3 Reasons Budget Airlines Are Not Worth It For Families

Budget airlines offer low-price fares to many destinations around the country. But the low airfare can come at a cost. Here's what parents should consider before booking a trip with a budget carrier.

Travel has been surging this summer, with flight prices, rental car rates, and hotel prices higher than usual to keep up with demand. In May, there was a 24% increase in airline fares compared to the same time in 2020, according to the U.S. Travel Association's Travel Price Index. The average cost of a domestic round-trip flight ticket was $247 in May, according to numbers from the Consumer Airfare Index Report, with the number predicted to increase to $281 by the end of the year—a 28% increase from 2020.

If you're looking to travel with your family this year and have sticker shock from some of these ticket prices, budget airlines such as Frontier, Spirit, and Allegiant, offer low-cost alternatives. Spirit and Allegiant have an average fare of about $100, according to 2020 numbers by Statista. But before you go booking that $99 fare for your next family trip, there are some things to consider.

"Budget airlines are a great way to save money on a family vacation," Kimberley DeLauro, founder of travel site Ready Aim Travel, tells Parents. "However, these airlines are also notorious for over-booked and delayed flights, as well as just not being comfortable," she adds. Flying with kids (especially younger ones) can be a challenge, and budget carriers may not offer the flexibility or perks (free snacks, entertainment) to make your flight as smooth as possible.

Plus, there are many additional costs that can add to your bottom line, so you might not save as much as you think. DeLauro suggests shopping around to make sure you're really saving money by booking with a budget carrier. "You really have to do the math to see if the added fees, lack of amenities, and possible schedule inconveniences are really worth the cost savings," says DeLauro. While budget airlines might appear to save you money (and sometimes, they really do), here are three reasons parents should think twice before booking a flight on one.

An image of an airplane in the air.
Getty Images.

You don't get to choose your seats—unless you pay extra.

When you travel as a family, you probably want to be able to sit next to your kids. Budget airlines charge for seat selection, or you get a random seat assignment.

"Before kids, I did not mind not having an assigned seat, especially on shorter flights," Lanie van der Horst, founder of family travel blog Make More Adventures, tells Parents. "However, traveling with two little kids means that I want to sit next to them," she says.

To avoid stress on the day of travel, van der Horst says she factors in the costs of paying for seats together in advance to see if the flight is still her cheapest option. Spirit and Allegiant charge $9 and $5 (respectively) each way to select your seats in advance, while Frontier charges $22 each way. The numbers can definitely add up and increase your total, which can be difficult if you're trying to stay on a budget.

Carry-on and checked bags are additional costs.

Sure, you can pack light, but that's a lot harder when you're traveling with kids. On most budget airlines, you're allowed to carry one small personal item that can fit under the seat—have to pay extra for an overhead carry-on, or to check a bag.

"The benefit of budget airlines is that, if you're not picky you can dial down the service and pay less than with a non-budget airline," Martha Villaroman, founder of family travel blog Go Places With Kids, tells Parents. "A family trip is not necessarily the time to be cutting corners in those areas," she says. A parent of three kids under five, Villaroman says seat and baggage fees are two of the charges that have "the biggest impact when traveling as a family"—which is why they don't generally fly budget airlines, unless the fare is so low it balances out the add-on costs.

"The only exception to this is quick weekend trips for families with older children," says Brodi Cole, full-time traveler and blogger at Our Offbeat Life. Cole says if each family member can fit their things into a small backpack and the kids are old enough to sit by themselves, you can avoid the extra costs, making budget airlines a worthwhile deal.

If your flight gets cancelled, you might end up having to pay more to get another flight.

While delays are common with many airlines, budget or not, low-cost carriers are notorious for them. It might not be a risk parents want to take, regardless of the low airfare.

"I flew Frontier from TPA to PHL alone with my two kids, and the flight up was perfect," says van der Horst. "On the way home, our flight got cancelled as we were about to board. Our choices were to take the money and find another flight home, or rebook with them two days later," she adds.

A rebooking might end up costing you even more in last-minute accommodations if you can't get a flight until the next day—and of course it can make for an uncomfortable experience overall. "As someone who has traveled frequently, [I know that non-budget] airlines put you on their next flight, which is usually in the next few hours. I have had cancelled flights in Europe get me home faster" than the budget ones, says van der Horst.

DeLauro suggests sticking to shorter flights if you're booking with a budget airline, especially if you have young children. "Once you hit the 5-6 hour trip on a budget flight, you're going to start regretting not having the creature comforts, like meals or movies," she says.

Also, make sure you plan ahead. Factor in all of the anticipated additional costs when booking with a budget airline so there are no surprises—and you can figure out if you're really getting that sweet deal.

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