Yes the fare seems a bargain, but there’s a good chance you’ll have to pay more by adding on hold baggage, seat reservations and food.
Thanks to EasyJet and Ryanair, we’re used to flying no-frills for a lower price. And in the last few years, the rise of budget transatlantic airlines has had a big impact on the traditional carriers.
Both BA and Virgin now offer a basic rate that doesn’t include hold baggage, cutting rates by around £60 on a return journey. And I’m sure it’s no coincidence that this has coincided with increased competition and some of the lowest fares to the USA I’ve ever seen. Good news for consumers.
But it could be too good to be true. Just last week one of these challenger airlines went bust with no notice, leaving thousands of passengers stranded. Primera Air – which only launched long-haul trips from the UK in March – promised £99 one-way flights to the US but found the budget business model and high fuel prices impossible to tally.
And in reality, whether with BA, Virgin, Wow or Norwegian, I’m not sure these lower prices are a real representation of what you’ll actually end up paying.
On a weekend city break in Europe you should be able to pack light and take a few snacks for the journey. Even not sitting together isn’t a massive problem. It’s a different story flying further afield.
For a start, you’re likely to be going for a week at least – meaning more or heavier bags. Then you’re going to be on a plane for eight or more hours – so food and drink, as well as seat choice, become more important. And each of these adds to the expense, making the budget price not so attractive as it first seemed.
Can you really avoid the long-haul flight extra charges?
I wanted to put the budget prices to the test. So on my recent trip to Orlando for a money bloggers conference, I chose to fly with Norwegian Air.
My ticket was £325 and that was the cheapest option available at the time of booking. To check in a bag it would cost £35 each way. To choose my seat it was also £25 each way. And food and drink, another £25 per flight. There was also an option to get all three for £50 more, so £100 return.
But my mission was to avoid these extras as much as possible and keep to the basic option. Here’s how I fared.
The weight limit for carry on with Norwegian is 10kg across two bags – one small suitcase and another smaller bag. That’s not much at all when going away for a week. Still I can travel light and I aimed to pack as little as possible.
It’s always difficult to gauge weight so during Amazon’s Prime Day I snapped up a cheap luggage scales gadget so I attached it to my suitcase. 12kg!!
I ditched the laptop and charger, but that still wasn’t enough. So out went a few items of clothing. I was just over the weight limit but there was literally nothing else I could go without. I basically had clothes for each day and toiletries.
My hope that I could get away with it were dashed at check-in. All carry on bags were weighed. So in the queue I stuffed my coat and jeans pockets with as much as I could. Plug adapters, my kindle, swimming goggles, business cards, glasses case.
The final weigh-in was 9.6kg. I’m not sure how much the stuff if my pockets weighed but it would have been tight. If I’d been overweight, I’d have had to pay £70 to put my bag in the hold – double the advance rate.
Once through security I repacked, but had a fright at the depature gate. At random some passengers were having their bags weighed again! Fortunately I wasn’t selected and managed to get onboard with my slightly overweight bag at no extra cost.
On my return I decided to take the hit and pay £35 in advance. I’d bought a few things in a spare moment not working and didn’t want to risk the £70 fee at the desk. Fortunately I’d factored in that £35 against the prices I paid when shopping – otherwise it’d have been cheaper to buy things back home. But it certainly reduced my savings.
Result: Tough but possible if you’re going for less than a week and travel light. If you’re travelling as a couple then you could check just one bag each way. But I think most of the time you’ll need to factor in between £25 and £50 on top of the ticket price you see.
On the flights I checked, just taking carry on with Virgin’s Economy Light fare saves you £50 each way, but there’s the same 10kg limit. You’ll pay £45 to check-in a bag if you change your mind or if your carry on is too heavy.
But if you’re travelling on BA’s Basic Economy then you have a much higher weight limit – 23KG per bag, and you get to bring a small handbag or laptop case as well as your suitcase. It looks like it’s another £30 each way per person to check in a bag. This is the best of the bunch.
WOW Air’s Basic fare only includes a small bag as carry on. And I mean small. Think laptop size. You need to pay close to £40 to bring a bigger carry-on suitcase, and that has a weight limit of 12kg, The airline also charges £51.99 during booking, and increases in tiers up to £74 if you are forced to check in hand luggage at the gate. That’s the cost one-way!
Seat choice, boarding and ticket flexibility
I was travelling on my own so I wasn’t fussed about my seat. At least not fussed enough to pay £50 extra.
If you don’t pay up front you have a seat automatically assigned to you on check-in. If you don’t like it you are meant to pay £25 to change it, though I’m sure if you ask nicely they’ll try to accommodate requests. I forgot to ask for an aisle seat, but I got one anyway.
