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Just How Low-Cost Is That Low-Cost Airline?

October 22, 2013 by

JetBlueFor all it lacks in comfort and customer service, Ryanair is at least commonly perceived to be the cheapest European airline. Not so, it seems. A survey of European low-cost airlines, conducted by Which Airline, calculated the average total fare for a one-way ticket, including one checked bag and the transaction fee, from more than 300,000 flights and found the cheapest airline to be the lesser-known Pegasus Airlines, from Turkey.

We wanted to see how the U.S.-based airlines stacked up, so we added up the total fee for a one-way ticket, checked bag, and transaction fee (if applicable) for flights between New York and Los Angeles on three randomly chosen days. Here’s what we found:

JetBlue: JFK to LAX

Thursday, November 14th: The first bag flies free on JetBlue, so your total cost will be $179 for a direct flight that takes 6 hours 15 minutes.

Tuesday, December 3rd:  $179; no extras. Direct flight; 6 hours 15 minutes.

Saturday, January 11th: $179. Direct flight; 6 hours 15 minutes.

Average: $179

Virgin America: JFK to LAX

Thursday, November 14th: $189 for a non-stop flight that takes 6 hours 15 minutes.  One checked bag weighing up to 50lbs costs $25, making the total $214

Tuesday, December 3rd: $179 . A direct flight lasting 6 hours 25 minutes plus checked bag: $204

Saturday, January 11th: $179 6 hours 25 minutes (direct). Total: $204

Average: $207

Southwest: LGA to LAX

Thursday, November 14th: The lowest-priced flight is a web-only fare for $144. This one takes exactly 8 hours and has one stop in Atlanta, but without changing planes. The airline lets you check two bags for free (up to 50lbs each); so the total stays at: $144 

Tuesday, December 3rd: A 9 hour, web only fare, with a change in Chicago: $280

Saturday, January 11th: A web-only fare goes for as low as $151 and the journey takes 9 hours 35 minutes with a change in Atlanta. Total: $151

Average: $191

AirTran: LGA to LAX

Thursday, November 14th: $151 for a 9 hour 15 minute flight operated by Southwest that connects in Atlanta.  Add on $25 for one piece of baggage weighing up to 50lbs, and the total is $176

Tuesday, December 3rd: $329 on the same flight . Total: $354

Saturday, January 11th: $151 for a 8 hour 35 minute Southwest operated flight that connects in Atlanta. Total: $176 

Average: $235

Frontier: LGA to LAX

Thursday, November 14th: The flight costs $171 and you’ll pay $20 for a checked bag if you pay at online check-in, or $25 if you pay at the airport. Total travel time is 8 hours 50 minutes, including a layover in Denver with a bag checked online. Total: $191 

Tuesday, December 3rd: the flight costs $207 and takes 9 hours 23 minutes.  Total: $227

Saturday, January 11th: No flights available

Average: N/A 

Spirit: LGA to LAX

Thursday, November 14th: The cost of a journey that connects in Fort Lauderdale and lasts 11 hours 25 minutes is a low $155. Extra fees add up pretty quickly, though. A carry-on bag costs $35 if you pay at time of booking; $50 if you pay at the airport counter, and $100 if you leave paying until you reach the gate. One checked bag is $30 if you pay at time of booking,  and, again increases the longer you wait. So, the flight plus one carry-on, and one checked bag (paid at time of booking) comes to: $220

Tuesday, December 3rd:  $120 for a journey that connects in Fort Lauderdale and takes a total of 11 hours 25 minutes. Total: $185

Saturday, January 11th: $155 for the same flight as above. Total: $220

Average: $208.34

The takeaway: 

The numbers confirm that baggage fees can make or break a flight deal. The two airlines with the lowest average fares are also the two airlines (JetBlue and Southwest) that do not charge for a carry-on or a checked bag – happily, JetBlue also have the shortest flights. Our advice? When looking for cheap fares, check the extra fees; it can make a fairly significant difference to the total cost of your flight.

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