Discount carriers like Frontier Airlines, Allegiant Air and Spirit Airlines love to tempt us with shockingly low fares that seem like a dream come true.
However, this is one instance where the adage “you get what you pay for” is always true.
Yes, you can fly from Denver to Fort Lauderdale or Indianapolis to Tampa for as little as $49 if you book during a sale, but the flight itself is really all you're paying for — and that's it.
See related: Best airline credit cards
Why discount airline flights are so cheap
Like most travel deals, the devil is in the details. Travel writer and expert Ramsey Qubein says discount airlines make a lot of money unbundling their fares to sell you convenience upgrades other airlines include — “extras” like a seat assignment or the privilege of bringing a carry-on size bag on the plane.
If you don't factor all the extras into the overall price, discount airlines can often be more expensive than the so-called full-service carriers, says Qubein.
As you price out your next trip, you should also never assume you'll only have to pay for obvious extras like seat selection and luggage. Scott Mackenzie, who blogs about points and miles at Travel Codex, suggests digging deep and poring over fine print before booking with a discount carrier.
“Spirit Airlines will charge you extra to print your boarding pass at the [check-in counter at the] airport,” he says. “Even a glass of water can cost money.”
To really get that cheap fare advertised by a discount airline, Mackenzie says you will need to accept a lot of inconveniences, pack light and get creative.
“There's a reason some people have created jackets with extra pockets to carry on everything without using a bag,” he says.
But the worst part about discount airlines isn't always the hidden fees and “gotchas” — for some, it's the very limited flight schedules they offer.
If you fly with airlines like Allegiant or Frontier often — or know people who do — you've probably heard plenty of stories of flight cancellations and delays of several days, ruined holidays and bungled travel plans.
Since many discount carriers only offer a few flights per week to some of their destinations, a simple delay or a one-time cancellation can mean missing your trip altogether.
Rack up airline miles to avoid discount carriers
For a lot of people, dealing with discount carriers just isn't worth it no matter how low the fares go. Fortunately, there are plenty of other ways to save money on airfare or get it for close to free, particularly if you're willing to pick up a travel credit card.
Credit card expert Jason Steele says airline mileage awards can be especially fruitful since you may get many of the extras discount carriers charge more for — like the ability to choose your own seat, in-flight refreshments and even checked baggage.
The Southwest Rapid Rewards program is especially generous for consumers who book with cash or miles.
“In the case of Southwest, there's no fee for changing or canceling an award ticket, although you have to pay any fare difference in points,” notes Steele.
No matter how you pay, Southwest also affords all its passengers two free checked bags.
Travel expert Lee Huffman, who runs the Boarding Area website Bald Thoughts, says airline miles cannot make travel free, but it can get close since all you have to pay is government-mandated taxes and fees.
“When using miles in the U.S., you'll only pay $11.20 in taxes for a round-trip ticket,” he says. “If you have the airline's credit card, in most cases, you'll also receive free checked bags and priority boarding when it comes time to fly.”
Taxes and fees can vary on international flights and can easily cost hundreds of dollars, but using miles can still save you a bundle depending on the itinerary.
For example, a round-trip American Airlines flight this September from Cincinnati to Rome, Italy, would set you back over $1,300 in main cabin economy depending on the itinerary and dates you choose. However, you could book this flight for 60,000 American AAdvantage miles plus $130 in taxes and fees, which is a stellar deal.
How to pick a frequent flyer program and credit card
One problem consumers face when it comes to airline miles is knowing how to plan ahead. It's easy to shop for the specific flight you want and find a discount carrier with the lowest price, but using airline miles means dealing with award availability and blackout dates, as well as being tied down to a single carrier and possibly a few partner airlines.
If your goal is flying with big carriers at a drastic discount, Steele says you'll want to focus on a single airline that will offer you the best return for their miles.
For example, you may live in a city where Delta Air Lines dominates like Atlanta or Minneapolis, in which case it could make sense to focus your efforts there. If you live in a destination where Southwest flies and you focus most of your travel within the U.S. and the Caribbean, then the Southwest Rapid Rewards programs would be a solid bet.
Once you decide on a program to earn miles in, you'll want to take steps to earn as many miles as you can. You can earn miles through flying, but also by picking up a co-branded airline credit card, enrolling in promotions and using shopping portals and dining programs.
Steele also suggests looking into flexible rewards programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards. With a Chase credit card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, you can use your points to book airfare through the Chase portal or transfer them at a 1:1 ratio to popular airline partners like Southwest, United, British Airways and JetBlue.
With flexible points, you don't actually have to commit to a specific airline. Instead, you get the benefit of earning points now and deciding how to redeem them later on.
Also, note that many airline and travel credit cards offer a big sign-up bonus that can easily cover the cost of a few flights within the U.S. or a single economy flight abroad. All you typically have to do to earn the bonus is meet a minimum spending requirement within a few months.
If you want to earn a bunch of miles in a hurry, the best airline credit cards and the initial rush of miles they offer can help you get there faster.
See related: 10 common travel credit card mistakes to avoid
The bottom line
There's nothing wrong with flying discount airlines as long as you know what you're getting into. Make sure to read the fine print and understand all the fees you'll need to pay before you book, but also have a backup plan if you're flying an itinerary that only runs a few times per week.
If you don't like the experience discount carriers offer, you can also focus on racking up airline miles or flexible rewards. While this is most easily accomplished with a credit card, you can also earn miles by flying, dining and even shopping.