaper than buying them directly, but others may not be the best value out there. If you have money to spare, you may want to consider paying for "priority boarding", which allows you to board in the first group, greatly increasing your chance of getting a decent seat. This is especially important if you are traveling in a group and do not want to be split up.
Remember, almost no low cost carriers do the seat assignment game, so as soon as the boarding doors open, you are on your own to snag the seat you want.
One other thing to keep in mind, is that not all airlines let you check in for free at the airport. Ryanair is a good example of an airline that charges for checking in at the airport, so don't be surprised if your family is charged an additional fee, just because you were not able to do an online checkin.