You are currently viewing Ultra low-cost carriers (ULCCs): Ultimate guide

The overall price of plane tickets has never been lower in the history of air travel, which is obviously amazing for those who love to travel more for less, as I do (and hopefully you do too). You can thank ultra low-cost carriers (ULCCs) for this: they are almost entirely responsible for flights now being so much cheaper in general… including on other airlines!

ULCCs are airlines whose unique business model is to give you the option to fly for less if you want to. I’ve been on more ULCC flights than most, and I paid as low as $10 for flights. That’s how cheap it can be! ULCCs are truly amazing!

Here is Flytrippers’ ultimate guide to ultra low-cost carriers — we’ll add to it soon to help you even more since they’re growing so quickly in Canada (including with a review of my experience on the inaugural flight of Lynx Air, Canada’s newest ULCC).

 

Basics: What is a ULCC?

ULCC is the acronym for ultra low-cost carrier.

The key element about ULCCs is very simple: you just get no-frills air tickets and à la carte pricing for everything else, which allows you to fly for the lowest possible price. 

Almost no extras are included in the basic price so that you can get a plane ticket for less. It gives you the option to save money (an option you just don’t have with other airlines) and having more options when booking travel is always better for consumers. 

ULCCs get you from point A to point B with a seat, a small bag, and a safe ride. That’s it though, nothing else is typically included. No add-ons.

Everywhere else in the world, ULCCs have been around for decades. We are just very late to the game here in Canada. The largest airline in Europe is a ULCC! They’re great.

There are so many myths around ULCCs (which I cover below), but honestly, most of the complaints people have about ULCCs are because they didn’t know what ULCCs were and, for lack of knowing any better, expected the same experience (and the same inclusions) as on airlines that are twice as expensive!

You can fly for as low as $10 (depending on the country, obviously; more examples below) if you simply:

  • Travel light
  • Sit anywhere on the plane
  • Eat before your flight/bring your own food
  • Entertain yourself like a grown adult
  • Don’t expect any extras/aren’t too picky

It just takes a mindset adjustment, but once you try it, you’ll see that it’s much better to spend your money on more travel experiences rather than the flight. Without a doubt.

And even for those who don’t want to travel for the lowest possible price:

  • If you do want some extras, ULCCs are still the cheapest option most of the time
  • If you don’t want to fly ULCCs at all, ULCCs make all other airlines cheaper too

ULCCs are now FINALLY in Canada (there are 3 here now), and they’re growing fast, too!

Flytrippers often spots ULCC deals at around $30 one-way, or $58 roundtrip. Yes, $30! Here in Canada! And all mandatory taxes and fees are always included in the plane ticket prices you see.

Most of the 50%-off flight deals Flytrippers spots every day are on regular airlines. And taking advantage of those (by being flexible and prepared) will also save you a lot of money on your flights, no matter the type of airline.

But if you can’t do that, flying on ULCCs is one of the best alternatives to find cheap flights (being flexible and prepared helps with that too… can you spot the trend?).

In short, ULCCs allow you to fly for the lowest possible amount of money as their entire business model is designed around that concept, unlike all other airlines.

 

Misunderstanding: Are ULCCs the same as LCCs?

To be very clear, ULCCs (like Swoop) are not the same thing as just “low-cost carriers” or “budget airlines” or “discount airlines” (like Air Canada Rouge). ULCCs are a really distinct business model designed specifically to offer rock-bottom prices.

It’s a completely different type of airline. That’s why it’s ultra low-cost, not just low-cost.

(It is a bit confusing, and it doesn’t help that almost all journalists — and even some people who consider themselves travel “experts” — confuse both definitions and just don’t get that ULCCs are entirely different.)

Since my first ULCC flight all the way back in 2011, I’ve taken 80+ flights on 15+ different ULCCs in 20+ countries and on 4 continents…

So I’m well-positioned to tell you everything you need to know about this type of airline, one whose rise is one of the best things to ever happen to the airline industry, at least for travelers who love cheap flights (including for those who don’t even like ULCCs).

 

List: Which airlines are ULCCs?

Pro travelers should know which ones among the hundreds of airlines around the world are ULCCs, because there aren’t that many of them.

We’re not sharing this list so that you consider these airlines only: as I’ll explain in the myths below, it makes no sense to do that because you should always compare all airlines for your specific dates and destination to make sure you see the cheapest option.

We’re sharing the list so that you know which airlines are actually ULCCs. That way, you can more quickly analyze flight search results (by knowing which ones are ULCCs) and know which specific routes to look at for the cheapest options.

