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The Lowdown On Low-Cost Carriers Overseas


Cheap seats can be fine, but be aware of the drawbacks

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Feb 03, 2008

When traveling abroad, you can drop $20 on dinner (mere sustenance), a trinket (hello, closet) - or a flight to another city or country (how economical and adventurous).

Thanks to the boom in low-cost, no-frills airlines around the world, you don't need to spend a fortune to jet from, say, London to Belfast ($13 one way on Ryanair) or Singapore to Bangkok ($46 on Tiger Airways). On the major airlines, these fares wouldn't even get your foot on the gangway. (British Airways, for example, typically charges $352 for the London-Belfast route, and Singapore Air flies from Singapore to Bangkok for $244.)

Many international budget carriers resemble those in America; in fact, a few (Canada's WestJet, Irish Ryanair) even patterned themselves after Southwest Airlines. Yet some cut even more corners, charging for every little perk, from assigned seats to water.

"Airlines sell you a seat," said Steven Lott, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade association, "and everything else is extra."

In addition to collecting extra fees for amenities, budget airlines often trim costs by selling tickets exclusively online and forgoing call centers, making it impossible to speak to an agent except at the airport. Even if the airline does take phone reservations, the best fares are usually found online. And 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.

Because low-cost carriers work on a shoestring budget, it's important to know what the fare does and does not include. Also, be apprised of the airline's schedules and financial record. Many fly to a specific destination only once or twice a week, which can impact your entire trip if you miss that flight. Some cash-crunched carriers also have canceled flights at the last minute or have abruptly gone out of business, stranding passengers.

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 2007 "World's Best Low-Cost Airline Survey" by Skytrax, an independent research company in London that surveyed more than 5 million passengers around the world. For ratings info, visit http://www.airlinequality.com, which also features passenger reviews. Additionally, find out if the airline has an "interline agreement" with larger carriers, so you can check your bags through to your final destination if you switch airlines.

Safety-wise, budget airlines must meet the same government standards as other carriers flying in that country. For historic accident data of airlines around the world, view http://www.aviation-safety.net; if you don't find your chosen airline, that's a good sign.

As the budget airline sector burgeons and expands around the world, it's becoming harder to keep up, confusing even the savviest travelers. To help you sort through the carriers and their ridiculously low fares, we looked at some of the major budget airlines around the world, focusing on five regions. We provide some background info and sample one-way fares (taxes included) for each airline, and prep you for that moment when you drop some spare change on a side trip to Paris or Rio or Sydney. For more information on foreign low-fare carriers, see http://www.Flybudget.com, http://www.Whichbudget.com http:// or http://www.attitudetravel.com; for routes in Europe, visit http://www.low-cost-airline-guide.com.

EUROPE

* Air Berlin (011-49-30-4102-1003, http://www.airberlin.com)

History: Founded in 1979 by a former Pan Am pilot in Oregon, but became German-owned in 1991. Now the third-largest low-cost carrier in Europe.

Destinations: Headquartered in Berlin, with 97 destinations in Europe, plus additional cities in Africa. Also offers limited service from select U.S. airports (including Washington Dulles) to Germany.

Sample Fare: Fly from London Stansted to Berlin Tegel for $58.

Notes: 2007 Skytrax winner for "Best Regional Low-Cost Airline in Europe" and second-best in the world. . . . Fare includes in-flight snacks; meals by the German restaurant Sansibar are additional and can be ordered online in advance. . . . Seat reservations cost extra; price varies by distance. No 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, which also covers European low-cost airlines LTU, Belair, NIKI and LGW-Walter. Enrollment is free at http://www.airberlin.com.

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

History: The granddaddy of low-cost air travel in Europe. Launched in 1985 by the Irish Ryan family and now the largest budget carrier in Europe.

Destinations: Headquartered in Dublin. Flies to 137 destinations in Europe, including Paris, Madrid and Oslo.

Sample Fare: Fly from London Stansted to Krakow, Poland, for $50.

Notes: This airline charges for everything, even water -- but you can bring food and drinks onboard. . . . Three checked bags allowed per person, but total weight can't exceed 33 pounds. You'll pay $12 per 2.2 pounds over the limit.

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

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

Destinations: Headquartered at London's Luton Airport. More than 50 destinations throughout Europe and North Africa, including Malta, Marrakech and Riga, Latvia.

Sample Fare: Fly from London to Glasgow, Scotland, for $10.

