ULCCs, or “ultra-low cost carriers” are the airlines that everyone loves to hate. They’re the Spirits and Frontiers of the world, with incredibly low teaser prices but fees for everything, including bags, pre-boarding, a can of Coke, etc. Passengers frequently complain about them, but they are growing faster than any other airlines, meaning that there’s something to the model.
But to take advantage of these fares, you don’t have to fly with them. You just have to be flying the same routes that they fly.
The Basics Of Basic Economy
This past weekend, I had to book a flight from Boston to Charleston, SC. It was a last minute flight and there is not a lot of competition in the market, so the one-way fare cost over $350. And because I was booking at the last minute, most seats had already been booked, so the chances of getting anything but a middle seat would have required paying up to sit in first class. Lovely.
And then, there’s my brother, who flew American from Philadelphia to South Carolina. And here’s what he paid:
So what’s the difference between the two locations, other than a few hundred miles? Simple: Frontier Airlines, one of the largest ultra-low cost carriers, flies a non-stop in his market and the legacy airlines need to compete. To do so, they established basic economy fares. These fares offer many of the same restrictions on the major carriers that you find on the ULCC, such as a charge to check a bag (and potentially even to bring a bag on board), a restriction on seat selections, boarding last, etc.
Having said that, the basic economy product offers some advantages over its ULCC brethren. You’ll get miles on your favorite carriers, still get the can of Coke and have access to the airline’s infrastructure, such as the customer service lines and lounge access at the airport. And if you have elite status on the airline, you probably won’t be eligible for upgrades on these fares, but you may receive some of your other benefits, such as the ability to pre-board. You’ll also be eligible to be re-routed if your flight is cancelled or delay. If you’re flying a ULCC, there’s really nowhere to put you, since they don’t have the network that the legacy carriers do.
Here’s the bottom line: A lot of people will go to Spirit’s or Frontier’s website and book a flight there, assuming that it will automatically be the cheapest. In fact, those sites may be a good place to start your search, since you’ll get a feel for where they fly, and thus, where the network carriers will be forced to match them. If the network carrier as space available at similar prices, even if they’re a few dollars more, book with the big guy.
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