In the next part of this guide coming soon, you’ll be able to check out the list of all ULCC routes for Canadians as well as the list of long-distance intercontinental ULCC routes, as those are very good to know about too.

Flytrippers will soon have even more content about ULCCs, including a section with pictures of each ULCC we’ve tried up to now.

So here’s a list of ULCCs by region (of course some of these airlines fly to other regions, but they’re listed based on their home country).

 

ULCCs in Canada

  • Flair Airlines
  • Swoop
  • Lynx Air
  • Jetlines (launching “soon” since 2013)

 

ULCCs in the United States

  • Spirit
  • Allegiant
  • Frontier
  • Sun Country
  • Avelo

 

ULCCs in Latin America

  • Volaris
  • Viva Aerobús
  • JetSMART
  • Viva Air Colombia
  • Viva Air Perú

 

ULCCs in Europe

  • Ryanair
  • easyJet
  • Wizz Air
  • Norwegian
  • Volotea
  • LEVEL
  • PLAY
  • Norse Atlantic (coming soon)

 

ULCCs in Asia/Pacific

  • Air Asia
  • VietJet Air
  • Jetstar
  • Lion Air
  • Scoot
  • Spring Airlines
  • Nok Air

 

ULCCs in Africa and the Middle East

  • FlySafair 

 

Prices: How cheap can ULCC flights be?

Since the base airfare portion of the price is so tiny, how low ULCC flight prices can go mostly depends on how much taxes a country charges on airplane tickets.

For example, in Europe, $10 flights are common because taxes are extremely low. In the US, it can often be US$14 (≈ C$18).

In Canada, the most common lowest price will be around $30, which is not as good, of course… but it’s still incredibly cheaper than the prices regular airlines got away with charging for decades.

Here are a few examples of actual prices I paid myself on ULCCs (or prices you can easily find on ULCCs in those regions):

  • $10 in Europe
  • $20 in the US
  • $20 in South America
  • $30 in Asia

In Canada specifically, here are very common prices we spot for different routes on our cheap flight deals page (in this case, these are one-way prices, unlike in our deals, but this is just to show you the individual price point):

  • Edmonton-Vancouver for $30
  • Toronto-Vancouver for $45
  • Montréal-Vancouver for $60
  • Montréal-Toronto for $45
  • Montréal-Halifax for $40
  • Montréal-Calgary for $60
  • Ottawa-Calgary for $45
  • Calgary-Victoria for $40
  • Winnipeg-Vancouver for $45

Again, to find these, make sure to always use an aggregator to compare all prices for your specific dates and destinations (if you’re not flexible enough to wait for the turnkey deals we spot for you).

 

Advantages: Why are ULCCs great?

Here are the 6 main reasons why ULCCs are great.

 

Saving money

Obviously, this is the main benefit. I love ULCCs and they’re a big part of why I’m able to travel a lot (for example, in 2019 I went on 12 international trips).

If you like to travel, you probably want to travel more. And it’s not rocket science: saving money is how you can easily travel more. ULCCs can save you a lot of money.

When you think about it, why should you subsidize the cost of extras other travelers want through your own ticket price if you just want to get where you’re going for the lowest cost?

 

Separate tickets trick

At Flytrippers, we call one of our favorite flight booking tips the “separate tickets trick.” We’ve told you this many times: for many destinations, you can save a lot of money by simply splitting your itinerary into separate tickets.

We’ll have a detailed post about this soon, but let’s look at just one example. Flying from Canada to Bulgaria will often cost $1,200 roundtrip! And there are no direct flights, you’ll have to do a layover anyway at that price.

Instead, what I did was buy the cheapest flight I could find to Europe, which was $300 roundtrip at that time. From that European city to Bulgaria, flights were less than $100 roundtrip. So $400 total instead of $1,200. For the exact same itinerary. Just by buying separate tickets!

The separate tickets trick is almost always made possible thanks to ULCCs, because they don’t partner with other airlines and therefore will not show up as an option if you’re looking to get the complete route on 1 same ticket.

And as a bonus, I got to spend a few days visiting my layover city. If you like to travel, you probably like to visit more cities; after all, visiting new places is literally the definition of travel. ULCCs and their low point-to-point pricing allow you to visit more places.

 

More flexible routings

This isn’t as true as it used to be, but some airlines still charge more for a one-way flight than just half of the roundtrip price. 

ULCCs always price their flights individually as one-way tickets, so for world travelers who love to go from one place to another and want the flexibility of not always having to buy roundtrips, ULCCs are sometimes the best option (although as I said, many regular airlines now price their one-way flights separately too, especially for shorter distances).

 

Lowering prices on other airlines

As I alluded to earlier, ULCCs force all other airlines to lower their prices, so they really benefit all travelers. I explain this in greater detail in the myths section below.

