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The Best (and Worst) Budget Airlines for Cheap Flights from the US

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Prospective members of Scott’s Cheap Flights often ask us if the flight alerts we send members are for flights that are any good. Are the deals we’re telling them about on terrible airlines with exorbitant fees? Do these cheap flights have miserable routing with four stops and six-hour layovers?

Nope. Never. In fact, we only send deals that meet specific criteria. Among the requirements: a humane schedule and availability on reputable airlines. Sometimes those airlines are the big name legacy carriers like American, Lufthansa, and Qantas, and sometimes they’re budget carriers—but they’re always airlines we’d recommend to our parents (and we actually like our parents).

It’s natural to be skeptical about some of these international budget airlines if you’ve never flown them before. If you’re searching for flights and getting rock bottom prices, you might feel there must be a catch. Sometimes there are catches, usually in the form of extra fees, but not all budget airlines are created equal.

Here, we break down the best and worst of the budget international airlines that fly from the United States, and detail the fees they charge for "extras" like baggages, assigned seats, and meals. (Note, the example flights are just that—examples based on searches done at a specific time. Prices have likely changed.)

The best budget international airlines from the US

These are the best budget carriers offering cheap international flights from the United States.

Flying to Europe: Norwegian Air

Norwegian services nearly 100 destinations from more than a dozen cities in the United States. Flights to Europe are the most plentiful, but they also offer connecting flights to a few farther-flung destinations like Morocco, Dubai, and Turkey.

One thing to note: Norwegian has recently been having some financial trouble and has dropped some routes. There’s a lot of speculation as to what might happen in the future, but we’re hopeful they’ll continue operating as they have been, as there are a lot of things to like about the airline.

Most of Norwegian’s planes are new, and they use 787-9 Boeing Dreamliners for many long-haul flights. Even in economy class, you’ll have a fairly comfortable ride. And they’re one of the few airlines that doesn’t charge exorbitant prices for one-way flights.

You’ll get no frills with their basic LowFare tickets, but you will get a free personal item and a carry-on. The cost of luggage depends on where you’re headed, but you can save up to 50% if you purchase ahead of time rather than at the airport. Bonus: many routes have free WiFi.

Here's an example flight from Boston to Paris for $304.80 roundtrip in May ($144.90 for the outbound flight, with return a week later for $159.90.)

Norwegian flight booking

Norwegian fees:

  • Carry-on bag: included
  • Checked bag: $50
  • Seat selection: from $12
  • Meals: From $10

Like most budget carriers, Norwegian charges a lot of fees. A checked bag, meal, and seat selection bring the total to around $450, with 31% of the total cost in fees. Also, note than the checked bag fee is per leg, so if you're flying roundtrip and your route has a connection (for example: San Francisco to Rome with a stop in London), you have to pay for a checked bag on four total legs.

Flying to Canada (and beyond): Air Canada Rouge

Air Canada Rouge flies from more than 55 US destinations to more than 60 Canadian cities, as well as a few stops in Europe, Asia, and South America. Air Canada Rouge is fairly new, and their planes are formerly part of Air Canada’s fleet. They’ve been restyled to reflect the Rouge branding, and there’s no in-seat entertainment (download their app on a tablet or mobile device ahead of time), but otherwise they’re the same comfortable planes.

In fact, you won’t find a whole lot of differences between flying Rouge and flying a regular Air Canada flight. Since they’re an arm of Air Canada, their customer service is the same and the flights are dependable.

Booking three months in advance, a standard price for a roundtrip flight from NYC to Toronto is $192.82 ($78 outbound, return for $116) on a Standard Economy fare, which doesn’t include a checked bag. You can change your seat within 24 hours of your flight time, or select ahead of time for a fee.

Air Canada Rouge booking

Air Canada Rouge fees each way:

  • Carry-on bag: included
  • Checked bag: $30
  • Seat selection: from $25
  • Meals: from $6
  • iPad rental: $10

These additional costs add about an extra $60 per leg of your trip, bringing the total to around $312 (good, but not as good as the $174 fare we found in early January on AirCanada, Delta, American, and United, which would come to $234 with checked bag), with about 40% of your total cost spent on extra fees.

Flying to Barcelona or Paris: LEVEL Airlines

A subsidiary of Iberia (Spain’s flagship carrier), LEVEL is a new European carrier with flights from Boston, San Francisco, and New York to Barcelona, and from NYC to Paris. Since it’s a new airline it doesn’t offer as much flexibility when it comes to travel dates or airport locations, but prices are consistently cheap. The airplanes are modern and come with free entertainment systems.

For May trips, we’re currently seeing flights from San Francisco to Barcelona for $483.03 ($245.70 on the outbound flight and $237.33 return).

LEVEL airlines booking

LEVEL's fees:

  • Carry-on bag: included
  • Checked bag: $55
  • Seat selection: from $16
  • Meals: from $7

If you’re traveling with only a carry-on and aren’t picky about seats, the $483 fare is pretty good (but not as good as the $313 deal we sent to Premium members in September). But be aware that extra fees could add $78 per direction, accounting for about 24% of your total cost of around $640.

