Low-cost airlines in North America

Southwest, America's largest low cost carrier

This is one of several Wikivoyage articles about air travel on a budget.

So you want to save money and be crammed in like a sardine. There are several ways to get cheap airline travel in North America: choose routes where the fares are cheapest; choose times when the routes are cheapest; shopping around; and flying on budget airlines.

How to book, when to fly

Price comparison websites

The best way to find a cheap fare quickly is to use a price comparison site. These allow you to check multiple airlines, possibly at multiple airports on multiple days. However it often pays to compare the offer with the price on the airline's webpage. Airlines are more likely to offer an electronic ticket and not charge handling fees. You may also be able to search for a hotel or hostel, rental car, cruise, rail pass, vacation package, or other related items at the same site.

Most of these search engines have the option to send you an email when the fares for specific destinations change by a specific amount or go below a specific value.

Note that most price comparison sites do not list fares for low-cost airlines and some major airlines (such as American, Southwest, SpiritAir, etc.). On the other hand, there are websites targeting low-cost airlines in particular in addition to traditional carriers.

Some airlines such as American have instituted a guaranteed lowest fare feature on their websites. This means that you are guaranteed to get the lowest fare for that flight on their website. This does not mean that you will not find a lower fare on another airline, but it is an improvement over the past because airlines' own websites offer frequent flyer booking bonuses for using their sites to book tickets. For example, if a multi-airline search on Travelocity showed that American had the cheapest flight, go to American´s site and book your ticket there to get the bonus. Even if American is no longer offering it, you will be able to get the frequent flyer booking bonus.

Check discount sites individually for deals. But discount airlines sometimes have special procedures or restrictions, and may be less willing to allow you to change to a different flight or to give you a refund. Be sure you understand all special terms before booking. Discount airlines are constantly expanding the list of airports they service; check their official sites for details.

Largest Low Cost Carriers

Discount airlines with more limited routes (including scheduled charter airlines):

Special deals

These programs are being phased out, and no longer make much sense anyway because the fare structures have changed so much. Full Y fares have come down so much, and most of the time, you are no longer restricted to full Y anyway, even when purchasing an hour before.


First & Business Class

Flying standby

Military Travel

Space-A travel is an opportunity for U.S. military personnel, their dependents, and retired military personnel to travel on military aircraft for free or for steeply discounted prices—often $27 or less.

Some online booking sites also offer special military discounts:


Space-A travel was implemented by the U.S. Army for the purpose of casually transporting persons and supplies overseas on a space-available basis. There is a funny aspect to it, since Space-A travel is statutorily recognized as "sea transportation," even though virtually all travel has been and currently is facilitated by aircraft.


Access to space-available flight is determined by your place in a six-category hierarchy: Members of the U.S. military travelling on emergency leave have the greatest priority, followed by a scant number of individuals on so-called Environmental and Morale Leave (EML)--an ameliorative provision offered to those who have been stationed in undesirable locations for a long time. Next comes regular active-duty military personnel on official leave, which comprises the largest proportion of the six categories. Further down are family members of those on EML and some teachers employed by the department of defense; lower still are certain students and military persons on temporary assignments. Reservists, retired military members, and dependents are at the bottom of the totem pole; moreover, reservists are only permitted to fly within the continental U.S. (CONUS) and U.S. possessions. If you need to travel abroad, you must be in active duty status or show orders to report to your base, if it is located outside CONUS.








Italy Aviano Air Force Base in Aviano, Italy. Spain



Plan Your Trip

Those with flexible schedules are most likely to realize success when utilizing Space-Available travel. Your chance of securing a seat is a strong function of origination and destination point (large, busy Air Force bases will have a greater selection of flights), season (avoid holidays and on-peak travel periods to your destination), and your place in line (early birds have priority over those who sign up later within the same category). These are especially important considerations if you are in the bottom category, as getting seats around Thanksgiving, Christmas, or the busy summer season can be near impossible. Your reward for having a few days of slack time around your departure dates, travelling off-season, signing up early, and packing light, is a unique flight experience for the price of a cheap dinner for two.

Baggage Limits

Don't think you can escape baggage restrictions by flying Space-A! The restrictions are considerably more permissive than commercial airliners, and you won't be charged a fee if your bags are too heavy or exceed maximum dimensions. You may, however, suffer some disappointment when you discover that weight and dimensional requirements vary across aircraft, and that your super-long umbrella or 60-pound rock collection is not allowed on the aircraft you're scheduled to board.

International travel

Travelers using Space-A will need a passport, appropriate visas, and appropriate vaccinations for their destination country. Travelers will also need to abide by the custom regulations for the destination country.


Government aircraft fully span the hospitability spectrum: some aircraft have all the comforts of home, like high-pitch reclining seats, on-board catering and entertainment, and well-maintained lavatories. At other times, you will be flying in a cargo plane, which can be a two-engine turbo-prop with a minimal interior and maximal response to turbulence, poor weather, and outside temperatures.


Dress in layers before boarding. You may not know what kind of aircraft is waiting for you at the gate, and temperatures can be very uninviting (< 0 C) inside the cabin of some of the more primitive airplanes at cruising altitude.

Arriving at the airport

Main article: At the airport
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