The shocking truth about budget airlines

Last updated 10:15 20/02/2014

CHEAP AS CHIPS: Budget airlines are a subject of much debate, but can be a surprisingly positive way to fly.

Flight nightmares that never leave you

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There's always that moment of hesitation as you hover the mouse over the "confirm payment" button. Am I actually going to get what I think I'm going to get?

That's the risk with budget airlines. You're never quite sure how the experience will pan out.

Will the flight take off on time? Will it take off at all? Will I find out I've misread the baggage allowance and get stung a hundred bucks at the airport? Will the airport be a million miles away from the city it claims to service? Will the queues be interminable? Will the service be appalling? Will the food on board be terrible? Will the seats be tiny? Will I even be assigned a seat or will I have to charge on board, elbows out, and dive into the first one available?

The answers will remain up in the air until you, too, are up in the air.

I've flown with a lot of budget carriers lately. I've tackled Tiger, I've wrangled with Ryanair, I've jostled with Jetstar and elbowed my way through EasyJet. And the results, despite all the bad press, have been overwhelmingly positive.

You'll hear people complain about budget carriers all the time, but they're usually the ones who don't read the fine print, or who pay a fraction of the full-service cost but roll up expecting a full-service experience. The reality, or at least the one that I've experienced, is that budget carriers are actually pretty good. And cheap.

Things have, admittedly, gone wrong. A Jetstar flight from New Zealand was cancelled, leaving us in an airport hotel for an extra night. EasyJet took off late a couple of times. But, as they say, you get what you pay for, and budget carriers have usually been worth the risk.

I flew Tiger the other day - surely Australia's most maligned carrier - and the whole experience was fine. Sure, I had to spend time in the cow shed, otherwise known as Tullamarine terminal 4, for an hour or so. But that's bearable.

The flights took off bang on time. We arrived bang on time. The hosties were friendly, if not quite as polished as their full-service compatriots. They were only short flights so I didn't have to bother about the food, or worry about the lack of entertainment.

I flew Jetstar to Japan a few months ago, and everything went as it should have. The seats weren't noticeably less comfortable than any other airline I've flown on recently. The meals I pre-paid weren't too bad. We arrived on time.

I flew AirAsia X to get home from Tokyo, which involved a ridiculous dog-leg of a journey via Kuala Lumpur, but the fares were super-cheap and the experience was great. Once again, flights took off on time, service was good, seats were comfortable, food was tasty, arrival was punctual. Entertainment was non-existent but I'd planned for that and brought my own. And Tokyo's budget airport is closer to the city than Narita.

My recent Ryanair experiences weren't exactly joyous, but I remembered to print my itinerary before getting to the airport, I had the right baggage, and the plane got me to where I was supposed to be going without any major issues.

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Of course, this isn't to say I dislike the full-service experience. I'd fly the likes of Emirates every day of the week if I had the choice - and for long-haul it's absolutely worth the investment. They have about 4 billion TV channels. The service is amazing.

But the point of this story is that if you're strapped for cash and still want to travel, budget carriers are well worth the risk.

Just read all the fine print before you travel. Obey the baggage allowances. Turn up to the airport early. Bring your own entertainment. Bring your own food. Prepare yourself mentally for an experience that's not going to be special, that's not going to be luxurious - but one that will be purely functional. It's going to get you where you need to go.

And it might even be on time.

Do you fly with budget carriers? Have you ever had any major problems or would you recommend it to other travellers?

- Sydney Morning Herald


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