Discount Airlines? A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Las Vegas.

If you travel, airfare has to be your top consideration. Hotels and rental cars can add up, but the airfare and baggage charges can suck the per diem out of your pocket faster than a cash bar at the office Christmas party.


Say you’re traveling to that office Christmas party, but the boss splurged this year and decided to make a four-day event out of it, hosting the thing in Vegas. Of course you work in, say, Chicago, so you have to fly out for it, and since it is in Vegas, Baby, skipping out this year is clearly not an option. The best action you can take is to compare rates – or let someone else compare rates for you. Luckily for you, someone already has. And while that comparison was taking place, a few very strange facts were uncovered.

First, let’s regress back to our story: the boss was at least wise enough to have the party in January, allowing for more affordable and less hectic non-holiday travel. You are to fly round-trip, Monday to Thursday, from Chicago to Las Vegas. You’re taking your laptop (it is a work party), your personal bag, and two small suitcases. Booking the ticket a month in advance, your options are:

  • Allegiant Air, a discount airline, which will cost you $304, charging you for both checked bags and the carry-on bag;

  • Spirit Air, another discount airline, which will cost you $333, again charging for the carry-on and both checked bags; or

  • Southwest, not a discount airline, which will cost you $339 with no baggage fees.

Interesting, isn’t it? What happens here is that the “discount” airlines offer cheaper fare but load up on the baggage fees, even charging you for carry-ons. At the end of the day, there’s really no discount of any significance. Perhaps this is just a Las Vegas thing. We all know that some people will pay anything to get to Vegas. Let’s say, then, that the very next week, you have a presentation in DC. The same travel circumstances would apply, just with a different destination. Perhaps we’ll try a few different airlines this time:

  • JetBlue, a discount airline, would run you $377, charging for the 2nd checked bag;

  • AirTran, another discount airline, would run you $304, charging for both checked bags; or

  • Southwest, again, not a discount airline, would run you $271 with no baggage fees.

It appears that there is some truth to the destination theory, but not in the way that would have changed the findings here. Here, it’s the major carrier that has the destination-tied price drop. The bottom line is that there is little to no financial advantage to forsaking the security and comfort of a major carrier. At least as far as domestic flights go, there’s no such thing as a free ride!

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Chris Turberville-Tully works with Absolute Casing, a custom suit and flight case company Berkshire, England.