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Even in These Tough Times, You Can Fare Well on Discount Carriers

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By Kristin Harrison
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 1, 2009

First, the downer news: The International Air Transport Association forecasts losses in the international airline industry of up to $2.5 billion in 2009 and a 3 percent decline in passenger traffic worldwide, a steeper drop than after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In turn, many airlines plan to reduce capacity and slash amenities to avoid bankruptcy.

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Now, the cheery news: Not everyone in the industry is suffering. In a 2008 Outlook Report, the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation said that as the global downturn continues, some scrappy budget airlines may remain profitable, and even grow. "Tougher economic conditions and lower fuel prices will give the sector a major advantage in 2009," the report stated. About time.

In fact, some international low-fare airlines are expanding this year. Air Asia, for example, is adding new routes. And Ryanair, the largest low-cost carrier in Europe (which reported its best-ever week of sales Jan. 9 through Jan. 15, selling more than 1.5 million seats) plans to add 84 planes to its fleet in the next four years. But what matters most is that, yes, you can still fly for less than your dry-cleaning bill: about $14 one way from London to Barcelona on Ryanair (plus taxes and fees of about $34), $19 from Melbourne to Adelaide on Australia's Jetstar and $49 from Austin to Cancun, Mexico, on VivaAerobus.

Given the economic climate, though, it's vital to do your research before booking a low-cost flight. The industry can be volatile, with an airline quickly going out of business and taking your ticket with it. Most low-cost carriers are not part of airline alliances, so if you miss a flight you won't be able to easily hop on a partner airline. Other downsides of these budget birds include infrequent flight schedules, service to regional airports that are far from city centers and fewer protections against flight cancellations.

Because low-cost carriers work on a shoestring budget, it's also important to know what the fare does and does not include. Most carriers charge extra for food, drinks and checked bags (a strategy the majors have adopted, too) and trim costs by selling tickets exclusively online and forgoing call centers, making it impossible to speak to an agent except at the airport. They may also nickel-and-dime you for extras that you considered givens, such as paying with a credit card and traveling with an infant.

Even if the airline does take phone reservations, the best fares are usually found online. Also, keep in mind that most fares are listed and charged in the local currency and that your credit card company may tack on a foreign transaction fee.

To take the worry out of your trip, fly on a well-established carrier with a proven flight record. You can check its reputation with a travel agent or peruse the 2008 "World's Best Low-Cost Airline Survey" by Skytrax (http://www.worldairlineawards.com/Awards_2008/Lowcost-08.htm), an independent research company in London that surveyed more than 4 million international passengers. For ratings, visit http://www.airlinequality.com, which also features passenger reviews. Safety-wise, budget airlines must meet the same government standards as other carriers flying in that country. For historic accident data, view http://www.aviation-safety.net.

Here we look at some of the big players in five regions and provide background information, tips and sample one-way fares. For more information on foreign low-fare carriers, see http://www.whichbudget.com or http://www.attitudetravel.com; for routes in Europe, visit http://www.low-cost-airline-guide.com or http://www.elfaa.org, an association of the major European low-cost carriers.

EUR OPE

· Air Berlin (866-266-5588 [inside Germany, 018805-73-78-00], http://www.airberlin.com)

History: Founded in 1978 by a former Pan Am pilot from Oregon; became German-owned in 1991.

Destinations: Headquartered in Berlin, with 130 destinations in Europe, Africa, Mexico and Asia. Also offers limited service from select U.S. airports to Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Sample fare: Berlin's Tegel airport to Milan Malpensa for $51.


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