Flying to Latin America or the Caribbean: JetBlue

JetBlue covers an enormous territory, with flights operating from dozens of US cities to Canada, three destinations in South America, and all over the Caribbean and Central America.

JetBlue is unique to other budget airlines because even economy passengers get perks like snacks, beverages, free wifi, and in-flight entertainment. JetBlue’s seats are exceptionally comfortable, with above-average legroom. The airline has a Customer Bill of Rights which outlines what you’ll get in case there’s a delay or overbooking, and their Best Fare Guarantee means that if you find a cheaper JetBlue flight on another site on the same day, they’ll hand you a $100 credit.

We saw standard roundtrip fares from Fort Lauderdale to Bogota for $295.03 in May.

JetBlue booking

JetBlue fees each way:

  • Carry-on bag: included
  • Baggage: $25
  • Seat selection: free, but seats with more space start from $36
  • Meals: $6-12

If you’re happy with a standard seat, the extra fees for baggage and a meal add at least $30 to each leg, bringing the total to bring your cost to around $355, with extra fees accounting for just 16% of the total cost.

Flying to Asia: AirAsia X

AirAsia X flies from Honolulu to nearly 30 destinations in Asia (with wider connections to over 165 destinations in 25 countries, including Australia and India). Flyers love AirAsia for its great customer service. It also has a great app where you can check in ahead of time and monitor your flight.

A search for flights in May brought up roundtrip flights from Honolulu to Taipei, Taiwan for as little as $557.60 ($288.82 on the outbound journey; $268.78 for the return).

AirAsia X booking

AirAsia X fees each way:

  • Carry-on bag: included
  • Checked bag: $51
  • Seat selection: from $15.99
  • Meals: from $10

If we add basic seat selection to all legs of this itinerary, one meal each way, and one checked bag each way, the total jumps by nearly $200 to $729.56. About 22% of the final price is extra fees.

The worst budget international airlines from the US

There are some airlines that we generally don’t recommend. In fact, we don’t include these airlines in any Scott’s Cheap Flights deals that we send out. That doesn’t mean you should absolutely never fly them (see below for when you might want to consider it) but you should know what you’re getting yourself into.

Flying within North America: Frontier Airlines

Frontier Airlines flies from nearly 100 U.S. cities to Mexico, the Caribbean and Canada (Calgary), but that quantity doesn’t come with quality. Many of their planes are old, their seats are uncomfortable, and legroom is below average at a scant 28 inches.

To top it off, there isn’t a lot of flexibility in destinations or dates (for example, the only direct route to Jamaica is from Philadelphia or Raleigh, with flights leaving about twice a week). They offer some of the lowest fares to and from their hub in Denver and occasionally have great sales, but often the prices aren’t that competitive, especially when you add in the fees.

Looking at example flights from Philadelphia to Montego Bay, we found a fare of $371.57 roundtrip in May.

Frontier charges a lot of fees each way:

  • Carry-on bag: $35
  • Checked bag: from $30
  • Seat selection: from $6
  • Meals: N/A (some snacks available)

For checked bags and carry-on it’s cheaper to pay in advance online rather than at the gate. With one piece of hand luggage, one checked bag, and seat selection, your total will be more than $514 roundtrip—that’s 30% fees, and you don’t even have the option to buy a meal.

Flying to Europe: WOW air

WOW air flies from a dozen US cities to 25+ destinations internationally in Europe, however, some recent financial trouble has led them to drop or reduce some routes lately (like SFO and LAX).

It’s one of the more legendary budget airlines to Europe, thanks to the incredibly low fares it advertises, like $139.99 one-way fares from Detroit to Reykjavik (with a more expensive return, this example totals about $360 roundtrip). But that fare comes with lots of fees.

Wow Air’s fees include:

  • Carry-on bag: $44.99
  • Checked bag: $54.99
  • Seat selection: from $6.99
  • Meals: from $6.99

From there the Wow Air fees keep climbing, and again, note that the fees are all per leg, not each way. So if you were flying from Detroit to London with a stop in Iceland, you’d pay those bag fees for each individual flight.

It’s also $9.99 for priority boarding, and you won’t even get a glass of water for free. If you were to add all of the options above when purchasing your flight, it would cost you more than $600 roundtrip. That’s 40% of your total cost in fees.

Even if you can get by without a checked bag and seat selection, the $50+ in fees each way for a meal and carry-on bring your total to around $460. Compare that to the deal we found on Delta, Air France, and Lufthansa in December, with fares for $308, including a carry-on and meal.

Flying to Asia: Scoot

Scoot flies from Honolulu to more than 50 destinations in Asia, and touts incredible low fares (like $80 from HNL to Bangkok). However, the issue with Scoot is that the deal advertised can be quite different than the actual price—climbing as high as $965 return.

For example, the listed $80 fare is for a period of two weeks, but when you actually search dates within that period there are no low-fare flights available. The next available dates list fares at $1,200+.

Even if you’re searching a few months in advance, the fares aren’t great. At all. In this example, we found roundtrip flights in May at $1,187.22.

