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How to Fly Budget Airlines and Stay Sane

Flying budget airlines requires a special perspective to enjoy. Don’t get mad — prepare, understand, and laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.

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A lack of preparation on the passenger’s part does not constitute an emergency on the airline’s. You should have used the toilet before boarding, you should have brought warm enough clothes so you wouldn’t need a blanket, you should have carried on your own bottle of water and snacks if you thought you were going to get hungry or thirsty. Now you must pay for your error of judgement, would that be cash or credit?

This is said in jest, but there is more truth to it than I’d like to admit.

While RyanAir really did once threatened to stock their planes with pay toilets, this is a rather extreme thing for even budget airlines to do — but it does show the mentality behind the business model nonetheless. This is a mentality that must be passed on to you, dear passenger, if you are to remain sane while taking these cheap flights.

There is a certain outlook that is needed to fly on budget airlines. You need to realize that you are going to be tricked, scammed, and charged ridiculous fees throughout the entire process. You have to realize that this is just normal part of the deal — it’s nothing personal. As far as I’m concerned, I love budget airlines. It’s not just the cheaper prices but the challenge of trying to get that cheapest price possible by decoding the trickery and deception and trying to come out as unscathed as possible. Budget air travel is a game: the airline tries to snatch as much money from you as they can and you try to keep as much as possible. While the odds, like most games, are always in the favor of the house, this doesn’t mean that you can’t win too. Rest assured, no matter what moves the budget airline tries to pull, you are probably going to pay significantly less in the end than if you went with a full-service carrier.

In theory, budget airlines provide the consumer with a choice. They allow you to choose the services you want without being charged for the ones you don’t. So you choose if you need a checked-in bag, you choose if you want to eat, you choose if you want to have your boarding pass printed at the airport or if you just want to do it yourself in advance, etc . . . This is opposed to full-service airlines who don’t give you a choice and just charges you for everything upfront, whether you want to use it or not.

If this is actually how it is on budget airlines there would be no reason to complain: you pay for the optional services you want and fend for yourself for the rest. But the truth factor of this marketing angle only goes so far. There are two things about budget airlines that everybody hates:

Item A: Budget airlines profiteer on optional services

To be clear, it doesn’t cost an airline anywhere near $5 for someone to borrow a blanket during a flight, it doesn’t cost $15 for that tray of microwaved pseudo-food, there is no way that a cup of orange juice should be selling for $5, and charging $3 for some boiled tap water should be a sacrilege. Of course, this isn’t the fair market price for these things, it’s just a tactic for the airline to make back some of the money they lose by offering a dirt cheap base fare.

Though these exorbitant prices can also be thought of as penalties. The budget airlines charge these prices not just because they want to profit from the things sold but because they don’t want to offer these goods and services to begin with. Each pound on an airplane costs money to fly. To be able to reduce the weight of blankets, meals, bottles of water, etc . . . the airlines essentially charge enormous prices. This in turn reduces demand and the need to carry as much of any given product on board. So don’t think of yourself as being charged for using goods and services on a budget airline as being penalized for needing the stuff to begin with.

Item B: Charging for things that there isn’t a choice to buy or not

To put it bluntly, you can’t chose whether or not you would like a seat on an airplane. Flying standing passengers is surely against the statutes of every aviation related governmental body on the planet. You need a seat, it’s not optional, so charging passengers for a seat cannot be an extra fee, it must be included in the base price. That’s my thinking anyway, but it doesn’t transfer to some budget airlines who charge an “extra” fee for the right to sit down on a plane. The same goes for checking in, transferring flights, buying tickets (yes, they charge to you to give them money), taking breaths from the on-board air supply, etc . . .

Charging people separate fees for things that are mandatory is simply trickery. It’s just a way of artificially providing the appearance of a lower base fare while making back the difference later on in the purchasing process. Really, these stupid fees are just a part of the base fare distributed differently. Though there is no need getting riled up about it, a mandatory charge is a mandatory charge no matter what they call it.

