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What to expect on board a budget airline flight

Coin-operated toilets? Wooden seats? Loading your own checked luggage? There have been a lot of tall tales about radical cost-cutting measures on the budget airlines, but so far the differences between them and the major airlines fall into a pretty short list:

AirlineSeat pitch


Seat pitch (the distance between the front of one seat and the front of the seat behind it) on the major airlines ranges between 30 and 34 inches — with North American and European airlines typically at the tight end of that range, and Asian and Middle Eastern airlines on the more generous end.

For comparison, the chart at left shows a sampling of budget airline seat pitch figures. As you can see, there’s a wide range. Some are even tighter than the already-cramped layouts on traditional airlines, while others try to distinguish themselves by offering a few extra inches for you to stretch out.


Here's one where the major airlines have been following the lead of the budget carriers; since the post-9/11 travel lull, many European and North American airlines have stopped serving food on domestic/regional flights. They’re pretty late to the party: Decades ago, one of the first ways the discount carriers saved money was by getting rid of the meal service. Not only does it cost a lot to provide the food, but all those kitchens take up space that could be used for more seats.

Of course, now that budget airlines are flying longer and longer routes, starving the passengers is not an option. Some are serving free snacks, but most of the cheap long-distance carriers are selling meals on board. How much you’ll pay — and how edible the food is — depends on which airline you fly. One of the better deals is AirAsia, where you can eat for as little as US$3 and the food actually isn’t terrible.

In-flight entertainment

One hundred channels of free video-on-demand, like Emirates or Singapore Airlines? Seat-to-seat video games? Don’t hold your breath. With a few exceptions, such as JetBlue and Virgin America in the USA, you won't find the same sorts of entertainment options you get on the newer planes from major airlines.

Recently, however, a few low-cost carriers have started installing video screens for pay-per-view movies. Check your airline’s web site; if you’re not lucky enough to be flying one that provides entertainment options, make sure to bring a book or your own portable video player, or get ready to spend a lot of time staring out the window. For parents traveling with children, the lack of in-flight entertainment can be especially challenging.

Reserved seating

For years, almost all budget airlines used open-seating. That is, you walked on the plane and sat wherever you liked. Whoever pushed their way to the front of the line got first choice.

In recent years, that trend has started to reverse. Not, as the budget airlines would tell you, because of passenger demand, but because many of them have determined that it’s better for their bottom line. First, by assigning seats, they can load passengers from the back to the front of the plane, which makes things go faster. This means the plane spends more time in the air earning money. And secondly, they now have the opportunity to charge passengers extra for “premium” seats, such as bulkheads, windows, and those in the front few rows.