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Cars & travel.

Updated: 20 Oct 2021

Cheapest airlines for popular destinations

Choose the right carrier and you could save hundreds on your airfare, but at what price?
Which?Editorial team
Cheap flights 468667

Now that no-frills carriers, including Norwegian and Wow Air are launching new routes across the Pond and beyond, it’s essential to weigh up the differences between the budget airlines and their more traditional rivals. 

Can you actually get your hands on those headline-grabbing prices or are they as rare as hen’s teeth?

To find out whether budget carriers really offer the best fares year round, we used 12 months of Skyscanner data to check the average return fares on 16 popular routes from the UK. We then compared these prices with the average airfare of the cheapest carrier on each route.

Cheapest airlines' average vs overall annual average

Our conclusion? In most cases, it’s possible to save a packet on the basic fare by opting for a budget airline, but what do you cut out when you pay well below the average?

Do you get more when you pay more?

From cabin baggage to seat selection, things we once took for granted now cost extra on many carriers, even the ‘full-service’ operators. Many airlines, including BA and Virgin Atlantic, now charge for advance seat selection. So if traditional carriers are emulating the budget airlines, why bother to pay them more?  

On short-haul routes, the budget airlines often beat their low-cost rivals not only on cost but also on comfort. It’s less clear-cut on long haul, where you might have to weigh up whether you’re willing to squeeze into smaller seats or face a four-hour layover, for example. But even here we found instances where there isn’t much difference between low-cost and full-service options. Well, apart from the price.

Find out more: best and worst airlines

So you know what to expect, we’ve gathered information from the cheapest airlines on three key routes and compared them with full-service carriers on the same routes. You may be surprised by how little difference there is between them.

Norwegian Air International vs British Airways comparison

LONDON TO BARCELONANorwegian Air InternationalBritish Airways
Customer score70%67%
Food & drinkNot included. Tea/coffee £2.50; water £2; club sandwich £4.50; beer £4; wine £4.50Not included. Tea/coffee £2.30; water £1.80; club sandwich £4.95; beer £4; wine £4.50
Flying time2hr2hr
Seat pitch/width74-79cm (29-31in)/44cm (17in)76cm (30in)/44cm (17in)
Seat allocationRandomly assigned. Seat selection £18 rtnRandomly assigned. Seat selection from £7 rtn
EntertainmentFilms and TV shows available to watch on your own device; €5. In-seat power; free wi-fiNo in-flight entertainment, in-seat power or wi-fi
Hold luggage allowance/costsNot included. 1 bag at 20kg (250cm x 79cm x 112cm) £40 rtnNot included. 1 bag at 23kg (90cm x 75cm x 43cm) £30-£32 rtn

Table notes: Data gathered July 2017.

VERDICT: London to Barcelona

On this route, we’d choose Norwegian. Seats are roomier, wi-fi is free and food prices are almost identical.


Thomson Airways vs Air Mauritius comparison

LONDON TO MAURITIUSThomson AirwaysAir Mauritius
Customer Score61%-
Food & drinkIncluded. Three-course meal and drinksIncluded. Three-course meal and drinks
Flying time11hr 45 min11hr 55min
Seat pitch/width84cm (33in)/44cm (17in)79cm (31in)/46cm (18in)
Seat allocationRandomly assigned. Seat selection £31 rtn; extra legroom £125 rtnSeat selection free at the time of booking; extra legroom £120 rtn
EntertainmentSeatback screens with films, music and games on demand; USB power ports at all seats. No wi-fi  Seatback screens with films, music and games on demand; No power supply. No wi-fi  
Hold luggage allowance/costsNot included. 1 bag at 20kg (no size restrictions) £60 rtnIncluded. 1 bag at 30kg (length + width + height = 158cm max)

Table notes: Data gathered July 2017.

VERDICT: London to Mauritius

Even when you factor in the cost of luggage and seat selection, you should still save with Thomson. After 12 hours, you’ll also be grateful for the extra seat pitch. 


Thomson Airways vs Air Mauritius comparison

LONDON TO SAN FRANCISCO
Wow Air
Virgin Atlantic

Customer score-73%
Food & drinkNot included. Main course at time of booking £9.99Included. Four-course meal, drinks and snack
Flying time16hr 50 min (4hr 30min layover in Reykjavik)11hr 5min (direct)
Seat pitch/width74-79cm (29in-31in)/43cm (17in)79cm (31in)/44cm (17.5in)
Seat allocationRandomly assigned. Seat selection £18 rtn. Extra legroom from £107.96 rtnFree of charge 24 hours before departure; from £30 up to 331 days before departure. Extra legroom from £80 rtn
EntertainmentNo in-flight entertainment; power at all seatsSeatback screens with films, music and games on demand or on own device. Power/USB at all seats. Wi-fi £4.99
Hold luggage allowance/costsNot included.  One bag at 20kg (length + width + height = 158cm max) £111.98 rtnIncluded. 1 bag at 23kg (90cm x 75cm x 43cm)
Table notes: Data gathered July 2017.

VERDICT: London to San Francisco

Upfront prices are not as cheap as they seem: hold luggage, seat selection and meals could easily add £150. Travel light and pack a lunch box and you can still save.