Airlines & Airports

The Best and Worst Budget Airlines for US Domestic Flights

By
Daniel Burnham
|
Product Operations | Flight
April 5, 2021
|
7 min read

Everyone loves a good deal, so when travelers hear about the proliferation of “low-cost” carriers (LCC) there’s often some serious heart-eyes-emoji vibes. But just because the price of a flight is low, that doesn’t mean the flight passes our Bestie Test, and some budget airlines are far superior to others. 

We’ll cover the best and worst of the bunch below, but first, let’s get some definitions straight at the outset.

What makes an airline “low-cost” is really low overhead, not necessarily low cost for passengers (for instance, Southwest only using one type of airplane cuts maintenance costs). Reducing this cost can mean lower airfare for customers, yes, but that’s not what the term really means. A low-cost airline isn’t always guaranteed to have better prices than a full-service legacy carrier. 

Now, let’s add a newer term into the mix—“ultra-low-cost” carriers (ULCC). These airlines treat reducing overhead like a sport. Ryanair is perhaps the best-known example of an ultra-low-cost carrier, notable for using seats that don’t recline and omitting seat-back pockets (both of which cut cleaning and maintenance costs) and offering what are often drastically lower fares. Travelers may not be very comfortable, but they’ll be uncomfortable without paying much.

At Scott’s Cheap Flights, while our focus is always on making sure members get a good deal on airfare, a low price tag isn’t the only thing we consider before sending out an email alert. We also factor the flying experience into the equation—which means there are a host of airlines whose names you won’t see in our emails. That doesn’t mean you should never fly them (if your number one priority is paying as little as possible, it may be worth it for you), but you need to know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. 

Here’s our take on the best and worst budget airlines for flying within the US. 

>> Looking for cheap domestic flights? Join Scott's Cheap Flights and get deals like $83 roundtrip nonstop to Seattle and $198 to Hawaii.

The best budget airlines for domestic flights

southwest airlines flight in the air.

Our two favorite budget airlines are also favorites industry-wide. And, while these carriers are still considered “low-cost” airlines, the flying experience may be better than the one you’d have with a legacy airline.

Southwest Airlines

When Southwest Airlines began nearly 50 years ago, it was a bona fide low-cost airline, concentrating on short flights—originally, they only served a few cities in Texas. Today, Southwest flies all over the United States and a handful of international destinations as well. In total, Southwest now serves 103 cities.

Some elements of the flying experience with Southwest Airlines are akin to what you might recall if you took domestic flights two decades ago. Seat pitch ranges from 31 inches (fairly standard in economy) to 33 inches, there’s a selection of complimentary beverages and snacks, and each person is allowed an almost-unheard-of-these-days two checked bags (plus a carry-on bag and personal item) at no extra cost. 

There’s no seat-back entertainment, but travelers can stream free movies, live TV, and music to their own devices. If you need to make a change to your ticket after purchasing, you can cancel or change the flight with no fee. If you cancel, you’ll get the full value of the ticket back as a travel credit. If you switch flights, you’ll pay the difference between the two fares (if there is one), but if the new flight costs less you’ll get a credit to use toward a future flight.

The most significant difference is that on Southwest every seat on every plane is economy class—and there’s no assigned seating. Travelers literally take any empty seat upon boarding. There is some pre-boarding sorting (passengers are assigned a letter group and, within that, a number that determines when they get to board the aircraft; and you can pay extra to check in early and thus get to board earlier), but once on the plane every open seat is fair game.

When you’re researching flights, though, it’s critical to remember that Southwest Airlines will not appear on the usual flight search sites. To compare Southwest’s fares, you’ll have to visit the airline’s website specifically.

And yes, SCF includes Southwest deals in our emails. We got you.

Southwest flights include: 

  • A carry-on and personal item
  • Two free checked bags
  • Snacks and non-alcoholic beverages
  • Free changes
  • Streaming entertainment to your own device
  • Free seat selection (no pre-assigned seating; boarding order is determined by check-in time)

JetBlue Airways

JetBlue Airways, like Southwest, got its start as a low-cost airline. Unlike Southwest, however, JetBlue never operated a stripped-down selection of amenities, instead offering some of the perks once only associated with legacy carriers. This strategy won the airline a loyal following, and today JetBlue serves nearly 100 cities in the United States and a handful of international destinations.

