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Your Guide to the World’s Low Cost Airlines

Stefan Loble
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Flying the cheaper skies with low cost carriers.

When I lived in Malaysia, I was fascinated by the country’s most famous low cost airline carrier, Air Asia. Their operation is amazing: they have a low cost carrier terminal on the same grounds as the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, but instead of an expensive glass and marble palace the low cost terminal is built more like a Costco. Planes pull up outside and everyone walks down the runway to their aircraft. When it rains, staff pull out hundreds of umbrellas, which never seem to help, because no kidding, there can be two inches of water on the runway. (Whoa, tropical storms).

What’s the good part?

The savings they achieve through bare bones operations allow them to run extremely lean and keep ticket prices low. As a western traveler, if you buy a ticket to go somewhere more remote on a major airline, you’re likely to pay through the nose.

A better way to travel: fly a major carrier to get yourself to a regional hub, and jump on a low cost carrier from there.

One thing to look out for with a low cost carrier is that you may be charged a fee for everything that comes on to the plane besides your body – frankly, it sometimes feels like they practically charge for the oxygen.

But if you pack carefully (another reason I try to stick to a capsule wardrobe in my carry-on bag) and keep an eye on what’s included, they can be a great option for finding your way around the world.

To help illustrate some of the options, we did a roundup of the most notable discount airlines by region. Our search revealed hundreds worldwide, so we’ve chosen a few that highlighted the major cities in each region for you to connect through and maybe spend time in as you plan the next leg of your journey.

Map of the world.

Southeast Asia

East Asia

Middle East & Central Asia

Europe

Africa

North America

South America

Although we’ve identified a handful of primary cities flown and airlines available in each region, there are many more options out there to get you to your next destination. It’s worth a bit of searching to see what’s best for your itinerary. The best tip we’ve seen: Look up the airport website for your destination, and find a list of the carriers that fly into that airport. Then you’ll have a curated, up to date list of airlines to check for the best fares.

1. Southeast Asia

Low cost carrier hubs in South East Asia.

One of the biggest factors that makes flying so important in Southeast Asia is the water. Getting somewhere requires either a boat or plane. The region is well covered by low cost carriers.

AirAsia is Asia’s fifth-largest airline by number of passengers and planes, and it has been named the world’s best low cost carrier for nine years in a row. It serves more than 165 destinations across Southeast Asia, Australia, and North Asia with affiliates in Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, and India. It also has a sister airline, AirAsiaX that specializes in long haul flights.

Jetstar Asia Airways is an offshoot of Australian Jetstar Airways based out of Singapore. It offers flights to countries including Myanmar, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam as well as regional routes to Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong.  As a subsidiary and feeder airline for Quantas, it uses the Quantas frequent flyer program, and is a main airline for budget passengers to Australia and New Zealand from Southeast Asia.

PAL Express is another highly rated regional airline operating in the Philippines to Manila, Cebu, Davao and Zamboanga. While smaller than the others now, it is in fleet expansion mode, with new routes planned soon, and ranks very highly for customer satisfaction. It’s a subsidiary of Philippines Airlines.

2. East Asia

Options for low cost carriers in East Asia.

Within a country like China or Japan, high speed rail is a viable option. But distances can be far. Low cost carriers particularly help between nations.

Peach Aviation is the region’s highest rated airline, flying in and around Japan. It has 18 destination cities with hubs in Naha, Osaka, and Tokyo as well as flights to Shanghai and Hong Kong. It is a subsidiary of Nippon Airlines and, interestingly, was the first airline in Japan to accept Bitcoin as payment.

West Air offers cheap air flights operating in China out of Chongqing. It offers 18 destinations out of Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport and one international flight to Singapore. A good option to get around inside China, the airline is a member of the U-FLY Alliance, which was created because of rules in China that make it difficult for a two airlines from different regions to merge. Within the Alliance, the airlines offer more than 300 destinations in 18 different countries.

Spring Airlines is another regional low cost carrier based in China, with destinations in more than a dozen Chinese cities as well as Cambodia, Japan, Thailand, and other countries. Spring only sells tickets from its website. It’s also seriously no-frills, and doesn’t offer complimentary on-board meals or even complimentary water (though passengers can purchase food and drinks onboard). But it still managed to make the top 10 list of best low cost carriers in Asia.

3. Middle East & Central Asia

Options for low cost carriers in the Middle East & Central Asia.

As geopolitical factors make overland travel more difficult - and there isn’t a strong rail network until you get to the Indian subcontinent - air travel is the way to go around this intersection of Europe, Africa, and Asia.

IndiGo is the largest airline in India and has the largest fleet of any low cost carrier in Asia.  It operates more than 1,000 flights every day serving 52 destinations including 8 in neighboring countries. They only offer economy seating and getting an assigned seat requires an additional fee.

flynas, formerly Nas Air, is based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It’s the country’s first low cost airline and connects with regional destinations in countries like Turkey and Pakistan, as well as hubs further away including Paris, Brussels, Hong Kong, and Sao Paulo.

flydubai is a government-owned airline serving 95 destinations in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe all connecting through Dubai. Perhaps appropriately given Dubai’s legendary wealth, flydubai is one of the few low cost carriers to offer business class tickets on some flights. Although not part of Emirates airlines group, they do offer connections with some Emirates flights that will transfer your luggage from one airline to the other.

AirArabia is based in the UAE and operates flights to 151 destinations in the Middle East, North Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia and Europe. In 2015 they introduced Airewards, the first loyalty program for a low-cost carrier in the Middle East and North Africa region.

4. Europe

Low cost airline carriers in Europe.

