What You Need to Know About Flying Budget Airlines in Canada

Tempted to fly the frugal skies? Make sure you know what is—and isn't—included in the ticket before you book.

Canada’s Budget Airlines: What to Expect

With the 2022 launch of Lynx Air, Canada’s skies are getting increasingly crowded with budget airlines. Some of them are betting big on success—Lynx alone has committed to adding up to 46 new Boeing 737s to their fleet over the next several years. But those who choose Lynx, Flair, or Air Canada Rouge may be in for some surprises, even before you board the plane. If you’re thinking about booking a seat for a budget-friendly getaway, here’s what you should keep in mind.

Be Prepared to Pay for Extra Services

Know up front: a budget airline’s stripped-down business model gets you a seat on a plane flying from A to B—and nothing more. That’s how they’re able to turn a profit. Julie Gilcrest, an advisor with The Travel Agent Next Door, a Toronto-based travel agency, says a number of services most people consider core or fundamental—and which usually come free on “legacy carriers” like Air Canada and WestJet—come with extra costs. “Make sure to read the fine print,” she says.

For example, even carry-on bags carry are subject to a surcharge (from $60 plus tax on Lynx, for example) and checked bags can be very expensive (as much as $92). Seat selection (even at check-in), printing a boarding pass, or even dialling the call centre with a question may come with an added cost. Travel writer Debbie Olsen, who has flown Swoop, Lynx and Flair, adds that it’s a good idea to purchase and pay for baggage fees beforehand, online. In the end, how much you’re able to save depends on several factors, such as route, timing and how many people are booked for a given flight.

Book Everything in Advance

It’s more expensive if you wait to do so at the airport. For example, on Lynx, you’d save ten bucks on that carry-on if you’d booked it in advance, online, and they can be as much as $25-30 cheaper on other low-cost carriers (LCCs).  Overall, she advises travellers to add everything up before booking to make sure they’re actually saving money, even with the smaller individual costs. Often, the savings can still be significant.

canada budget airline - Man with shoulder bag and hand luggage walking in airport terminalPhoto: Shutterstock

Pack Your Patience (And Snacks)

Frequent LCC flier Jodie Fluit warns passengers to prepare for small, unexpected hassles. For example: on a recent Swoop flight out of Hamilton, she’d checked in online, but she still had to stand in a queue to drop her baggage, a process that’s been streamlined with legacy carriers. And on board, she says, expect the seats to be smaller, with less recline, and to pay for every item, even water. (Sometimes no food or drink is available at all.) It’s an absolutely, unapologetically no-frills experience, from start to finish.

Have a Back-Up Plan

Another, less-obvious consideration: Gabor Lukacs, director of the Toronto-based non-profit organization Air Passenger Rights, warns that if your flight is disrupted—delayed or cancelled—your options for rebooking may be scant. Budget airlines in Canada tend to operate very limited routes and, unlike legacy carriers, do not rebook on other airlines to get you to your destination sooner. If, for example, the low-cost airline you’ve chosen flies from Calgary to Vancouver only three times a week, you may be waiting days—not hours—in the event of a cancellation.

That happened to Heather McEachen, a Vancouver Island-based communications specialist. She saved $600 last summer by flying her family with Swoop from Victoria to Edmonton. Before their return, she got a notification that her flight was delayed. “I had assumed it was just an hour,” but then she double-checked. “Nope. It was a whole day.”

Budget airlines Canada - Flair jet in Waterloo, OntarioPhoto: Gordon Wheaton / Shutterstock.com

Are Budget Airlines Worth It?

While some unfortunate incidents have captured headlines (including a well-publicized diversion in January 2022 that sent Waterloo-bound passengers on a Flair flight to Toronto, with no shuttles provided to get home), a number of customers say, given the right set of circumstances, they’d fly a LCC again.

Fluit notes she’d fly with budget airlines in Canada again if the savings were significant, and her schedule was flexible. For Olsen, it’s about the routing—she flew from Calgary direct to Charlottetown, a flight not available on other carriers, and would do it again. And even McEachen would consider it. “As a family, the savings work for us,” she says, given a relatively short flight requiring minimal baggage. “You just need to be prepared. And make sure to bring your own snacks.”

Now that you know the ins and outs of budget airlines in Canada, check out this doctor’s health tips for travelling seniors.