Low Cost Carriers and the New Jet-Set
Telling people that they can save money by flying on low-cost-carriers is a little like telling them that they can save money by shopping at Walmart. Sure, it is cheaper, but you more or less get what you pay for. Part of the issue is not actually about overall quality, it has to do with bad press.
JetBlue, at the top of the budget airline heap in the US along with Southwest, get lots of favorable media coverage from travel and airline writers, but most of its major media coverage has been negative. Those planes that were stranded on the tarmac, overflowing lavatories and all, for eight hours during a snow storm a couple of years back were owned and operated by JetBlue. The unfortunate airline was also in the news when one of its flight attendants flipped out at a passenger and then escaped his plane through the emergency chute. Other airlines’ frown-inducing stories have not helped the image of low-cost-carriers (think Southwest’s plane troubles and Spirit Airline’s fees for carry-on baggage.
But, for people who want to join the jet-set, but lack the trust fund or stock portfolio to do so, low-cost-carriers are the answer. OK, admittedly, you won’t be jetting from one vacation spot to the next, but you can afford to get away more often, even if you don’t have lots of disposable income to blow on airfares.
First of all, these budget carriers are not as bad as their press clippings might lead you to believe. Neither Southwest nor JetBlue have much in terms of premium classes, but the Blue does have comfortable leather-clad seats with extra leg room, decent in-flight entertainment offerings, and a state of the art terminal at its JFK hub. Southwest doesn’t have this same level of comfort, but it is known for its non-surly staff and lack of baggage fees.
So the flights are cheap and you won’t be stuck in some military-transport-style prop plane when flying a budget carrier. New FAA rules mean that you won’t even have to worry about being stuck on the tarmac like the unfortunate JetBlue passengers were in the past. Unless you only fly premium class, you probably won’t notice much of a difference in service between regular carriers and low-cost-carriers.
So where does the jet-set thing come in? Low-cost-carriers have more opportunities for steep savings compared to legacy carriers. Southwest’s much-advertised “Wanna Get Away” web specials give pretty cheap fares, as do comparable online offers from JetBlue. Blue even announces flash sales via tis Twitter accounts. These deals won’t be useful for everyone, every time that they want to fly, but they do offer significant savings on certain routes to people who are lucky enough to come across them on the web site. Low-cost-carriers’ frequent flier programs are another way that fliers can save.
JetBlue’s TrueBlue American Express card awards users six points for every dollar spent on JetBlue flights, with additional points occasionally awarded for qualifying purchases. Only 5000 points are need for redemption, so the saving can start pretty quickly. Like other airline rewards cards, introductory bonuses are what truly make this a worthwhile card to keep in your wallet. Even people who are not JetBlue fans or who don’t live in a city served by the carrier can get something out of the rewards program because new users are awarded 10,000 bonus points after their first purchase. That’s two free flights (or one free flight to somewhere far away) for doing basically nothing but signing up for the card. Southwest’s 2 points per dollar spent on flights is not quite the same headline stealer that the TrueBlue card is, but, combined with the airline’s other rewards, it is still a major money-saver, especially considering the higher chance of scoring low-priced tickets.
These carriers fly to the Caribbean and Mexico in addition to their US destinations, so international travel is possible, at least within North America. But what about people who want to be able to jet worldwide without killing their credit score?
Airlines with a similar business models to Southwest and JetBlue are found around the world, with AirAsia and DragonAir offering no-frills service in East Asia and easyjet and the somewhat-notorious RyanAir (the company that made noise about charging people to use the bathroom in-flight) covering Europe. Unfortunately, long haul routes are still lacking in the budget airline game.. AirAsia had long haul routes to Europe from Kuala Lumpur Lumpur (for a mere $300 one way), but these are slated to be discontinued in early 2012. The Virgin group’s semi-low-cost service from Virgin Australia (a.k.a. Virgin Blue) and Virgin Atlantic. The price tag for these flights is a bit above what most people would consider the “budget” threshold.
Still, there is noise, especially amongst Asian low cost carriers, that another round of long haul attempts will be made later in 2012 and in 2013. International travel will definitely become cheaper if these routes become established. It wouldn’t be too much to hope for fares that are 25%-35% lower than the current fares offered by major airlines. That is when the true jet-set lifestyle will be available for people like you and me.
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About Josh Lew Josh Lew lives in the Midwestern US when he is not traveling. He is a columnist for Gadling and has contributed to Hackwriters and Skive Magazine.