I used to fly ultra-low-cost airlines to save money. Their cheap tickets aren't worth the headache anymore.

  • I used to opt for ultra-low-cost airlines because the cheap fare was worth the same no-frills experience.

  • A crackdown on bag size, poor customer service, and worse reliability pushed me away from ULCCs.

  • Mainline carriers' basic economy is a better bang for your buck, and it's even sometimes cheaper.

Since I got the travel bug in college, I've spent a lot of time on US airlines — but mostly on ultra-low-cost carriers, or ULCCs, like Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines

I always loved the thrill of scoring a cheap ticket, and my younger self was perfectly OK with the no-frills cabin and stuffing everything into a personal item.

Sacrificing comfort and onboard freebies to save a buck was worth it then, and the ULCCs were banking on travelers like me to stay loyal to the business model.

However, flexibility and convenience have become more important to me in recent years, and this is where the ULCCs have slipped while mainline carriers have improved.

Plus, I'm not convinced that Frontier and Spirit's recent addition of "premium" perks will give either a competitive edge.

Cheap mainline tickets still come with cabin perks 

I know when I book a ULCC that I am committing to at least a few hours of sitting in a cramped, bare-bones plane, where even a cup of water costs money.

Most seats don't recline, have headrests, or have televisions. Only Spirit offers WiFi — and for a fee.

The author's legroom on a Spirit flight in August 2023.
The author's legroom on a Spirit flight in August 2023. Frontier and Spirit offer 28 inches of pitch, while coach seats on all three mainline carriers start at 30 inches.Taylor Rains/Business Insider

These cabins can be bearable on shorter flights when the fare is a really good deal. But why settle when mainlines combine the best of both worlds?

American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines recognized the budget competition years ago and created their own version of a cheap ticket: basic economy. The goal was to lure in price-conscious travelers like me with discounted but still amenity-heavy tickets.

These stripped-down fares have limitations. United doesn't allow a carry-on bag while American and Delta do, for example. Still, all three come with the regular mainline cabin perks, like reclining seats, in-flight entertainment, headrests, free snacks and drinks, and standard legroom.

The Kindle Fire on the tablet holder.
I flew on American in May on a basic economy ticket, and I loved the tablet holder. Taylor Rains/Business Insider

Further, domestic WiFi is free on all three for eligible T-Mobile customers like me, while Delta and American have their respective free internet packages — even for basic economy ticketholders.

ULCCs are not always cheaper once you do the math

In my experience, mainline tickets are sometimes cheaper than Frontier or Spirit.

For example, the base fare for a roundtrip evening flight from LaGuardia Airport to Orlando in mid-August costs $211 on Spirit and $277 on Delta.

Screenshot of Google Flights showing Spirit and Delta fares from LaGuardia to Orlando in mid-August.
The $230 roundtrip shown in the picture is the price if you booked Delta one way and Spirit the other. It's $277 if you book Delta both ways.Google Flights

Once you factor in the $50 fee for a carry-on bag on Spirit — which applies in both directions — the total price is $311. Reserving a specific seat would be another $30 at least, with the cheapest seats being $15 per leg.

Delta's basic economy already includes a carry-on and a standard seat with WiFi, power, and entertainment. However, it doesn't offer seat selection, even if you want to pay extra. And, unlike Spirit's new policy, Delta charges change and cancel fees for its cheapest tickets.

Despite the pros and cons, it's still an easy choice.

With everything equal in terms of route, timing, and carry-ons, Delta is $34 cheaper.

I don't want to worry about the size of my carry-on

United CEO Scott Kirby said it perfectly in a podcast interview last week: "They don't treat their customers right."

He specifically pointed to an unnamed ULCC that charged people $99 for carry-ons and then paid a commission to the agent who charged the fee.

I've never been charged for a personal item or carry-on on Frontier or Spirit because I follow the rules to a T.

However, the fiasco proves that it may not matter if you follow the rules — there's an incentive to charge people anyway. This adds a level of stress I don't have when flying the mainline.

My backpack fit perfectly inside the personal item size checker.
My backpack fits perfectly inside the size checker on Frontier. On my three flights last year, the gate agent checked every personal item and carry-on during boarding. Taylor Rains/Business Insider

To their credit, the ULCCs have ditched some of their low-cost strategies with more premium options. Spirit has dropped all change and cancel fees, and Frontier is adding business-class-like seats to lure in more premium travelers.

But it's too little too late, in my opinion. The two still lag in terms of customer service, both ranking last in terms of customer complaints and the economy product for 2023.

One of the best examples is that Frontier's only line of communication between the customer and the airline is an online chat, not a phone number, unless you have status or are or have traveled within 24 hours.

It's a way to save on costs but at the customer's expense — which is exactly Kirby's point.

Frontier and Spirit have limited routes and poor reliability

Frontier and Spirit ranked last for flight delays and cancellations last year, according to Cirium, and they collected the highest number of customer complaints.

Sure, you could get delayed and canceled on any airline anytime — but the data doesn't lie. I have a better shot of getting to my destination on time by booking a mainline.

ULCC networks are also less robust than mainlines. The flights are commonly early in the morning or late at night, and there are fewer frequencies per day. This inconvenience makes flying ULCCs more risky overall.

For instance, if I miss a connection or my flight is canceled, the mainlines have a bigger network with more re-booking options. In my LaGuardia to Orlando example, Spirit's morning flights leave before 10 a.m., and the evening flights leave after 9 p.m.

Delta has options all day. I like that peace of mind.

Read the original article on Business Insider