Notes: 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 $16 at the airport, $8 if paid in advance online. . . . If space is available, you can switch flights to a different airport within a region -- from Luton to Gatwick, for example -- at no additional charge.

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

History: Founded in 1996 by four Canadian entrepreneurs.

Destinations: Headquartered in Calgary with service to 26 cities in Canada, including Vancouver, Ottawa and Victoria; 12 U.S. cities, such as Maui and Las Vegas; and seven destinations in the Caribbean and Mexico, including Nassau in the Bahamas and Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Sample Fare: Fly from Halifax to Toronto for $149.

Notes: First-come, first-served seat assignments can be made online or at the airport within 24 hours of your flight. . . . Beverages and light snacks are free; additional food available for purchase. . . . Some planes have in-seat entertainment. . . . Operates lounges in Canadian airports; one-time use starts at $14. . . . Two checked bags weighing up to 60 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 cities in Brazil in addition to destinations in other South American countries including Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Chile.

Sample Fare: Fly from Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro for $143.

Notes: Bookings are Web-only and ticketless -- simply show your purchase receipt. . . . Two checked bags allowed without fees, as long as both do not weigh more than 48 1/2 pounds. For each 2.2 pounds over, an extra 0.5 percent of the normal fare is charged. . . . Complimentary soft drinks and snacks in-flight. . . . Airline accepts only American Express and local currency for tickets booked at the airport.

* 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 14 Mexican destinations, including Cancun and Los Cabos.

Sample Fare: Fly from Toluca to Cancun for $67.

Notes: Offers van service between Mexico City and the Toluca airport, and between downtown San Diego and the Tijuana airport. . . . Two checked bags, with a total weight of 55 pounds, allowed at no additional cost. . . . Snacks, non-alcoholic beverages, tequila and beer are gratis.

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 20 cities in Australia in addition to destinations in New Zealand, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Sample Fare: Fly from Melbourne to Adelaide for $52.

Notes: Won Skytrax's "Best Low-Cost Carrier in the World" award in 2007. . . . 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 for passengers. . . . Meals can be purchased in advance online. . . . Separate "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, three cities in New Zealand, plus Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu and the Cook Islands.

Sample Fare: Fly from Adelaide to Sydney for $150.

Notes: Offers business-class seats, movies and in-flight TVs on seat-back screens, snacks and beverages for additional fees. . . . 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 (011-60-3-8775-4000, http://www.airasia.com)

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

Destinations: Hub in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Serves 48 destinations in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Macau, China, the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam and Burma. Also offers flights between Brisbane, Australia, and Kuala Lumpur.

Sample Fare: Fly from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur for $75.

Notes: Skytrax 2007 winner of "Best Low-Cost Carrier in Asia" award. . . . No tickets; airline e-mails passengers their itineraries or provides booking numbers for check-in. . . . Open seating policy. . . . Passengers can purchase "Xpress Boarding" for an additional fee (varies by destination) to board in the first group. . . . Checked baggage weighing up to 33 pounds is free; additional fees per 2.2 pounds vary by destination. . . . No outside food or drinks allowed onboard; snacks and meals available for purchase. . . . Operates sister airline AirAsia X for flights longer than four hours, with different fees and seating policies.

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

History: Made its first flight in 2004, with shareholders including Singapore Airlines. Modeled after Ryanair.

Destinations: Headquartered in Singapore. Flies to 18 destinations in seven countries, including India, China, Thailand and the Philippines. Also serves 13 cities in Australia.

Sample Fare: Fly from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Singapore for $45.

Notes: One checked bag is free of charge, up to 33 pounds. Every 2.2 pounds thereafter costs an additional fee, which varies by airport. . . . Passengers cannot bring food or drinks onboard; snacks, meals and beverages must be purchased onboard (available only on flights from Singapore). . . . No paper tickets.

* Nok Air (011-662-900-9955, http://www.nokair.com)

History: Founded in 2004 by a group of investors in Thailand.

Destinations: Headquartered in Bangkok. Flies to Hanoi and more than 10 cities in Thailand.

Sample Fare: Fly from Bangkok to Phuket, Thailand, for $37.

Notes: Planes are painted as birds -- "nok" in Thai. . . . Snacks and beverages, including water, are available for a fee. . . . Fare includes seat selection. . . . The business-class "Nok Plus" is available for an additional price.

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Cheap seats can be fine, but be aware of the drawbacks
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