 

More environmentally friendly

Yes, if you’re going to fly and want to reduce your carbon footprint, ULCCs are the most environmentally friendly plane ticket option. I also explain this one in the myths below.

 

No regional jets

On regular airlines, flights are sometimes operated by smaller regional jets which are usually less comfortable and noisier.

ULCCs only operate regular-sized jets, almost always from the Airbus A320 or Boeing 737 families of aircraft.

 

Downside: What’s the only real issue with ULCCs?

A good way to give you more important details about how ULCCs work is to debunk 10 myths about ULCCs that are pretty widespread… and the one real issue.

Here are 10 myths that I’ll break down in more detail further down in the guide:

  • ULCCs aren’t trustworthy
  • ULCCs aren’t as safe
  • ULCCs have a worse customer service
  • ULCC flights always end up costing more
  • ULCCs aren’t cheaper if you want extras
  • ULCCs are always the cheapest option
  • ULCCs aren’t as comfortable
  • ULCCs are bad for the environment
  • ULCCs aren’t for me so I don’t care about ULCCs
  • There has to be a catch with flights so cheap

Those 10 myths are all absolutely false

Like so many other things in life (and in travel specifically) a lot of people love to see scams everywhere, but that doesn’t mean they’re right. I repeat: those 10 myths are completely unfounded.

That said, there is one major downside that we will mention as your trustworthy reference for all things travel, to give you all the information.

(But it’s not really even that specific to ULCCs, but rather to all airlines that are smaller, that aren’t part of airline alliances, or that don’t have many airline partners in general — it just happens that pretty much all ULCCs fit in this category.)

The main issue with ULCCs is that if something goes wrong, alternative flights are not as frequent. 

To be clear, ULCCs don’t even necessarily have more canceled flights than other airlines based on the available data. That’s not it. What I mean is that in the off-chance that your flight is canceled (which can obviously also happen with any airline), ULCCs have fewer planes, so fewer flight frequencies. And that means you can be stuck somewhere for longer than if you fly on a major “regular” airline for sure. 

The key to minimizing that risk is to simply pay for your plane ticket with a travel credit card that offers free trip interruption insurance! It’ll pay for your flight back home on another airline! 

Because yes, apart from the obvious benefit of giving you a lot of free travel (getting the right cards will give you hundreds of dollars as welcome bonuses), one of the great things about the world of travel rewards is that credit cards provide you with a significant amount of free insurance coverage (we’ll soon have an ultimate guide on that as well)!

 

Tips: How to fly on ULCCs?

Here’s a slightly more detailed look at how ULCCs work.

 

Baggage

Most ULCCs include only a small bag in the basic price, often called a “personal item.” This bag must fit under the seat in front of you.

Yes, that’s it. It’s certainly very possible to travel this lightly, I’ve done it countless times. You might not want to do it, which is perfectly okay… but it’s not okay to say it’s impossible, because it’s really not.

I’ve done it for month-long trips, and it’s not that much harder than the many times I went to Florida just for the weekend thanks to US$40 roundtrip flights on ULCCs.

And as I said, even if you want to add a full-size carry-on or checked bag, ULCCs are still the cheapest option most of the time.

But there’s a reason budget travelers are almost always part of #teamcarryononly, and it’s not even just about the hundreds of dollars in bag fees you’ll save every year: it’s honestly so much more pleasant to travel with a carry-on only, and pro travelers should never check bags.

The hardest part is trying it for the first time, because you’re probably used to bringing way too much stuff. But there’s a reason why people who tried traveling with a carry-on only have never gone back to bringing too much useless stuff. It’s liberating; don’t miss our tips on traveling lightly soon.

 

Seat selection

Many regular airlines now charge for seat selection as well, but by simply checking in online 24 hours before your flight, you can choose them for free.

But with most ULCCs, that trick doesn’t work and seats are truly randomly allocated if you don’t pay.

In my experience, you’ll almost always be seated with your travel companion for free if you check in online very early (and it seems that all ULCCs won’t split up kids from their parents either).

And if you do end up seated separately, it’s really not the end of the world, you’ll survive.. or you can negotiate with solo travelers onboard who don’t mind switching seats for free!

 

Food

There’s no free food or beverages, just like literally anywhere else you go in life. You’re paying to get from A to B, so you’ll have to pay for your food yourself just like you have to do about 3 times a day, 365 days a year.

Cheaper option: you can simply bring snacks (these protein bars are my go-to snacks to feel full for a while for barely over $1/bar).

