I got into Miles & Points because I can’t resist a great deal.
It’s not about pure penny-pinching, as I have been wont to splurge for a Michelin-starred meal, but about the principle. It feels good to “win” when you meet your travel goals significantly under budget.
In that vein, today let’s take a look at Canada’s trifecta of budget airlines: Swoop, Flair, and Porter.
Can you truly save on airfare by booking cash with these carriers? Or are your hard-earned dollars better spent on the Air Canada/WestJet oligopoly that so many of us grumble about?
For the points puritans out there, I know that booking flights in fiat must feel anathema, but consider this a way to avoid crazy Aeroplan dynamic pricing or burning all your WestJet dollars – they’re much better spent on the wild itineraries, no?
Budget Airlines: What to Watch Out For
Before we even get into the ultra low-cost carriers, I want to talk a little bit about their business models and features they share in common.
The first thing to note is that ultra-budget carriers appeal to leisure travellers. Jayce has gone more into the logistics of the airline business before, but suffice to say, leisure travellers tend to plan far in advance and be much more price sensitive.
This means that these enterprises don’t have the luxury of getting huge swathes of revenue from last-minute business travellers. I’m sure some business people have flown with low-cost airlines on occasion, but it isn’t at the core of how these carriers make their money.
Because the “base” portion of each ticket tends to be very low, this means the companies need to make a buck from other sources. So prepare to get nickel and dimed!
The first, and most obvious, way the carriers will try and squeeze money from your wallet is by having weird baggage policies. Remember how most airlines will let you have a standard carry-on, or checked bags for a fee in economy class?
Not so with budget airlines. You’ll probably be allowed a complimentary “personal item” that’s subject to frankly ridiculous size and weight restrictions. But your classic hard-shell carry-on or single checked duffle bag could cost even more than the fare on your ticket!
The second method that these carriers use to keep costs down and increase profits is to have restrictive flying schedules. This is due to the fact that most leisure travellers prefer direct flights, which may not make any economic sense to run every day.
Therefore, be ready for the fact that your chosen destination may only have itineraries available for it during select days of the week. The airlines want to fly full, so as to make every flight worth it for their bottom lines.
In keeping with the principle of flying full, the next thing these carriers will do is severely limit your ability to cancel. Most full-service carriers do this for their cheapest classes of fare, too, but ultra-budget carriers seem to do it for almost all tickets. Know the policy before booking!
For those of you who like having a bite or a drink on a flight, there’s no free sodas on budget carriers. When available, the limited menu items can be acquired via credit card.
Finally, I’d like to mention a risk to always keep in mind when booking on budget carriers, which I call the “Jetsgo Factor.” Anyone else remember Jetsgo? They were an extremely popular charter airline that operated in Canada from 2002 to 2005.
Their prices were great, they had service to and from most of the busiest hubs in Canada and the US, and they even had seasonal charters all over the Caribbean.
Their friendly smile of a logo, however, only hid their severe financial woes from the public.
The company was so deeply in debt that they chose to accept orders until the night before being suddenly and abruptly forced to cease services – at the peak of March Break season. In an ironic twist of fate, the CEO was on holiday skiing whilst thousands of his customers were stranded.
You’d also better believe that customers were at the bottom of the list of creditors and plaintiffs to be paid out from the auctioning off of Jetsgo’s assets.
Remember: when booking on one of these airlines, “getting Jetsgo’d” is always a risk – so make sure you have some kind of emergency backup plan just in case.
(If anyone has interest in the full breakdown of the Jetsgo debacle, I’d be happy to write one as an “aviation history” special.)
Swoop is WestJet’s wholly-owned cheaper and cheerful-er subsidiary. It offers services across much of Canada (though interestingly, not its headquarters city of Calgary), as well as leisure destinations in the United States and Sun destinations in the Caribbean and Mexico.
Its primary hubs are my home city of Edmonton in the west, and Pearson International out east.
