7 Reasons Why Cheap Airfares are Not Always a Bargain

hat you have been waiting for has finally become a reality: a cheap airfare to a destination to which you have wanted to visit for years. Excited, you start researching such things as lodging reservations, restaurants at where you are interested in dining, and transportation options. You are on your way — right?!?

More likely than not, you will be disappointed that your dream trip at a very low cost will not become a reality, as you find out 7 reasons why cheap airfares are not always a bargain.

In this recent article, Ric Garrido of Loyalty Traveler imparts some good strategies, thoughts and advice pertaining to taking advantage of cheap airfares; but realize that those strategies will not work all of the time and they are not for everyone, as there are impediments to taking advantage of a cheap airfare — including but not limited to the following:

1. Ancillary Fees

Those flights to Oslo, Dublin or Reykjavik — such as the airfares of $99.00 each way as occasionally offered by WOW Air — might initially seem like fantastic deals; but when you take into account all of the ancillary fees charged by no-frills ultra-low-cost carriers, they may not seem like such bargains after all. The reason is because the actual airfare itself is primarily what is known as a “loss leader”: an airfare so low that it entices potential customers to purchase them — but the real money to be made is what is sold to the customers after the ticket has already been purchased.

Consider the actual experience of Ric Garrido himself where he proclaimed “WOW Air. My worst low fare deal to Europe ever!” and see how airfares “as low as $99.00” each way initially became a still-respectable $363.52 round-trip airfare per person between Boston and Copenhagen before blossoming into a final cost of $547.52 round-trip per person due to such ancillary fees as seat assignments and assorted charges for baggage…

…and he earned no frequent flier loyalty program miles on WOW Air, to add some salt to the wound.

You can visit the Mileage Run Deals forum of FlyerTalk at any time and catch transatlantic airfares on legacy airlines — which actually still include some items such as a snack, a beverage and some frequent flier loyalty programs in the ticket price — with airfares close to that $547.52.

In fact, I currently see a transatlantic round-trip airfare on three legacy carriers at the time this article was posted for approximately $250.00 less than the $547.52 which Ric Garrido paid for his transatlantic flight; but unfortunately for those based in North America, the origination of the flights is in Europe.

Other Internet web sites you may want to consider visiting for finding cheap airfares include The Flight Deal and Airfarewatchdog. I personally like to use Google Flights and explore for myself, which is how I initially found these inexpensive airfares to China.

If you are the type of person who either packs a lot of items for a trip; purchase a lot of items to take home from a trip; strongly prefers an assigned seat — amongst other criteria — perhaps traveling as a passenger aboard an airplane operated by a no-frills ultra-low-cost carrier may not be the best value for you…

…no matter how low of a price of the initial airfare might seem.

Also remember that cheap airfares usually come with restrictive policies for changes and refunds — that is, if they are even allowed. Things happen; so ensure that you would be willing to eat the cost of your ticket — or possibly purchase travel insurance — should there be a significant change in your schedule.

2. Consider the Cost and Time of Positioning Flights

Booking flights to position yourself to the origination if you are located nowhere near it can also significantly impact your wallet. Using WOW Air as an example, you will most likely incur some significant costs for flights to position yourself from the airport nearest to where you are based — unless you are located near enough to Boston or Baltimore; 0r unless you can take advantage of an amazing mistake fare.

If the positioning flight costs $1,500.00 and it takes ten hours to get there, the cheap airfare may not be so appealing after all — and you might be able to get a positioning flight which is inexpensive; but it takes you on a circuitous route which consumes more time than you might be willing to spend.

By the way, my definition of significant costs include the use of frequent flier loyalty program miles as well as money — and, of course, your time. Travel is not free; so spend your miles wisely. You worked hard to earn many of your miles — and for many people, earning frequent flier loyalty program miles is even more difficult than ever.

Ric Garrido is based in the San Francisco Bay area and had to travel to Boston to catch his flight on WOW Air to Copenhagen. Whether he used miles or cash — or a combination thereof — it cost him something to get to Boston from San Francisco.