Scoot Airlines charges US$3.20 for tap water

A cup of this boiled tap water will cost you US$3.20.

A cup of this boiled tap water will cost you US$3.20.

Water isn’t a choice that human beings can opt out of. We need it to survive. We get real screwed up if we don’t drink enough of it — especially when on an airplane for hours that has a pressurization system that dehydrates you. So I became a little irate when I heard a stewardess for Scoot Airlines inform a passenger that he would need to pay $4 Singapore dollars ($3.20) for a cup of warm water — a cup of warm tap water. My adverse reaction was a merely a matter of principle — I had ignored Scoot’s ban on bringing my own food and drink on the plane, so I had enough water to last out the flight. Though the zealot in me wanted to protest the injustice: you cannot deny a human a glass of water — this is illegal in some places. So I got out of my seat and went to the rear of the plane to have a proverbial pow wow with the stewardesses.

I knew that Scoot’s “pay for water” policy had nothing to do with the stewardesses, but they were the enforcers nonetheless, so I wanted to hear what they had to say about it. Almost as soon as I arrived in the rear of the plane a rather voluptuous stewardess approached me willingly. She seemed almost eager to answer my questions.

“So the water that you are serving people, the hot water in the kettle, that’s just tap water, right?”


“Do you think it’s right to charge people four dollars [SGD] for tap water?”

“Well,” she answered still wearing a giant smile on her face, “if you don’t want to pay there’s a water dispenser outside the toilet.”

“And I can just go up there and get water for free?”

“Yes, but you have to do it discreetly, because if my CSD knows about it maybe she will get a little . . .” She then turn her hands into claws and made a clawing motion around her head.

“So you weren’t supposed to tell me that?”

“No, I’m not supposed to tell you,” she responded with a mischievous grin.

It was my impression that her CSD was far away, in another part of the plane.

I asked her how she deals with people who don’t understand the concept of budget airlines and get angry that they have to pay extra for everything.

“Some people are very demanding,” she replied. “They want the lower fare but they want us to be like a full service airline, like Singapore Airlines. But we can’t do both. We are more of a local carrier, so what you see is what you get. It’s totally different. So sometimes there are misunderstandings about it.”

“So how do you deal with people who get angry at you about this?”

“Usually I will just walk away. I will explain it to them, but if they don’t want to listen I can’t force them. I will just walk away and that’s it.”

“Do you ever have anyone get really angry and start yelling?”

“YES we do, yes we do!” she said with eyes open wide.

I took it that such “misunderstandings” happen frequently.

“I understand that some passengers are unhappy because they can’t get what they want,” the stewardess said, “but it’s not right to insult the crew. There is only so much that we can give, unlike a full-service airline where everything is for free. It’s already in your ticket price, that’s why it’s more expensive.”


To stay sane riding budget airlines requires an understanding of how they operate, it requires a shifting of parameters and a willingness to understand the overarching concept that somehow justify the trickery and the ridiculousness. Like the stewardess said, what you see is what you get, budget airlines are totally different from full service carriers. So once you get over the dichotomy between fare and fee, they are often one and the same, are prepared to put in the time to figure out the convoluted booking systems, and then fend for yourself when onboard, budget airlines become much easier to enjoy.

I recently flew on Scoot Airlines round trip between Hong Kong and Singapore for a little over a hundred bucks. For US$57.50 each way I had no business complaining about the fact that I was charged a mysterious “airport transfer fee” when I didn’t even transfer airports, that I had to sneak on my own bottle of water, that there was no in flight entertainment system, or that I couldn’t afford food or a drink. I flew four hours from one country to another for under sixty dollars each way — a fact that I need to appreciate. All that really matters when dealing with budget airlines is the bottom line, and no matter what disservices you face, it is all made up for by the price you pay.

Getting from point A to point B as cheaply as possible is what it’s all about.


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Filed under: Air Travel, Budget Travel, Singapore, Travel Tips

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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