The real cost of flying cheap: I tried out five of the world's cheapest airlines, and here's what I found

What would the ultimate airline experience look like?

An airline with the best food, service and seats in the world? Traveller.com.au's writers name what their dream plane would feature.

Booking a flight to your vacation destination can be stressful, especially if you've never heard of some of the carriers you're seeing. (Is "Wow" really the name of an airline? It is.) And most of the new carriers are advertising low fares, but you have some reservations.

Are they trustworthy? Are they safe? And most of all, will they really save you money?

To find out, I sampled five low-cost carriers that fly to places that are reader favourites — or maybe on their bucket lists: Allegiant, which serves the US domestic market; Norwegian, which has become something of a low-cost darling; Spirit, consistently voted the most hated airline in America; Thomas Cook, around for a dozen years; and Wow, an Icelandic airline.

You can thank me later.

Among the lessons learned? Low expectations are key, and a ticket on a budget airline may not be a bargain when all is packed, checked and paid for.

Here's a look at what it was like to fly each one, and I've given each a letter grade.

See also: World's cheapest airlines named

Allegiant Air

Round trip, LAX to Honolulu

The airline, based in Las Vegas, offers flights from LAX to more than 110 US destinations.

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It departs from Terminal 3, which has just one restaurant, a Burger King, two sets of restrooms and the Starbucks line from hell.

The plane/your seat: The interior of the Boeing 757-200 was worn. Its leather seats were cracked, and its carpeting was dirty. The cabin wasn't spotless, but I wasn't afraid to touch anything.

Need legroom? Book a Legroom-plus seat with a 34-inch pitch (the number of inches from a point on your seat to the same point on the seat in front of you) in Row 4 on the right side of the plane. I had to unbuckle my seat belt and stand to reach my bag under the seat in front of me.

I had a regular seat with standard legroom (30-inch pitch) on the return flight from Honolulu.

No in-flight entertainment, so you'll need to have a book or load movies on your smartphone or tablet.

Customer service/attendants: The attendants wore orange or navy polo shirts and khaki shorts. Their attitudes matched their attire: Everyone was laid-back and polite.

What you're eating: Whatever you brought with you. There is no meal option, but there are snacks (crackers, chips, nuts) and drinks (including alcoholic options) for sale ($US2 to $7). And no, water is not free. It's $2 a bottle.

What I paid: Round-trip airfare, including taxes: $US478.05. Carry-on bag fee: $50 round trip. Seat selection fee: up to $80 per one way. I paid $55 round trip for my seat selection. If I had used a credit card rather than a debit card to buy my round-trip ticket, I would have paid $32 more. Printing a boarding pass at the airport would have cost $5 more.

Grand total: $583 round trip.

Did I save money? Yes. The next lowest base fare: round-trip LAX-Honolulu on Hawaiian Airlines in the same time period for $785.

Overall grade: B Plus, based on comfort level and good customer service.

Allegiant Air are a Vegas-based airline serving the US.

Allegiant Air are a Vegas-based airline serving the US. Photo: AP

See also: Ten of the best budget airlines you've probably never heard of

Norwegian

One way, London/Gatwick to LAX

The airline is one of the largest low-cost airlines in Europe and offers nonstop flights to and from 10 cities in the United States. It is the second largest airline in Scandinavia.

The plane/your seat: The Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner was clean and roomy. The standard seats had a fair amount of legroom with a 32-inch pitch. The premium seats, which can cost several hundred dollars more, have a 46-inch pitch.

Each seat back had a screen with free in-flight entertainment featuring music, TV shows and movies.

The best part? Plenty of restrooms (nine), important on a long flight.

Customer service/attendants: Courteous and patient. Not knowing there was a charge for blankets, I asked an attendant for one. He let me know they weren't free, but then gave me one at no charge.

What you're eating: The standard in-flight meal — a pasta salad starter, dry chicken in a tomato sauce, hard rice and a brownie/chocolate cake square — cost $45. The meal did come with a glass of wine, which lessened the sticker shock.

A smaller cold meal (sandwich) is included at no extra charge later in the flight; chips, nuts and other snacks, including sandwiches, a salad and a plate of charcuterie and olives, are available for purchase (about $2 to $10.50).

What I paid: One-way airfare, including taxes: $819.50. $45 for in-flight meal, $45 for checked bag, and $45 seat-selection fee.

The seat-selection fee may be included depending on your ticket price; seat-selection fee with a "low-fare" ticket from $12 to $45.

Grand total: $954.50.

Did I save money? Yes. Next lowest base fare for a one-way London/Gatwick-LAX ticket on Lufthansa in the same time period: $1,380.

Overall grade: A minus, based on comfort level, great customer service and good plane amenities.

See also: 20 secrets to enjoying economy class

Spirit Airlines

Round trip, LAX to Dallas

King of the low-fare airlines and the carrier fliers love to hate. Almost everything on the plane will cost you except the air you breathe.

The airline flies to destinations throughout the United States and the Caribbean, Central and South America. Spirit, like Allegiant, departs from LAX Terminal 3, so plan accordingly. Don't expect coffee and bring your own food.

