Dubai: I grew up in an era when all flights were priced pretty much the same. All we cared about, once we had decided to fly home for our annual vacations, was the duration of the stops, if any.
Money did matter. But there wasn’t much leeway in terms of finding a flight that was significantly cheaper.
The last few years, however, had completely changed flying — with no-frills airlines kicking off an aviation boom.
Around the world, the concept of "budget" or "low-cost" began airlines started taking wings.
The latest one was formed in the UAE: On Wednesday, Etihad and Air Arabia announced the launch of the latest low-cost airline to hit the UAE - Air Arabia Abu Dhabi. This is UAE's fifth airline.
Budget vs non-budget
Now, you can choose to fly in two classes of "economy". One kind offers "premium" comfort — comfortable space, both in your own seat and from your co-passenger’s elbow, a guaranteed meal and all kinds of bells and whistles.
These little perks often go hand in hand with paying a couple of hundred dirhams (or dollars) extra for the same journey. For example, a blanket, or headphones for your in-flight entertainment system.
The other kind — regular economy — is way better for your pocket, but may be bad for your knees if you’re taller than 5'4".
Not to mention that you have to pay extra for everything you consume in flight — and must get extremely friendly with your co-passenger.
Being punctual is also a gamble for many reasons.
Sometimes, despite all the cost-saving euphoria peddled by the no-frills airline crowd, prices for these same "budget" flights could, in reality, soar obscenely high.
The reason: Their online booking platforms are primed by some spaghetti of codes and computer algorithms to make a killing from customers when demand is high.
The result being that prices during peak periods are three to four times normal rates when flying out of the UAE.
Despite these downsides, I would still choose a budget airline. Especially if the difference in airfare offered by incumbents, non-budget airlines is significant — as is the case often.
Money over comfort
I enjoy flying and airplanes in general. And I do love the little comforts on a nice flight.
But I am also a stickler for saving money. When forced to choose between saving upwards of Dh200 over comforts that last for only a few hours, I choose saving money. When travelling as a family, these savings can go into the thousands.
“I actually use budget airlines more than I would like to,” Yousra Zaki, a colleague here at Gulf News, confessed. “I generally don’t like to splurge on flights, so I can spend my money on the destination instead,” she added.
This week, during a non-peak period, a budget round-trip flight from Dubai to Kochi would cost around Dh650 or even less — this is almost half of what one can expect to spend on a non-budget carrier.
More stops, less money
A round-trip from Dubai to Paris (CDG) can cost anywhere from around Dh1,600 to Dh3,200 on a regular airline.
But you could be paying from Dh1,600 to Dh2,000 with one or more stops — and an additional 2 to 10 hours. Dh3,200 would then get you a direct, comfortable flight straight to the City of Light, and back.
Anju George, a 28-year old who loves travelling, said: “To me, if I can pay an extra amount to get to my destination earlier, I would. To me that money gives me an extra day at my destination.”
However, she says, the money-saving part kicks in for shorter distances.
“Budget airlines offer some serious cash-saving opportunities,” she added.
Today, budget flights are here to stay. For travel aficionadoes, they are a boon for domestic travel. Flying from city to city had been made very cheap, fast and comfortable by discount carriers.
A 12-hour bus ride is converted into a one-hour flight, making significant savings in time and effort possible.
Gopika, another travel-savvy millennial, concurred on the aspect of time — not just the duration but punctuality.
“If you’re on a domestic trip, where flight time is less, the airline doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you reach on time. However, for international trips, when you spend a long period of time inside the carrier, choosing a better airline is important.”
Refund and baggage policies
To their credit, budget airlines do exploit options that are super important for budget-savvy travellers.
Some airlines offer significant price-drops if you don’t check in a bag, or if you are willing to waive your right to a refund in case of cancellation or flight change.
For a travelling couple, the savings in choosing a non-refundable ticket option can be upwards of Dh500 for two.
This comes with the obvious downside — if you cancel or want to change the flight, you lose your savings and then some.
Everyone I spoke to for this story were unified in their approach to budget flying. It's a sort of love-hate relationship. Love the savings, hate the cons.
“If I could avoid budget airlines in my life, I honestly would. But sometimes, my desire to save wins over my desire to be comfortable,” Zaki said.
When we travelled home for my wedding — a four-hour trip — I told my folks, I am "splurging" on a non-budget airline.
That feeling is truly, for me, a mark of how flying is no longer just a way to get from destination A to B. It is also about social status, comfort, just plain old convenience and most important of all — money.
Then we flew back on a budget. That makes things about even.