(Interestingly, Swoop also services the flights for select Sunwing vacation packages, but we will be talking about that particular airline in a subsequent article.)
Regardless, Swoop is one of the newest airlines in Canada. And since they are backed by WestJet, I’m looking forward to seeing what they have to offer the budget market as their parent airline returns to profitability.
Let’s take a look at the airline’s additional charges, so that we don’t get suckered into the mistaken belief that the $70 fares placed at the top of our Google searches will actually cost that little.
Swoop’s free personal item is limited to dimensions of 41cm × 15cm × 33cm (16” × 6” × 13”), which is about the size of one laptop bag or purse. That’s probably not enough for a change of clothes!
Swoop’s charges for standard-sized carry-ons of 52cm × 23cm × 38cm (21” × 9” × 15”) and checked baggage of a combined dimension of 157 cm/62” are identical.
More annoyingly, they are subject to dynamic pricing: registering checked bags at the airport instead of at the time of your online booking can double the price! The schedule of rates is as follows:
2. Flair Airlines
Maybe the stars have aligned and I happen to be Prince of Travel’s cheapskate author because all the budget carriers are headquartered in Edmonton.
That’s certainly the case with Flair Airlines, which mostly services Western Canada from its hub at, you guessed it, YEG.
As of the time of the writing of this article, most of Flair’s destinations are within Canada, with a few in the United States.
The airline has ordered more aircraft, and is looking to stand up routes to hot locations in the United States such as Nashville, Tennessee in 2022 for all you Elvis and bourbon lovers out there.
Flair also has several classes of tickets, and sometimes they can be a great deal. Just make sure to compare them against what amount of luggage you intend on bringing with you, as there’s no reason to pay extra for a fare class with checked bags if you don’t have any.
Your free personal item is limited to dimensions of 15cm × 33cm × 43cm (6” × 13” × 17”) and a weight of 7 kg (15.5 lbs). Make sure you weigh your personal item – if it’s even a hair over, you could be on the hook for carry-on fees.
Carry-ons are limited to dimensions of 23cm × 40cm × 55cm (9” × 15.5” × 21.5”) and a weight of 10 kg (22 lbs), which is fairly standard. The price will be between $29 and $49 if booking online, or a flat $59 if brought with you to the airport – ouch!
Checked bags are charged according to the following schedule:
3. Porter Airlines
Personally, I’d state that Porter is actually my favourite airline on this list. That’s because of its super convenient main hub airport at YTZ, Toronto’s Island Airport named after Billy Bishop.
Aside from commemorating one of the most venerable Canadians in history, Billy Bishop Airport is in the heart of downtown Toronto. It can easily be accessed via public transport, and security and check-in are much less agonizing in my experience than YYZ.
Porter specializes in flights in and around Eastern Canada, with holiday destinations such as Mont-Tremblant in mind, as well as smaller cities I absolutely recommend such as my former abode of Fredericton, New Brunswick.
They also offer services to a handful of American cities and some seasonal itineraries to Sun destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean.
Porter’s fare classes are important when it comes to baggage, because their Basic fare rate only includes a personal item at 43cm × 16cm × 33cm (17” × 6” × 13”) and 9 kg (20 lbs), with all other bags being subject to mandatory checking for a fee.
All other classes of Porter fares include standard carry-ons, with some of the higher categories waiving checked baggage fees entirely (though the prices on these fares often make them less than desirable).
Here’s how much checked bags will run you per item:
How Do the Budget Carriers Compare?
I’ve put together a few sample itineraries below to compare and contrast the ultra-budget carriers to their full service competitors.
Don’t forget to keep in mind your personal travel needs rather than blindly chasing a bargain.
If you can’t fit a budget carrier’s flight times around your schedule, look elsewhere. Most full-service airlines can provide a flight just about anywhere in Canada on any given day, so long as you’re content to take connecting flights.