The plane/your seat: The Airbus A320 was filthy. How filthy? There was a half-eaten cookie under the seat in front of me, dirt was caked on all the metal surfaces, and black and brown smudges of undetermined origin covered the overhead bins and window frames.

I paid $35 each way for seating in a cracked leather seat in an exit row, which had plenty of legroom, with a 38-inch pitch. (Standard seats have a 28-inch pitch.) No in-flight entertainment; no charging stations.

Customer service: The flight attendants were friendly and had a sense of humour. When addressing the passengers before takeoff, one attendant told us to "finish up Instagram, Tinder, Grindr." They also cracked jokes about nothing being free.

What you're eating: Nothing, unless you bring it or want to pay for it. Water, soft drinks, juice and cocktail mixers cost $3. Liquor is $7. Snacks (chips, nuts, candy) are $2 to $4.

What I paid: Round-trip airfare, including taxes: $221.18. $70 carry-on bag fee; $40 seat-selection fee. Printing your boarding pass at the airport (I did not) will cost you $10.

Grand total: $331.18 round trip.

Did I save money? Yes. Next lowest round-trip base fare for LAX-Dallas on United in the same time period: $360.

Overall grade: C minus, based on the dirty plane and fishy explanations for flight delays.

See also: How to avoid the worst seat on the plane

Thomas Cook Airlines

One way, LAX to Manchester, England

The airline, an affiliate of the Britain-based travel agency of the same name, has made efforts in the last two years to become a stand-alone airline with flights to destinations in Europe, the US, Asia and Africa.

The Thomas Cook counter at LAX is in Terminal 2, not the Tom Bradley terminal. It's tiny; I walked past it three times before someone pointed it out to me.

The plane/your seat: The Airbus A330-200 seemed small for a long-haul flight, but it was clean (no visible dirt). Each seat back had an entertainment screen with a USB charging cord. There were several free movies and TV episodes that seemed selected at random ("How I Met Your Mother," Season 9, Episode 2, and "Mad Men," Season 7, Episode 1). You're better off loading content on your smartphone or tablet, but you can purchase additional movies for about $4 to $4.50.

Customer service/flight attendants: Polite, helpful and unfazed when you ask for multiple cups of tap water (free).

What you're eating: The airline partnered with celebrity chef James Martin to create its in-flight menus. Dinner consisted of cubes of beef and mashed potatoes, a roll, crackers, a piece of cheese and a chocolate cake square. It didn't taste like a master chef prepared it, but it was edible and included in the ticket price.

Candy, chips, nuts and beverages (including alcoholic) were available for sale. Nonalcoholic drinks are about $2 to $4. Liquor is $3.50 to $12.50. Snacks are about $1.50 to $5.50. You can also buy sandwiches for about $9.

What I paid: One-way airfare, including taxes and one checked bag: $509.99. Seat reservation fee, $57.30.

Grand total: $567.29.

Did I save money? Yes. Next lowest one-way base fare LAX-Manchester on Air Canada in the same time period: $732.

Overall grade: B, based on good customer service, the included meal and the good condition of the plane.

See also: Ten great airlines outside major alliances

Wow

Round trip, LAX to Reykjavik, Iceland

The airline is based in Reykjavik, and many of its flights from the US to Europe, and/or vice versa, include a layover there.

It flies out of the Tom Bradley terminal at LAX, so treat yourself to a good meal before boarding if you're departing from LAX.

The plane/your seat: The bulkhead seats on the Airbus A330 had plenty of legroom, with a 34-inch pitch. (Standard seats have a 31-inch pitch.) You can stretch out, but by hour six of the eight-hour flight, you'll be bored.

There was zero in-flight entertainment, but there were single power outlets every two seats so you could watch something on your smartphone or tablet.

Customer service/flight attendants: The attendants were friendly. One took the time to mark up my seatmate's Iceland map with suggestions on where to go and what to do.

Wow's telephone customer service is a different story. After repeated attempts to book a seat on its website, which kept freezing, I received an email receipt showing I had booked and paid twice for the same seat. I called customer service and was put on hold for almost 30 minutes. When someone finally answered, he didn't seem to understand the problem. After a frustrating exchange, he said he understood and would fix it.

He didn't. I received another confirmation email with another double charge. I called again, waited 30 more minutes, and got the same person. After an even longer discussion, he finally reversed the charges.

What you're eating: Eat a full meal before boarding and bring snacks. On the flight to LA I ordered something that purported to be pizza ($8.55). Mushy bread and cheese are not pizza.

Not-so-wow pizza.

Not-so-wow pizza. Photo: inflightfeed.com

Available items included instant noodles (about $4.25) and a variety of Pringles. (Thumbs down on the paprika flavour.)

What I paid: Round trip, including taxes: $822.98. Round-trip carry-on baggage fee, $77.98; round-trip seat-selection fee, $70.98.

Grand total: $980.49

Did I save money? No. Round-trip LAX-Reykjavik base fare on Delta in the same period: $915.

Overall grade: D minus, based on poor customer service, bad food and arrival and departure delays, including a 21/2-hour wait for connecting passengers.

LA TIMES

See also: 10 secrets to a cheap flight

See also: The best time to book a flight

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