That’s your most basic fare, without any extras. Other fees each way:

  • Carry-on bag: included (but they’re strict about dimensions)
  • Checked bag: from $34
  • Seat selection: from $10
  • Meals: from $18!

This brings your flights total to over $1,300. The fees are only about 10% of the cost, but the cost is ridiculous. It would be a rare occasion to make flying Scoot better than AirAsia X. One big exception: they often offer solid deals from Honolulu to Osaka.

Flying to Latin America and the Caribbean: Spirit Airlines

Spirit Airlines is a US airline operating in 70+ destinations throughout the United States, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America. The overall experience is often compared to Ryanair; customer service isn't great, flights are often delayed, and you will be nickeled and dimed at every turn.

We found flights in May from Chicago to Cancun for $195.52 roundtrip ($93.39 on the outbound trip and $102.13 return a week later). Spirit Airlines’ fees include a personal bag, but not a carry-on.

For $82 each way you can add a standard package which includes a checked bag, carry-on, seat selection, and no change fees or you can go a la carte:

  • Carry-on bag: $31 each way
  • Checked bag: $26 each way
  • Seat selection: from $6 each way

With those additions, your flight will be more than $330, about 38% of which is fees. To be fair, that’s not terrible (but not as good as the $183 deal we sent in November, which rises to $283 with carry-on, checked bag, and seat selection on America, Delta, or United); but you’ll get zero other inclusions: no water, no snacks, nothing. There is no in-flight entertainment. You can use the bathroom for free. That’s about it.

Flying to Central America, the Caribbean, and Mexico: Sun Country

Sun Country is a US-based airline operating 86 routes between the United States, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.

Sun Country’s customer service leaves a lot to be desired—the airline made headlines last year when the last seasonal flights out of Los Cabos were grounded and Sun Country did not schedule any other planes to pick them up. Flights were refunded, but passengers were forced to reschedule on another airline. Sun Country has reportedly cleaned up its act since then, but the damage is done.

There’s not much flexibility in dates, and prices aren’t exceptionally cheap; for example, a flight in May from Minneapolis to Belize City goes for $647.53 roundtrip, and flights operate only once a week.

Extra fees each way:

  • Carry-on bag: $30
  • Checked bag: $30
  • Seat selection: from $9
  • Meals: snacks from $4

With all those options, the flight total is $725.53; no contest with the $274 deal we sent last June (even if you add checked bags and bring the total to $324).

Note: You have to either check a bag, or bring a carry-on. You can’t do both.

When you should consider flying a “bad” budget airline

Sometimes flying with a “bad” budget airline can be worth it, especially in those times when cost outweighs other factors, such as:

  • When you absolutely have to get from Point A to Point B as cheaply as possible, and you’re willing to sacrifice some comfort and convenience to do so
  • When it’s a short hop and you don’t need a pre-assigned seat or much baggage, so you can avoid the extra fees
  • When you’re simply dying for an escape and willing to get there any way you can (though even then, there’s probably a better deal available)
  • If you have more flexibility (e.g., if your flight’s a few hours late, it won’t totally derail your plans) and you’re more willing to take a chance on your budget carrier being on time

When you should not fly with a “bad” budget airline

When is it NOT worth your time to travel a “bad” budget airline? Consider:

  • If your family of four is traveling on a long-haul flight and you’re going to want to sit together, travel with one checked bag each, and enjoy some in-flight snacks and entertainment, you’re probably going to want to pay a bit more to fly a carrier that includes luggage, seat assignments and meals (or offers them for a reasonable fee) as all those extra charges will add up.
  • If you’re traveling on a long-haul flight, where those additional costs like seat selection and checked baggage make more of a difference in comfort. For example, if the only way you can get some shut-eye is by leaning against a window, then it’s probably worth the splurge for you to pre-select a window seat.
  • You’re already aware that you’ll want to splurge on those little “luxuries” like snacks and water, which may not seem like a big deal until you’re bored or hungry in the sky. Suddenly you find yourself forking over $50 for sloppy airplane meals and overpriced drinks.

Ultimately: If you’re a single traveler heading out for a quick trip, traveling with a small carry-on, and you don’t mind bringing your own snacks and entertainment and squeezing into a middle seat for two hours, you may be perfectly content with a bare bones, ultra-cheap flight with zero frills.

In fact, several Scott’s Cheap Flights staff members have flown these “bad” airlines when saving a few bucks outweighed the potential negatives.

As always, consider the pros and cons (and fees) and balance those against your specific needs to decide what's right for you.

Read more tips in our Ultimate Guide to Cheap Flights, and sign up for Scott's Cheap Flights to get alerts for cheap flights sent right to your inbox.

Last Updated:
February 9, 2019
Campbell Hawk
Campbell Hawk
Flight Expert Manager, North America

Having lived in six US states and traveled to 25 different countries, Campbell doesn’t sit still for too long. Her favorite travel memory is cage diving with sharks (her favorite animal) on a solo trip to Hawaii. She's addicted to chai lattes, has a passion for cooking, and is cheap as heck. At heart, Campbell’s a dog lover, just trying to love all of the dogs around the world.

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