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Are Budget Airlines Really That Bad?

A discounted flight isn’t necessarily a miserable one. If you’re not a habitual first-class flyer, budget airlines may indeed be worth a few sacrifices. Here’s why.

Would you buy a seat on a discounted flight—one with no food, entertainment, or baggage allowance—to save potentially hundreds of dollars? In an era of one-way transatlantic fares selling for as little as $99 on Wow Air and domestic flights selling for under $20 from Spirit and Frontier, more and more people are asking themselves: Is it worth it to forego small luxuries for a barebones flight?

There are many things to consider before jumping at those eye-popping prices. But if you’re not a habitual first- or business-class traveler, budget airlines may indeed be worth a few sacrifices. Here’s why.

You’ll Save Money Even if You Have to Pay Fees

If you’re not the type to travel with just a carry-on bag, go ahead and pay the fee to check a bag on Wow Air. You’re already paying significantly less than you would on another airline that allows a free checked bag, so you’ll still come out ahead.

Even the ubiquitous ads and in-flight sales pressure from flight attendants aren’t so bad. Sure, you have to sit through some sales pitches, but just imagine you’re being handed hundreds of dollars to do so. An eye mask and some decent headphones will shield you from most of it anyways.

RELATED: The 15 Items You Need to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

You Can Bring Your Own Food and Drink

Bringing food from home or, in some cases, even buying food in the airport terminal will be cheaper than the onboard options. Don’t let the TSA’s 3-1-1 guidelines scare you out of bringing in your own meals—just don’t bring any dressing or other liquids that exceed three ouncesand bring an empty, refillable water bottle. Packing food is likely much healthier than any of the onboard food options.

Not Selecting Your Own Seat Can Be a Blessing in Disguise

Some people love to choose their own seats. Others don’t care. And if you’re traveling with children or a large group, you might not be able to get all of the seats when you book regardless of your options. In those cases, waiting at the gate and being seated on a first-come, first-served basis may actually make it easier for everyone to sit together—even if you can’t get the exact window or aisle seat you want. (And when all else fails, you can always try politely asking someone to switch with you.)

The Seat Dimensions Are Basically the Same

Contrary to popular belief, most budget planes have almost the same seat dimensions as the bigger airlines. This isn’t to say the legroom will be ideal —these airlines will cram the cabin as full as they can—but how many of the big airlines let you maximize your personal space in coach class, either?

The seat pitch on Ryanair, Spirit, and EasyJet falls short of other airline seats by about an inch. Are you likely to notice an inch? Maybe, but maybe not. And the seat width on budget airlines is largely the same as standard seats—about 18 inches.

RELATED: The New Airline Seats From Hell

Safety Isn’t Major a Concern

The planes used by budget airlines are the same as the planes used by the major carriers. Budget airlines generally keep costs down by opting for a fleet of all one type of plane. They are not, in general, cutting corners when it comes to safety.

In fact, the most recent airline safety rankings by the Jet Airliner Crash Data Evaluation Centre put EasyJet, Norwegian Air Shuttle, and Ryanair—some of Europe’s biggest discount airlines—well above American Airlines. EasyJet also ranked above Southwest and Delta.

It’s usually delays, rather than safety issues, that spur complaints about the budget lines. Spirit is prone to late take-offs and Ryanair is often forced to compensate customers who report insanely long flight delays.

Bottom line: A discounted flight isn’t necessarily a miserable one. That will largely depend on whether or not you’re a high maintenance flyer. If you’re willing to sacrifice seat selection and a smidge of legroom, it comes down to baggage and food fees. And a bit of nickel-and-diming is nothing compared to the hundreds of dollars you’ll likely save.

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Associate Editor Shannon McMahon is always planning a new adventure. Follow her on Twitter @shanmcmahon_.

(Photo: Ryanair cabin via Shutterstock)

By Shannon McMahon

Editor Shannon McMahon is always planning her next trip and often writing in her travel journal. Follow her on Twitter @shanmcmahon_ and on Instagram @shanmcmahon.

Shannon joined SmarterTravel in 2015. A former news reporter, she's lived in the south of Spain, spotted elephants in Sri Lanka, gone spelunking in the Caribbean, hiked Jordan's Petra Basin, interviewed Sao Paulo's Michelin-Star chefs, and explored China via bullet train. Travel trends, news oddities, and her visits to up-and-coming destinations are some of her favorite things to write about.

Her stories have also appeared online on USA Today, The Sun, Huffington Post, Business Insider, blog.TripAdvisor.com, Boston.com, and more. Her educational background is in journalism, art history, gender studies, Spanish, and film. She's been quoted as an expert travel source by CNBC, People.com, MarketWatch, The Washington Post, USA Today, and more.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: "Plenty of extra thick hair elastics. They tame my frizzy curls and come in handy in a surprising number of packing and hotel dilemmas."

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: "Climbing (yes, climbing, it's steep!) the Great Wall of China before it's gone."

Travel Motto: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." - Mark Twain

Aisle, Window, or Middle Seat: "Window, of course."

Email Shannon at smcmahon@smartertravel.com.