If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me how I can afford to travel so much I’d be flying first class. People often assume that international travel is a luxury only to be afforded by the ultra-wealthy, but that’s just a lie to keep you grounded. The truth of the matter is that you don’t need to have a six-figure salary to have a full passport. The secret is to be smart about travel, do your research, and fly with one of these budget airlines.
Note: All prices are quoted in USD.
1. Air New Zealand
With the world’s first — almost — lie-flat beds in economy, Air New Zealand is the best choice for long-haul flights to and from anywhere down under. I have loved every flight I have been on with Air New Zealand, an amazing feat considering I often spend 24+ hours traveling between the US and Australia. If an airline can make a bedraggled, sleep-deprived, transpacific flier feel at home with their cheeky Kiwi humor, first-class-level free entertainment in economy, and comforting, dietary-restriction-friendly meals, they are doing something right. And at less than $1000 USD for most round-trip flights from Los Angeles to Sydney, the price is most definitely right.
2. Norwegian Air
Norwegian Air is an ultra-budget airline that doesn’t feel like an ultra-budget airline. From relatively spacious seats to the complimentary personal entertainment centers, this airline makes the trip across the pond to Europe cheaper and easier than ever. I exclusively fly with Norwegian on any European adventures, because you just can’t beat a $500 round-trip flight from Los Angeles to Stockholm. However, be warned that the LowFare option is the dirt-cheap, bare-bones fare. If you want in-flight meals and one 20kg checked bag, then it is best to go with their LowFare+ option that tends to run about $100 to $150 more than the LowFare option. Still, $650 round trip to Europe is far better than paying $1,500 to fly with a fancier airline.
3. Southwest Airlines
Southwest is a truly wonderful airline; they stand by their customer service, have always included two free checked bags in any fare, have a wonderful rewards system, and will ply you with free non-alcoholic beverages (alcoholic beverages are for purchase). Southwest may not be the cheapest airline to fly in the American West, but the pleasant ease of travel is worth the ever-so-slightly higher fares. You can also build an impressive amount of airline miles if you get their American Express credit card.
4. Hawaiian Airlines
If you’re thinking of jetting away to an island paradise anytime soon you must check out Hawaiian Airlines. Their round-trip flights ring in around $500 from mainland US to Hawaii and they can even get you to Oceania for just a couple of hundred dollars more. The genius of Hawaiian Airlines lies in their limited route that allows them to serve a handful of island destinations (plus Australia and New Zealand) for dirt-cheap without having to sacrifice comfort. Their seats are sleep-able, their meals are free, and their checked bag fees are reasonable at $25. Their only downside is that while there are tempting entertainment centers on the back of each chair, it will cost you $8 to watch a first-run movie, but when you compare it to movie theater prices, it’s not actually that bad.
5. United Airlines
United isn’t necessarily a budget airline all the time and their prices for domestic US flights tend to fluctuate, but you can strike gold for random international destinations like Singapore or Guatemala. I once flew from San Francisco to Singapore, one of the world’s longest flights, for less than $500 with free meals, entertainment, and checked bags. Long story short, United isn’t the best, but it’s not the worst and it’s always worth a look to see if you can find a deal.
AirAsia recently won best budget airline in the world for 2017, but I would be hesitant to take their long-haul flights. They are great for short hops around Asia, but the seats are small, food is not included, and bag fees can be surprisingly high. I have no problem forgoing a few creature comforts for a couple of hours to save $100, but it does become harder to rationalize discomfort as the hours creep into the double digits.
7. Jetstar Airways
The budget version of the luxurious, but expensive, Quantas. While Jetstar is the best bang for your buck when traveling within Australia, it is no Southwest. They really cram the seats into the plane, leaving you with very limited space and oddly hunched over. You will need to pay to check bags so going carry-on can save you money, but even with the checked bag fees, Jetstar still rings in at cheaper than Virgin Australia or Quantas, the only other airlines that frequently fly domestic Australian flights. I am hesitant to recommend Jetstar for anything longer than the 5-hour jump from Sydney to Perth, though, because the seats really aren’t the best.
Ryanair is very much like Jetstar in the fact that they take budget airline to mean no legroom, high checked-bag fees, and no in-flight refreshments. They are decent for making the hop from Scandinavia to mainland Europe after you’ve gone the majority of the way with Norwegian, but not much more. Also, be careful to check which specific airport you will be flying to, as London Stansted is not London Heathrow. London Stansted is a 40-plus pound train ride away from the center of London, whereas London Heathrow is in the heart of the city.
The main takeaway from all this is that budget airlines can save you thousands of dollars, but you need to weigh your options carefully. Sometimes the comfort of a slightly more expensive airline is worth it, especially when you’ll be crammed in a metal tub hurtling through the sky for 10+ hours, but often the ability to stay a few more weeks in Rome outweighs cramped knees.