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

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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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