What are LCCs & ULCCs?

My thoughts on low-cost carriers and how to use them to your advantage.

What are LCCs & ULCCs? + main

If you're wondering what LCC or ULCC stand for, you've come to the right place.

LCC = Low-Cost Carrier

ULCC = Ultra Low-Cost Carrier

They are also known as no-frills, or budget airlines, or discount carriers.

Now what do these terms actually mean? They are used to describe several new airlines that have popped up around the world that cater to passengers seeking to fly for less money.

Ultra Low-Cost Carriers (ULCCs)

The hallmark trait of a ULCC is that they will charge extra for anything and everything.

The ULCCs you are probably familiar with in the United States are Sprit, Frontier, Allegiant, and Sun Country.

You might score a cheap $29 fare between San Francisco and Las Vegas, but if you want to bring anything larger than a small backpack, prepare to fork out extra cash. Want to pre-select a seat? That will cost extra. Interested in an inflight soda or a cup or water? You guessed it...that too will cost you extra.

Low-Cost Carriers (LCCs)

I like to think of low-cost carriers as budget airlines that are still reliable and family-friendly.

The major US-based low-cost carriers that you are likely familiar with include Southwest and jetBlue.

What makes them different from the ULCCs? Both offer cheap flights, but they are often not quite as cheap as those offered by ULCCs.

The inflight experience on both Southwest and jetBlue are significantly better than any of the ULCCs for the following reasons.

  1. Southwest and jetBlue offer free drinks and snacks on-board.

  2. On Southwest, all passengers get two free checked bags.

  3. Southwest has open seating (no seat assignments) and jetBlue offers both free and paid seats

  4. Both airlines are known for good service and reliable operations. The same cannot be said about ULCCs.

Are ULCCs and LCCs actually that bad?

It depends, but I would argue if you know what you are getting yourself into, you can set your self up to score a great deal.

I've flown Spirit cross-country before, hopped on a dirt-cheap Allegiant flight, and regularly dip into the European ULCC offerings.

I never think twice about flying Southwest or jetBlue as both have served me well over the years.

What to keep in mind when flying on a ULCC or LCC

  1. Know baggage policy: you will want to have a good handle on what you can bring for free and what you can expect to pay for anything more. The last thing you want to do is arrive at the airport and get hit with an unexpected $99 baggage fee. If the airline weighs bags, remember you can often put heavy items in your jacket pocket or smaller backpack.

  2. Check-in Online: Online check-in is not supported by all low-cost carriers, but be sure to use it on those that do offer it. This will save you time and keep you out of the (often) long lines at their check-in counters.

  3. If you're checking a bag, get to the airport early: Ultra low-cost carriers are inherently low-cost. This means that they will often have fewer check-in counters and fewer front-line employees available to help move lines. You certainly don't want to miss your flight because you had a bag to check.

  4. Be ready for delays and changes: This is a big one and often the least talked about problem with ULCCs. Delays can easily roll into hours and cancellations can leave you stranded without an alternate solution. The important thing to know is that LCCs/ULCCs do not have agreements with other airlines, which means if your flight is cancelled, they will not put you on a Delta/United/etc. flight. They will likely put you on the next flight or refund your money and wish you good luck. If you have a credit card with delay or travel insurance, be sure to use it when booking your tickets. It just might save your bacon.

  5. Pack water + snacks: If you're frugal like me, you probably do not want to fork out $4 for a bottle of water on a plane. So plan ahead and bring a reusable water bottle that you can fill up in the terminal. It is also good to have small snacks ready and available for your flight. My bag is always stocked with RXBARs and Trader Joe's trail mix.

Mindset Matters

My rule of thumb? It is best to plan for the worst and expect the best. Don't forget you are saving a bundle of cash and you will be at your final destination before you know it.

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