Even cheaper option: just eat before your flight completely free in an airport lounge thanks to one of the many credit cards in Canada that give you free lounge access (and come with welcome bonuses worth hundreds of dollars, too).

 

Entertainment

I’ll never understand why someone would pay even a dollar more to have an in-flight entertainment system, but I guess that’s because I really don’t care much for entertainment in general.

That said, you’ll have to entertain yourself on ULCCs, as most of them don’t have anything included. You can download your entertainment in advance to your own devices.

But if you’re among the many people who really aren’t very good at being well-prepared, unless you’re a 10-year-old, you should manage to survive this tough ordeal of not having entertainment for a few hours. 😉

 

Routes for Canadians: Where do ULCCs fly?

Subscribe to our free newsletter to get our detailed guide on ULCC routes from all Canadian cities soon.

 

Long-distance routes: How to fly across continents on ULCCs?

The pandemic has greatly reduced long-distance routes in general, and ULCCs have been particularly hard hit because they don’t have essential business travelers to fill their flights as regular airlines do.

We’ll update this section once international travel resumes a bit more.

 

Rewards: How to fly for free on ULCCs?

Savvy travelers know that travel rewards are a huge reason why many people can travel a lot more.

While it’s true that ULCCs usually don’t have the most worthwhile rewards programs and no ULCC-branded credit cards are available in Canada, that doesn’t mean it’s not relevant.

First, there are many rewards programs that allow you to use points as simple travel credits to erase any travel expense (Amex MR points, HSBC Rewards points, Scotia Scene+ points, RBC Rewards points, etc.), so you can get free ULCC flights easily this way.

Second, with ULCC flights being so cheap in cash, it can allow you to focus your rewards strategy on hotel points for example, which is what I do.

In 2019, I got 53 free hotel nights with Marriott points since I focus most of my spending to earn valuable free hotel nights (when I’m not unlocking one of the many welcome bonuses I get each year, of course).

 

Economics: How can ULCCs be so cheap?

I’m not quite sure how many of you travelers care about the economics of the ULCC business model and the business side of the whole thing… but the former management consultant in me will be glad to share a brief overview here in the next update in case you’re interested.

 

Photos: What is it like on ULCCs?

Come back soon for my many pictures of different ULCC experiences.

 

Myths: What are common misconceptions about ULCCs?

Here are more details about the 10 myths I mentioned earlier.

 

Myth: ULCCs aren’t trustworthy

ULCCs now carry over 33% of all air passengers in the entire world.

Yes, 1 out of 3 passengers. Just because you don’t know about ULCCs (because Canada has been one of the last places for them to get a foothold) doesn’t mean they aren’t trustworthy.

In Europe, the #1 airline in terms of passengers carried is a ULCC — and it’s been around for decades. In the US, 2 of the fastest-growing and best-performing airlines are ULCCs.

Almost every country in the world has had ULCCs for years… It’s understandable to not know much about them since they’re new here, but skepticism is not warranted.

 

Myth: ULCCs aren’t as safe

Seriously, this myth is simply ridiculous. Security standards in the aviation industry are not only extremely high, but they’re exactly the same for all airlines, no matter what business model they choose and no matter the cost of their tickets.

Regulators don’t care… so that’s not how ULCCs manage to lower their prices. In fact, ULCCs often have reliable brand-new, state-of-the-art airplanes: many ULCCs have the youngest fleets in their respective countries since they’re growing so fast (this reduces maintenance costs and fuel costs too).

 

Myth: ULCCs have a worse customer service

Some would argue that every single airline has “bad” customer service. The fact of the matter is that after 82 ULCC flights (and hundreds on non-ULCC airlines), I can confidently say that service on ULCCs is most definitely not worse than on airlines that are twice as expensive.

If anything, the laidback, friendly atmosphere that ULCCs promote makes everyone more approachable. Flight attendants and gate agents aren’t magically less friendly just because you paid your ticket half the price as on other airlines.

Those who don’t like ULCCs are almost always complaining because they didn’t do their homework and were expecting to get the same inclusions on a ULCC as on a regular airline. That’s not on the airline, that’s on them.

Even when it comes to dealing with an airline for flight cancellation or something like that… they’re pretty much all equally terrible, regardless of the price or whether it’s a ULCC or not. That’s just how it is.

No one would ever consider Air Canada as an airline offering low prices… and yet they were literally the worst for customer service during COVID-19. ULCCs are not automatically worse.

 

Myth: ULCC flights always end up costing more

No. Don’t purchase any extras, and you won’t pay a penny more.

Simple. I’ve done it dozens and dozens of times. It’s easy to just pay the low base price you see with ULCCs: there are absolutely no other mandatory fees, everything else is 100% optional… so just don’t pay more if you don’t want to pay more.

