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

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.

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.

Notes: Fare includes in-flight snacks on short-haul flights; meals by the German restaurant Sansibar are additional and can be ordered online in advance. . . . Seat reservations cost extra; price varies by distance. No extra charge for passengers with special needs or traveling with infants. . . . Discounts and free seat reservations are awarded to members of its "topbonus" frequent-flier program. Enroll for free at http://www.airberlin.com.

· Ryanair (011-353-1-249-7791, http://www.ryanair.com)

History: Launched in 1985 by the Irish Ryan family and now the largest budget carrier in Europe.

Destinations: Headquartered in Dublin. Flies to 146 destinations in Europe, including Paris, Madrid and Oslo.

Sample fare: Fly from Liverpool, England, to Paris's Beauvais for $13.

Notes: This airline charges for everything, even water, but you can take food and drinks onboard. . . . A transaction fee of about $6.50 per flight segment is charged for each ticket bought online, $13 for one bought at the airport or by phone. . . . Passengers can check up to three bags that weigh a total of 33 pounds and pay $13 for the first bag and $26 for each additional bag. Extra fees if bags are overweight.

· EasyJet (011-44-870-6-000-000, http://www.easyjet.com)

History: Founded in 1995 by Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou and based on the Ryanair model.

Destinations: Headquartered at London's Luton Airport in a bright orange building that matches its planes. More than 112 destinations throughout Europe and North Africa, including Marrakech, Morocco; Riga, Latvia; and Malta.

Sample fare: London Gatwick to Salzburg, Austria, for $36.

Notes: Winner of the 2008 Skytrax Best Low-Cost Airline in the World award. For an additional fee (varies by destination), purchase a speedy boarding pass and be among the first to board (especially important because there are no seat assignments). . . . Food and beverages can be purchased onboard. . . . Each checked bag costs $8 online in advance; higher fees are charged at the airport, and overweight luggage fees apply for a total weight of more than 44 pounds. . . . If you have a connecting flight on EasyJet, even from another EasyJet flight, you will need to check in again (and that means collecting and rechecking your luggage). Credit- and debit-card purchases incur transaction fees unless you're using Carte Bleue or Visa Electron: 2.5 percent of the fare total for credit cards, with a minimum fee of about $7, and a fixed charge of about $2.50 for debit cards.

· SkyEurope Airlines (011-421-2-3301-7301, http://www.skyeurope.com/en)

History: The first low-cost Central and Eastern European carrier was founded in 2002.

Destinations: Headquartered at the Bratislava airport in Slovakia. Nineteen destinations in Europe, including Prague; Kosice, Slovakia; London; and Bucharest, Romania.

Sample fare: London Luton to Prague for about $38, plus fees.

Notes: Reserved seats cost an extra $6.50 to $13, depending on seat selection. . . . Checking up to five pieces of luggage is permitted, with a charge of $14.50 per bag; additional fees apply if combined weight is more than 44 pounds. . . . Fees increase substantially on all services, from baggage to flight changes, when booking is made through the call center or at the airport. . . . SkyDelights in-flight menu includes such refreshments as espresso, sandwiches and snacks to buy. . . . For downtime at the airport, purchase access (from $33) to a SkyLounge and receive complimentary drinks, food and Internet access. . . . When booking online, you can make a donation to offset the carbon dioxide emitted by the flight.

CANADA

· WestJet (888-937-8538, http://www.westjet.com)

History: Founded in 1996 by four Canadian entrepreneurs.

Destinations: Headquartered in Calgary. Serves 30 cities in Canada, 14 in the United States and 11 in Mexico and the Caribbean.

Sample fare: Toronto to Vancouver for $172.

Notes: First-come, first-served seat assignments can be made online within 24 hours of departure for free. . . . Beverages and light snacks are free; additional food available for purchase. . . . In-seat entertainment and pay-per-view movies. . . . Operates lounges in three Canadian airports; one-time use starts at $11 if booked online. . . . Two checked bags weighing up to 50 pounds each allowed at no additional charge.

LATIN AMERICA

· GOL (http://www.voegol.com.br/INT)

History: Founded in 2000 as the first low-cost carrier in Brazil. Now the second-largest airline in the country.

Destinations: Headquartered in Sao Paulo. Operates in 49 Brazilian cities, as well as destinations in other South American countries, including Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Chile.

Sample fare: Rio de Janeiro to Sao Paulo for $68.

Notes: Won Skytrax's Best Low-Cost Airline in South America award in 2008. . . . Bookings are Web-only and ticketless; simply show your purchase receipt at check-in. . . . Two checked bags allowed without fees, as long as both do not add up to more than 48 1/2 pounds. For each 2.2 pounds over, 0.5 percent of the normal airfare is charged. . . . Complimentary soft drinks and snacks in-flight. . . . No charge for changing a flight if done more than 24 hours before departure. . . . Participates in the frequent-flier program Smiles.