On the other hand, the budget carriers’ distaste for connections can be great for leisure travellers who just want to get to their destination in one stint.
Either way, don’t be afraid to shop around before making your selection – and always book directly with the airline.
It’s tough enough dealing with budget airlines’ policies. I can only imagine the additional nightmare fuel of having an online travel agency in between.
Swoop vs. WestJet: Edmonton to Las Vegas
For our first flight, let’s look at a real-world itinerary, one whose price should be logically “algorithmed” into oblivion by consumer demand, thus making savings even more important: the Super Bowl/Valentine’s Day weekend of 2022.
Where? The temporary romance and sports gambling capital of the world, Las Vegas. Whence? The capital of brutal winter, Edmonton.
Here’s what I found from Swoop departing on Friday, February 11, 2022:
$100 plus baggage. If you can do with a carry-on, that’s a maximum of $49 extra. Oh, and the direct flight leaves at 5:30pm, so you can still catch your flight if you’re working a mostly-full day.
The price from their parent company WestJet on the same day isn’t nearly as appealing:
$298? And it leaves at 8:30am in the morning? Hard pass! The day after doesn’t even have a direct flight, either.
My verdict is a clear and resonating win for Swoop. Even with the byzantine baggage regulations, it’s a much better deal.
Flair vs. Air Canada: Vancouver to Montreal
For our next example, I wanted to use something many of us can relate to: a trip home for Christmas. In this case, I’ll use the example of someone from La Belle Province returning from their sexy startup job in Vancouver.
Here’s what I found for Sunday, December 19, 2021 on Flair:
A $296 base fare, plus $98 for a carry on and checked bag. Net total of $394. Not bad at all for a nonstop flight – just try to avoid drinking too many expensive airplane beers.
Here’s what Air Canada is offering on the same day and route:
$656 – an increase of more than $250! That’s a lot of extra fare for the handful of Aeroplan points earned.
Of course, as a Flex rate it will have more openness to changing travel plans, but that’s still a hefty premium considering the basic service being rendered.
My verdict would definitely be another win for the budget airline on this itinerary. Remember, too: this is peak travel season, so pricing gets exponentially harsher the closer the date comes. I’d snatch up tickets like this well in advance.
Porter vs. WestJet: Toronto to Fredericton
I couldn’t just mention Fredericton then drop it! As one of the oldest cities in Canada, I highly recommend the capital of New Brunswick to anyone who loves the beauty of undisturbed nature and colonial architecture.
Let’s act as if this itinerary is last-minute and compare what Porter’s offering versus the next cheapest airline, in this case WestJet.
Here’s what I found on Porter, which due to the last-minute nature of the booking defaulted to the second-highest fare class.
So $467 with a stop in Ottawa, for a later arrival time. That’s a little bit annoying, and it seems like this route usually does require that detour. The convenience of YTZ does help, but this definitely isn’t ideal from a budget carrier.
$468 with a direct flight, albeit from Pearson. I’d say that’s hard to beat, though a checked bag will cost extra in this case and bump the itinerary to the ~$500 mark or over.
This illustrates one of the oldest adages in the cash fare travel game: book early.
As our fellow writer Jayce has noted, sometimes last-minute flights can be a great opportunity for Miles & Points enthusiasts to snag award availability. For those of us booking cash on budget carriers, however, it’s the opposite.
Ultra-budget airlines offer tickets that are worth your hard-earned dollars, so long as you have three things on your side: time to book in advance, the willingness to commit to your set travel dates, and knowledge of the baggage policies and surcharges.
If you make your cash bookings with these three elements in your favour, then the budget carriers will deliver on your leisure travel needs within Canada and the United States at a price that few of their full-service counterparts can compete with.
In the next part of this series, I want to take a look at the vacation destinations these airlines fly into, as well as throw a wrench into the gears by adding Sunwing (an enterprise which has had its share of recent misfortunes) into the mix.
Until next time, don’t overspend on your flights.