If you want to travel for less, make it a priority to travel for less. And make choices that align with your objective.

That’s the beauty of ULCCs: with other airlines, you’re forced to pay for many things you probably could get used to not having since it means flying for half the price… and you are subsidizing the extras other passengers use.

 

Myth: ULCCs aren’t cheaper if you want extras

This really depends. For clarity: If you don’t want extras and just want to fly from point A to point B for the lowest price, ULCCs are almost always the cheapest option.

But even if you do want a few extras, ULCCs are often so cheap that the total price is still often the lowest. Just compare, as always.

 

Myth: ULCCs are always the cheapest option

Of course not, literally no airline can be the cheapest at all times. ULCC or not.

That’s why you should ALWAYS search on an aggregator website that will compare all airlines and why you should NEVER check a specific airline’s website only.

It’s the most basic thing about finding cheap flights.

Prices vary every single day of the week. If a specific flight is full, then another non-ULCC airline can be cheaper that day.

But ULCCs will be cheaper the vast majority of the time, and as I said, if you don’t want any extras, ULCCs will really be the cheapest option almost 100% of the time.

 

Myth: ULCCs aren’t as comfortable

The reality is that most regular airlines have reduced the legroom in their own economy class sections to try to compete with ULCCs on price, so the difference is really marginal. I’m just under 6 feet tall and rarely see much of a difference, no matter the airline.

Seat pitch (the distance between seat rows) on a vast majority of airlines varies from 27 inches to 31 inches, so it’s really not a huge difference anymore (the price difference can be huge though).

I’ll soon share a post about how to see the seat pitch for any airplane (subscribe to our free newsletter).

 

Myth: ULCCs are bad for the environment

That may be true in the sense that ULCCs generate more trips and all air travel is pretty bad for the environment.

But as an individual, if you’re going to fly anyway, ULCCs are actually the most environmentally friendly airlines.

ULCCs produce by far the least pollution on a per-seat basis.

The 3 main reasons for that are the lack of premium seats that take up a lot of space, the very recent energy-efficient airplanes, and the fact that baggage policies tend to encourage people to bring less stuff (lighter planes mean less fuel, as we said in our April Fools’ prank).

 

Myth: ULCCs aren’t for me so I don’t care about ULCCs

Keep in mind that literally the only thing that determines the overall price of airplane tickets is competition (as well as supply and demand for each specific date, of course).

Not the distance flown, not the number of flights, nothing else. Only competition.

So the presence of ULCCs is great for all travelers by forcing competitors to lower their prices.

The competition factor is why Americans are sitting next to you on the same Air Canada flight to Europe, but they paid half the price even if they had an extra flight included and their flight obviously costs way more to operate. 

The competition factor is also why when Canadian ULCCs launch new flights, Air Canada instantly cuts its own prices for the same route. The route didn’t magically get cheaper to operate: ULCCs drive prices down for every traveler, not just for travelers who fly ULCCs.

 

Myth: There has to be a catch with flights so cheap

No, there really isn’t. But because some people are so used to the traditional model, the fact that you’re not forced to pay for every possible service and extras can feel like a catch. But it’s not. You just have to adjust your expectations that all those services and extras are included, because they’re not. But it’s clearly communicated.

But flying for as little as $10 is definitely worth it if you’re aiming to travel more often. ULCCs are safe and fun; forget whatever else you might have heard — and remember that someone else’s 1 or 2 times on any airline can’t be representative of the entire experience.

(But I think my 82 ULCC flights are a pretty good sample size for me to talk about this, but feel free to find someone who has tried it more often than I have and thinks they know more about ULCCs. 😉)

 

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Summary

Ultra low-cost carriers (ULCCs) are a great way for travelers to fly more for less, with a business model focusing on getting you from point A to point B without you having to pay for extras if you prefer saving money. Forget all the myths you’ve heard about ULCC and try them yourself

What would you like to know about ultra low-cost carriers? Tell us in the comments below.

 

See the deals we spot: Cheap flights

Explore awesome destinations: Travel inspiration

Learn pro tricks: Travel tips

Discover free travel: Travel rewards

 

Featured image: Touring Swoop’s aircraft (photo credit: Andrew D’Amours/Flytrippers)

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Andrew D'Amours

Andrew is the co-founder of Flytrippers. He is passionate about traveling the world but also, as a former management consultant, about the travel industry itself. He shares his experiences to help you save money on travel. As a very cost-conscious traveler, he loves finding deals and getting free travel thanks to travel rewards points... to help him visit every country in the world (current count: 64/193 Countries, 47/50 US States & 9/10 Canadian Provinces).

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