Airplane travel is nature’s way of making you look like your passport photo¨.
What are Traditional (Legacy) Airlines?
The large, traditional airlines (often called ¨legacy¨ carriers) are increasingly beginning to resemble budget airlines. Sometimes, budget airlines are similar enough to legacy carriers to be a good deal. Sometimes, they are not.
Legacy carriers are airlines that existed before airline deregulation. Most legacy carriers are also either:
- Large commercial airlines founded before the 1970s (in the US, the legacy carriers are United, American, and Delta); or
- Airlines that used to be run or highly regulated by the government.
Today, budget carriers represent a substantial share of the airline industry (50% of the market in Europe) and are usually profitable. You will find budget airlines throughout the world. They are becoming increasingly common throughout Latin America and Asia.
The differences between the basic economy bundle offered by legacy carriers and the services from budget airlines are often not significant.
However, there are some differences between legacy and budget carriers that are important for consumers to understand:
Benefits of Flying Legacy Airlines
There are some small benefits to the legacy carriers, including:
- Budget airlines are more likely to be in the farthest reaches of the airport with uncomfortable, overcrowded lounges;
- Often you will need to take a shuttle from the plane to the airport on a budget airline. (Shuttles are usually crowded and uncomfortable particularly if the weather is terrible);
- You may have fewer options if a flight is delayed or canceled on a budget airline than a legacy carrier. (Note: You do not have that much recourse even on a legacy airline);
- Since budget carriers only fly regionally and don’t partner with anyone, you can’t use them on your round-the-world ticket;
- Some budget airlines use lesser-known, further out airports like Luton in London and Islip in New York City. Sometimes, the costs of the additional fare to get to the airport may be more than your cost savings on your tickets. (More and more budget carriers are, fortunately, using major airports). That said, always check to see where the airport is on both ends before booking the ticket;
- Budget airline seats are small and generally cannot recline;
- Most flights between different continents (i.e., Cross Atlantic/Pacific, flights between North and South America, etc.) on legacy carriers include in-flight entertainment, meals, and beverage service (often including free alcoholic drinks). The budget airlines usually either charge extra for these services or do not include them at all;
- You should print your ticket before boarding some budget airlines. Easy Jet, for example, charges a fee if they have to print your ticket; and
- Sometimes budget airlines charge a high fee to check-in baggage. I have paid as much to check a bag on Easy Jet as for the fare itself. Also, you can sometimes save money by paying for your baggage fee when you purchase the ticket.
When is it Worth Buying a Budget Airline Ticket?
Generally, budget carriers charge around 10-25% less than legacy carriers. The fare difference can be well worth the hassle outside of the US, especially on flights between continents. Usually, the US-based budget airline tickets are not worth the trouble unless you have no luggage. (That said, Allegiant Air can be a good deal if you live in a small city that is far away from a large airport).
If the difference between flying a budget and a legacy carrier is:
- less than $50 one- way on a flight within the same continent and
- $100 one-way between continents,
I will choose the legacy carriers for the reasons described above. (Note: This assumes that the ticket terms are somewhat similar).
However, I expect, that with time, the line between budget and legacy carrier will become fuzzier and that I may change this policy in the future.
See here for a list of budget airlines. The list is not complete. I have been on some airlines that are not on the list, Jet Airways in India, for example; but it gives you a good starting point.