As part of his strategy, Ric recommends using the gateways of “Scandinavia, Iceland and Dublin” as “gateways to anywhere” — which can indeed be true; but realize that traveling on from those locations will usually require yet additional transportation costs. Consider spending a night in one of those gateway locations before moving on to your next destination for at least these two reasons: so that you can incorporate another destination in your itinerary; and to also provide a cushion in case of irregular operations. For me, this advice results in money well spent.

3. Is Your Schedule Flexible Enough?

Ensure that your schedule permits you to take advantage of booking a cheap airfare, as they are not always prevalent. With WOW Air, for example, only certain flights at certain times are actually priced at $99.00; so the odds are likely against you that you will not find the ideal flight at the ideal price if your schedule is not significantly flexible.

If your schedule is rigid, chances are highly likely that you will be out of luck finding that cheap airfare — or at least finding one which is not as inexpensive as you would prefer.

4. Research Other Costs

There are frequent fliers who do not take advantage of many cheap airfares solely because hotel room rates could cost hundreds of dollars per night, depending on the location; and then there are the costs you will encounter at your destination — such as ground transportation from the airport, meals, taxes, fees and other incidentals which suddenly rendered the cheap airfare not such a bargain anymore and can negate its value.

If it is a destination where you would have paid the full price of airfare to travel to anyway despite the potential costs you will encounter at your final destination, then it is perhaps worth it to you to consider a cheap airfare for that flight.

5. Do You Earn Miles or Points?

Whether or not frequent flier loyalty program miles can be earned on those mistake fares — and yes, there are frequent fliers who might forgo taking advantage of a cheap airfare for this reason.

The best thing to do is consider how much you value frequent travel loyalty program miles or points to your potential cash savings; and see whether or not that cheap airfare is actually worth it.

6. Irregular Operations

As previously mentioned, irregular operations can also potentially wreak havoc on your itinerary. What if your flight for which you paid a cheap airfare experiences irregular operations which could cause you to miss your connection to your next flight or train ride? Then what?!?

Whether it is positioning flights or possibly connecting flights into other countries in Europe, realize that ultra-low-cost carriers such as WOW Air typically have no partnerships with other airlines. This could potentially cause problems should the flight operated by the ultra-low-cost carrier experience irregular operations.

7. Other Potential Inconveniences and Unknown Variables

Other unknown variables could include how comfortable are the seats; as well as the flight schedule frequency and times of departures and landings. What are the amenities available aboard the aircraft during the flight — which will certainly cost you extra, remember — and would you be satisfied with them once you purchase them?

In his trip report as a passenger of WOW Air, Ric Garrido reveals the food items on the in-flight menu, which is apparently not accessible before commencement of the flight. Would a ham and cheese baguette at a cost of seven euros satisfy you; or should you purchase something to eat at the airport beforehand?


Like mistake fares, cheap airfares are not for everyone. It takes a significant amount of research, time and effort to ensure that a cheap airfare is indeed a true value and bargain for you.

I am certainly not saying that Ric Garrido is incorrect with regard to his strategies; in fact, I agree with many of them — but they can be subjective, depending on what factors are important to you.

If you do decide to take advantage of a cheap airfare on a future trip, please at least consider the advice and potential impediments outlined in this article to maximize your own strategy for success.

2 thoughts on “7 Reasons Why Cheap Airfares are Not Always a Bargain”

  1. Captain Kirk says:

    Brian, point #6 really resonates with me. I refuse to fly Spirit and Frontier and the like mainly for the fact their seat room and reputation are awful but the biggest reason is that even at a super cheap fare, I won’t run the risk of trying to fly home and have the one plane they have at the airport (the flight you’re on) break down. I am not wasting half a day or an overnight so they can get another plane to me in order to fly home. As you might remember from a previous article you wrote, I am the kind of person who buys an “insurance” night at the airport hotel the night before a big trip, you think I would chance not making it back on time? Not a chance.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I am thinking about writing an article as to why Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines have not really impacted the pricing of airfares offered by Delta Air Lines on flight routes on which they compete directly, Captain Kirk — and you have given at least one good reason for that disparity in airfares.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.