If you travel as a couple or group on the same booking you should be sat together, but the only way to guarantee this is to pay. I’ve been on flights where families have been separated leaving kids on their own!
Equally if you want to avoid sitting by the loos, or like the idea of exit row seats, you’ll have to pay.
Boarding was the same for everyone, filling up the plane from the back to the front.
Flexibility also comes at a cost. You can’t change the lowest prices with Norwegian at all.
Result: While you can avoid the seat fee, I imagine plenty of people will decide to stump up the cash. Again, that’s at least £50 more for a return flight per person.
Boarding is trickier, but if you’re at the gate on time and among the first of your boarding group to get on the plane you’ll hopefully be ok.
If you think there’s a chance you might need to change the day or time you fly then the extra cost to have a (sort of) flexible ticket may be worth it, especially if you’re already paying more to check in luggage.
Both BA and Virgin will charge you extra to choose your seat in advance if you choose a basic fare. Virgin allows you to pick your seat at check-in.
Virgin has standard boarding, with no option to upgrade to priority boarding. On BA you are the last to get on the plane – no matter where your seat it. This could increase the chance you won’t be able to put your bags above your seat. You could even have them put in the hold if the plane is full.
Wow Air is a lot cheaper. It charges £7.99 for priority boarding and £3.99 to get a budget seat.
Neither Virgin and BA allow any changes with their basic fares. Again, this flexibility comes with the next tier of pricing – though you will pay further fees if you need to make alterations.
Food & drink
Food is the easiest win. Airline food is notoriously bad. At best its disappointing. It’s never good. Plus I always end up starving while I wait for the first meal, then stuffed when they bring out the second just a few hours later. So I’m very happy to skip in-flight food.
Instead you can either bring your own sarnies and snacks to get you through. My outward flight was delayed by three hours, so my expected two hours wait turned into five, and the flight was another nine. That’s a long time just on snacks!
So I grabbed a full English from Wagamamas (yes, really), and a meal-deal from Boots for a mid-flight meal. This was topped up by pre-purchased supermarket extras.
In total I spent £18 on food. You could say I’d have been better off just paying the £25 for the plane food, but I’d still have needed to get something beforehand. So I think I saved £15 on my outward flight by not adding this option to my ticket. The return flight was overnight so I go by just on a few more snacks.
I’ll always bring a few bottles of water with me. You can bring empty ones through with your carry-on bags, and most airports have a fountain for you to top them up. Even so, even Norwegian will give you free water if you ask nicely.
If you like a mid-flight tipple there’s obviously no alcohol included either. I’m not much of a drinker on flights, especially long haul. I get dehydrated enough without adding in booze. So it’s not a great loss to me. But if you do like your free wine or whiskey when flying, then bear this in mind.
There is the opportunity to buy food and drink on board with Norwegian. A bottle of water was $3 (roughly £2.30 at the time of writing), while a sarnie was $7. A small wine or craft beer was around £5.
Result: Due to my delay I spent more than I expected at the airport, but I still enjoyed a better meal and could eat on the plane as and when I wanted. And I did this for less than the add-on price. Though drinks are included in the £25 meal charge, I didn’t miss not having booze on tap. This is an easy saving for everyone.
You’ll get the full meal and drink service with all long-haul fares from BA and Virgin. It’s extra with WOW and must be pre-ordered.
Entertainment & extras
The film selection with Norwegian was pretty poor, and quite small. However I’d downloaded lots of programmes on the iPlayer and Netflix apps, and brought my Kindle, so it was no great loss.
There’s no pillow or blanket with Norwegian, but you still get this included with bigger airlines. Norwegian also charge $3 for headphones, so make sure you bring your own.
Result: These definitely aren’t worth paying more for if you’ve got the tech to use yourself. Bring a neck pillow if you need one and don’t forget layers.
You shouldn’t need to pay for headphones with BA and Virgin, and you should get a better and bigger selection of films.
You’ll also get your blanket and pillow with Virgin and BA. Saying that, the days of getting an eye mask and toothbrush from Virgin are long gone.
As expected, the reality of the low fare was that it was near impossible to travel without topping up – so always treat the headline price as a starting point.
You should be able to work around the extras for food, drink, priority boarding and the little extras. But I’d expect almost all of you will need to add on at least £60 for carry-on luggage, and potentially another £50 return to pick your seat.
The only airline where it could work is with BA with the higher weight limit on carry-on bags. Since you also get your food and drink included it’s probably worth paying a little more to fly with them than a cheaper airline where you need to buy add-ons.