Like the major airlines, JetBlue’s planes are divided into different flight classes, with Mint serving as their premium product. The rest of the seats in the main cabin are for Blue and Blue Basic (their version of economy and basic economy fare classes). The Blue and Blue Basic in-flight experience includes a selection of complimentary beverages and snacks, as well as free WiFi and seat-back entertainment. Seat pitch ranges from 32–34 inches, depending on the aircraft, which is above average for economy. JetBlue’s extensive list of partner airlines also makes it easier to explore beyond the airline’s own destination network.

Where JetBlue’s Blue Basic more closely resembles other low-cost carriers is in the additional fees for some things legacy airlines include in the fare. For instance, although each passenger is allowed one carry-on and one personal item for free, there is a fee to check any bag, starting at $35. There’s a fee for advance seat selection and Blue Basic passengers are the last to board any flight. Changes to tickets are not allowed; however, if you find a JetBlue flight on another site the same day that you book a ticket, you’ll get a $100 credit to use toward a future trip.

It’s worth noting here that, while JetBlue typically charges Blue and Blue Plus passengers change fees of up to $200, the airline is waiving all change and cancellation fees on bookings made through February 28, 2021 (if you cancel you’ll get the full value of the ticket as a travel credit, not cash).

JetBlue flights include: 

  • A carry-on and personal item
  • Snacks and non-alcoholic beverages
  • Free changes and cancellations through February 28, 2021
  • Seatback entertainment and WiFi
  • Free seat selection for Blue and above (there’s a fee for advance seat selection for Blue Basic)
  • Checked bags starting at $35 each way for Blue and Blue Basic fares 

The worst budget airlines for domestic flights

spirit airlines from over wing in flight.

When it comes to the opposite end of the spectrum, reasonable travelers can differ—but these four low-cost carriers are our least favorite, and we don’t include them in SCF deal alerts.

Does this mean you should never consider a flight on one of these airlines? Not necessarily. There are some cases when you might want to fly with a budget airline (we’ve detailed them at the end of this article). With these carriers, however, it’s especially important to do your homework and read the fine print before purchasing.

Sun Country Airlines

Sun Country Airlines got its start in Minnesota in the early 1980s with exactly one airplane (the name conjures images of Midwesterners fleeing south for warmer climes in winter). Today, Sun Country has 30 passenger planes and flies to 54 destinations.

All seats on Sun Country flights are in economy class, though the airline splits economy into three categories: Standard, Better, and Best. The average seat pitch is 29–30 inches, which is below average, so they can pack more passengers into the plane.

As is the M.O. for ultra-low-cost carriers, Sun Country draws travelers with what seem like low fares—until you add on all the fees. There are additional charges not only for checked baggage, but also for carry-on bags, advance seat selection, and all snacks. There’s no seat-back entertainment, but Sun Country does have a library of free video entertainment you can use on your own devices.

Since Sun Country’s fleet and destination network are so limited, there’s very little date flexibility, which can be a problem if your flight is canceled and there’s not another flight for a few days. 

Sun Country fees include: 

  • Carry-on bag starting at $30 each way (one under-seat item is allowed at no charge)
  • Checked bag starting at $30 each way
  • Change fees $50-$100 when less than 60 days to departure (free before 60 days) 
  • Seat selection starting at $8 each way
  • Snacks and drinks for purchase 

Spirit Airlines

Ryanair may have pioneered the extreme nickel-and-diming of the flying public in Europe, but Spirit Airlines holds that crown stateside. Founded as a charter service in the early 1980s, Spirit became an ultra-low-cost carrier in 2007 and now serves 77 destinations.

Like other ULCCs, the fares Spirit advertises are incredibly appealing, but the price tag jumps dramatically by the time you’ve added on all the fees. While charging extra for carry-on bags is more common these days, Spirit started that trend—it was the first airline to charge for carry-on bags in 2010. Travelers will also pay extra for choosing a seat and checking a bag, and there’s no seat-back entertainment. 