In Europe, the rail network is one of the best in the world. However, the pace of rail travel has to work with your objective, like whether you actually want to sleep on a train. Buses are also still a popular option for travel within and between countries. But the low cost airlines Europe offers ensure smooth and speedy travel.

Norwegian is consistently rated the top low cost carrier in Europe, though it is smaller in size than EasyJet and Ryanair. Still, it has more than 500 routes to 150 destinations in 35 countries in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Norwegian has been a signature partner with UNICEF Norway since 2007 to send aid to war torn countries around the world.

British airline easyJet has 820 routes across Europe in more than 30 countries and its largest hub is London, Gatwick. It also has affiliates easyJet Europe and easyJet Switzerland. The airline offers an annual subscription called easyJet Plus, targeted at frequent flyers, that offers pre-assigned seating (including extra legroom), priority check-in, fast track security, priority boarding and extra carry-on baggage allowances. easyJet has also been the subject of not one, but two reality TV shows on British network ITV.

Ryanair is probably the most well known European low cost carrier — probably because it has more than 400 planes flying to 37 countries in Europe as well as Morocco, Israel, and Jordan. Unfortunately, they’re also well known for taking “no frills” flying to an entirely new level, including planes with non-reclining seats, no seat-back pockets, and two fewer bathrooms (to accommodate six more seats). While you will get cheap fares with Ryanair, they’ve also been ranked the worst in customer service for low cost carriers in some surveys.

5. Africa

Low cost airline carriers in Africa.

In Africa, traveling between countries can be extremely challenging, and not that long ago, flying from city to city could even require a connection in Europe. No longer, as regional airlines allow for airfare deals to be found locally. Our picks concentrated in the southern part of the continent, which is most famous for safari and beautiful natural landscapes.

Kulula is Africa’s first — and funniest — low cost carrier, known for their bright green planes and wisecracking flight attendants. Based in South Africa, they fly to Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein, East London, Windhoek, Harare, Mauritius, Victoria Falls, Livingstone, and Nairobi. They’ve also forged partnerships with Air France and Kenya Airways to expand their reach.

fastjet is a holding company for Fastjet Tanzania, Fastjet Zimbabwe, and Fastjet Mozambique, and aims to be the first truly pan-African low cost airline. They currently serve 13 cities in 5 African countries, making them one of the better options for city and country hopping across the continent. This year, the airline began offering daily flights between Harare and Bulawayo, making it as the most affordable airline to operate the Harare Bulawayo route.

Mango is one of the smaller carriers in Africa, based in South Africa, with just a handful of destinations in various South African cities and Zanzibar, Tanzania. But it’s worth mentioning because it is part of the Star Alliance as a connecting partner, so you may be able to book connecting flights with other Star Alliance airlines.

6. North America

Low cost airline carriers in North America.

For our mentions in the US, we thought it would be interesting to highlight a few airlines offering decent flight deals that are not typically top of mind for American travelers. And, also focus on those that can get you outside of the US.

WestJet is the region’s most highly awarded low cost carrier and serves Canada, the United States, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and just this year, Europe, making it a good airline to check when you’re looking for cheap fares. They also have a sister airline called Swoop that is an ultra-low cost focusing on point-to-point flying in the U.S. and Canada.

Southwest is probably the best known low cost carrier in the U.S. and is the world’s largest budget airline. Starting as an intrastate airline in Texas in the early 1970s, the airline now has 99 destinations in the United States and ten additional countries. They added routes to Turks & Caicos in 2017 and plan to add four destinations in Hawaii in late 2018 or early 2019 pending FAA approval. It’s important to know that Southwest does not allow its fares to be indexed by most major travel search engines, so if you’re interested in their rates, you must visit their website directly.

Air Canada Rouge is the low cost subsidiary of Air Canada, and serves mostly vacation travelers and destinations in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, South America, Central America, Mexico and the United States. It’s one of just a handful of long haul budget carriers, and boasts easy connections with Air Canada flights.

Interjet is Mexico’s third largest airline with destinations inside Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, North America and South America out of Mexico City International Airport. It initially called itself “the JetBlue of Mexico,” but now offers more free perks than some other low cost airlines like extra legroom and a more generous baggage policy.  

7. South America

Low cost airline carriers in South America.

South America is huge, and far easier to travel via air once in the region.

Sky Airline has been named the best carrier for low cost flights in South America several years in a row, and offers service from its hub in Santiago, Chile to Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Peru and Uruguay. If you’re willing to fly midweek and at off times, you can score some ridiculous deals. As of writing this article, the airline was offering one way flights for as little as $4 USD between Santiago and Concepción.

Easyfly is a carrier with cheap airfare operating exclusively in Columbia and focusing on serving cities not served by other carriers. In 2018, the company got an influx of cash and added seven additional planes to its fleet, with plans to offer 10 new destinations and 17 new routes, including popular eco-tourist destinations, so it could be one to watch.

Gol is Brazil’s low cost carrier with lots of domestic flights and a few international flights to regional countries. But importantly, it has code sharing agreements with more than a dozen other international carriers, and is part of the Smiles frequent flyer program with Aeromexico, Air Canada, Air France, Delta Air Lines, Emirates, and others.

How It Used To Be

Once upon a time, in order to economically get to Thailand, I went overland across India. Cab, train, and a personal record-setting 10 hours spent riding on top of a bus.

It was fantastic for the experience - when I had more time than money - but it was a slog.

Hopefully, this will inspire you to get yourself in-country to some place interesting, and visit a lesser known destination that a regional airline supports.

Bluff on,

Stefan Loble 

 

 

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