· Volaris (866-988-3527, http://www.volaris.com.mx)

History: Founded in 2006 by a Mexican conglomerate that includes Taca airline.

Destinations: Hub at Toluca International Airport, 29 miles west of Mexico City. Flies to 21 Mexican destinations, including Cancun and Los Cabos.

Sample fare: Tijuana to Cancun for $163.

Notes: Offers van shuttle service between Mexico City and the Toluca airport, and between downtown San Diego and the Tijuana airport, in addition to other locations. Fees vary. . . . Two checked bags, with a total weight of 55 pounds, allowed at no additional cost. . . . Snacks, nonalcoholic beverages, tequila and beer are gratis. . . . Onboard TV entertainment.

· VivaAerobus (888-935-9848, http://www.vivaaerobus.com)

History: Based in Mexico, VivaAerobus launched in 2006 with backing from Irelandia, the investment branch of the founders of Ryanair. Its current chief executive was a former executive at Europe's EasyJet.

Destinations: Headquartered in Monterrey, Mexico. Flies to 17 cities in Mexico, plus Austin.

Sample fare: Austin to Cancun for $99, including taxes (or $89 with no checked bags).

Notes: Offers shuttle service from bus terminals in Houston and San Antonio to Austin's airport for $20 one way. . . . Ticketless travel. . . . First-come, first-served seating. . . . Food and beverages available for purchase on board. . . . Fares based on luggage; carry-on-only passengers pay the lowest fare, called VivaLight. . . . The VivaRegular fare is $10 more than VivaLight and includes one checked bag, up to 55 pounds. Additional charges on bags weighing more than 55 pounds total ($7 for each two pounds over). . . . No connecting service.

AUSTRALIA

· Jetstar (866-397-8170, http://www.jetstar.com)

History: Founded in 2004. Owned by Qantas but managed and operated independently.

Destinations: Headquartered in Melbourne, with an Asian hub in Singapore. Flies to 22 cities in Australia, in addition to destinations in New Zealand, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Sample fare: Melbourne to Sydney for $39 (or $32 with no checked bags).

Notes: Jetsaver Light fares offer cheapest rates but do not allow checked baggage. . . . Passengers receive a bottle of water when they board and can purchase other drinks and snacks in-flight. Planes include water fountains and paper cups. . . . Meals can be purchased in advance online. . . . Separate and more expensive StarClass cabin includes meals and beverages.

· Virgin Blue (011-61-7-3295-2296, http://www.virginblue.com)

History: Launched in 2000 by Richard Branson and Brett Godfrey as the first low-cost airline in Australia.

Destinations: Headquartered in Brisbane, with service to most major Australian cities, as well as four cities in New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Bali, Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga and the Cook and Solomon islands.

Sample fare: Christchurch, New Zealand, to Sydney for $94, including taxes.

Notes: Took second place in Skytrax's 2008 Best Low-Cost Airline category. . . . Additional charge for business-class seats, movies and in-flight TVs on seat-back screens, snacks and beverages. . . . Visit http://www.virginblue.com for Happy Hour domestic sales from noon to 1 p.m. Australian Eastern Standard time (9-10 p.m. the previous day on the U.S. East Coast). . . . Join the free Velocity Rewards program and accumulate miles on partner airlines including Pacific Blue, Polynesian Blue, Virgin Atlantic and others.

ASIA

· Air Asia (011-603-2171-9333 for reservations, 011-603-2171-9222 for inquiries, http://www.airasia.com)

History: Founded in 2001 by a Malaysian businessman. Tag line: "Now everyone can fly."

Destinations: Headquartered in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Serves 61 destinations from hubs in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Flies to destinations including Macau, China, the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam and Australia. In 2007, launched AirAsia X for long-haul flights, which won the best newcomer budget award at the 2008 World Low Cost Airlines Congress.

Sample Fare: Kuala Lumpur to Macau for $90.

Notes: No tickets; the airline e-mails passengers their itineraries or provides booking numbers for check-in. . . . Open seating policy. . . . Passengers can pay extra to board in the first group. Price varies by destination. . . . Checked baggage weighing up to 33 pounds total is free; additional fees vary by destination. . . . No outside food or drink allowed onboard; snacks and meals available for purchase. . . . Fees for booking services vary by destination.

· Tiger Airways (011-65-6580-7630, http://www.tigerairways.com)

History: Made its first flight in 2004. Shareholders include Singapore Airlines. Modeled after Ryanair.

Destinations: Headquartered in Singapore. Flies to 17 destinations in seven countries, including India, China, Thailand and the Philippines. Also serves 11 cities in Australia.

Sample Fare: Singapore to Phuket for $33.

Notes: No paper tickets. . . . One checked bag, weighing up to 33 pounds, costs $7; prices increase based on weight up to 66 pounds. . . . $3.50 charged for each credit-card transaction. . . . No outside food or drinks permitted; snacks, meals and beverages must be purchased onboard (available only on flights from Singapore).

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