Spirit’s customer service is notoriously bad, but perhaps the most painful aspect of Spirit’s devotion to cost-cutting is its seat pitch, which is a scant 28 inches throughout most of the fleet. There are a few seats with a roomy 36 inches (Spirit calls these the Big Front Seats), but the fees for those are high enough that they often negate any savings you might have thought you were getting.

If you don’t need to bring more than a small under-seat bag and you don’t care where you sit, you can save money flying Spirit, but you have to understand the fee structure. The trick here is that up-front fares look very attractive, but the final price you pay to fly is often higher than a legacy carrier once you count in bags and other fees. 

Spirit fees include: 

  • Carry-on bag starting at $33 each way (one under-seat item is allowed at no charge)
  • Checked bag starting at $28 each way
  • Seat selection starting at $9 each way
  • Snacks and drinks for purchase 

Frontier Airlines

Like Spirit, Frontier Airlines also began as a charter airline in the mid-1990s to fill the gap in service to Denver left by the decrease in Continental flights to the city. Frontier has gone through several iterations (not to mention management overhauls and financial difficulties) since then, eventually becoming an ultra-low-cost carrier in 2014. Today, Frontier serves more than 110 destinations.

Frontier’s advertised fares look good at first glance, but the extra (and often unavoidable) fees add up to make the price tag similar to what you might pay with a legacy airline. Passengers pay extra for checked bags, carry-on bags, in-flight snacks, and choosing a seat, and there’s no seat-back entertainment.

There isn’t much flexibility in terms of when and where you can fly with Frontier, limiting your travel options—and, again, since the focus is on quantity over quality, Frontier’s seat pitch for most seats is only 28 inches, below industry average. A few rows on the plane offer a generous 36–38 inches, but (you guessed it) you’ll pay a premium to sit there.

Frontier fees include: 

  • Carry-on bag starting at $39 each way (small personal item is allowed at no charge)
  • Checked bag starting at $34 each way
  • Seat selection starting at $22 each way
  • Snacks and drinks for purchase 

Allegiant Air

Allegiant Air got its start in the late 1990s operating both charter and scheduled passenger flights. A few years later, the airline filed for bankruptcy and began its shift to ultra-low-cost airline status. Today, Allegiant serves nearly 130 destinations, mostly on a point-to-point system on a fairly modern fleet of Airbus planes (the average age of their aircraft is 13 years old).

When it comes to extra fees, Allegiant imposes fees for checked bags, carry-on bags, choosing a seat, and in-flight snacks and beverages. Not only that, making a reservation online or by telephone also costs extra (to avoid that, you’ll need to book a ticket at the airport in person, which is all but unheard of in the 21st century), as does printing a boarding pass at the airport. On the plus side, seat pitch is slightly better than most ULCCs at 30 inches, but Allegiant practically negates that benefit with an entire fleet of seats that do not recline.

Many budget airlines serve secondary airports, but Allegiant takes this to an extreme. For example, in Phoenix, they fly to Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport (AZA) which is 45 minutes away from Phoenix, instead of Phoenix Sky Harbor (PHX), which is less than 10 minutes from the city. 

Allegiant fees include: 

  • Carry-on bag starting at $18-20 each way (small personal item is allowed at no charge)
  • Checked bag starting at $22-25 each way
  • Seat selection starting at $5 each way
  • Snacks and drinks for purchase

Check out our list of the best and worst budget airlines for international flights or the best airports for cheap domestic flights.

Last Updated 
April 5, 2021
The Best and Worst Budget Airlines for US Domestic Flights
Daniel Burnham
Product Operations | Flight

Traveler. Plane spotter. Gourmande. Daniel has many further vices—among them is a weakness for craft beer, fine pastries, and premium aircraft cabins. His possessions still fit into a single backpack, and he listens to Audible at 3x speed. A Midwestern exile, you’ll find Daniel down at the hawker center on fine mornings reading the Financial Times with a steaming kopi and roti prata.

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