One of the most classic examples of this phenomenon is the now out-of-business “WOW air” which would commonly advertise trips from the US to Europe for under $100. Are fares like this be too good to be true? Obviously WOW is no longer around so I guess it wasn’t sustainable for them, but nonetheless you can get some ridiculously low priced fares on flights still on other airlines. Let’s talk about what factors make this possible and why it’s a thing at all.

Budget airlines

As I mentioned in my previous article “All About Flights”, there’s a great video by Wendover Productions that talks about the specifics of why budget airlines are so cheap but quite simply it comes down to the feature parity with traditional airlines being not quite there. Budget airlines cut costs on everything they can and then pass on the savings to the customer. Here’s some of the most prominent negative aspects of budget airlines:

  • You pay for any bags you check in, or sometimes even for anything larger than a backpack for carry-on
  • No meals are included on the flight
  • You fly in and out of smaller, cheaper airports. These airports have fewer amenities and are often located far away from the city they claim to be flying you in or out of
  • The seats don’t recline, or don’t recline a lot
  • There is usually no entertainment of any kind on the flight (including no in-flight magazine)
  • Some airlines will not even have reserved seating, but will just seat people on a first-come first-served basis
  • They often don’t do connections

There are of course many advantages, in addition the lower price, to flying on budget airlines like them often having newer planes and flying non-stop all day.

Limited quantity

When you see ads for ridiculously low rates they’re usually not for all seats on the flight but for a limited number of seats. This way it will cause a stir for promotional purposes and get a lot of people thinking about taking that flight even if the seats that were on sale are already gone when they go to book it.

Different fare classes

Everyone’s undoubtedly aware of “cabin classes”; that is the economy (and sometimes “premium economy”), business, and sometimes first class section on an airplane - each offering different physical amenities like better seats and better food than the last. Obviously those jumps in class increase the price but what you may not be aware of is that even in the same “class” there are invisible sub classes. That’s right - you and the person right next to you in the same cabin class of the plane might actually have paid significantly different prices for what is essentially the same seat. These are called fare classes and the difference in price comes down to things like

  • How flexible it is to cancel the ticket, and how much money you get refunded if you do cancel
  • Being able to choose your seat ahead of time
  • When you booked the ticket (e.g. last minute, or well in advance?)
  • How many miles/points you accrue for that flight on loyalty programs

Last minute openings

Airlines unsurprisingly want to fill all the seats on the plane as it is the most profitable way to fly. That being said, if a flight is scheduled to fly out soon but has a significant number of empty seats it may make sense to sell those seats off close to at-cost as it is still better than leaving them empty. Sometimes, you just get lucky that the last minute deal opens up on a flight that you really wanted to take.

Operating at a loss

In a capitalist world like ours it is not uncommon for airlines to sometimes operate at a loss (that is, sell tickets for less than the cost they’re incurring from having you on-board) just to run the competition out of business on a certain route. This is the unfortunate cut-throat life in business. That being said, it can be great for consumers in the short run. Long term, once the competition has subsided the airline that’s doing the undercutting will jack up the prices.

Odd times

This is more of a repeat of my last article, but if the ticket is during off-season, during the middle of the work week, and during an odd time of day it will significantly decrease the price due to the decreased demand.

In summary, when you see those ultra low prices for flights there’s a significant chance that these are real prices but the factors you sacrifice to get that price may not make it worthwhile. However, if the stars line up for you, you can definitely take advantage for some significant cost savings.