If you want to take a long-haul flight again to another continent, what are your options these days? Are there international budget airline routes where you can fly for cheap, avoiding the big legacy airlines?
Well, yes and no. Like a touring Broadway show that has a different cast every few years, the international budget airline roster looks a lot different now than it did 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago. The pandemic knocked a few out of business, including nearby Interjet of Mexico, but many went under before there was even a hint of travel restrictions.
The budget airline graveyard is an especially large one for transatlantic flights: Air Berlin, Wow, Primera Air, and others disappeared, while Norwegian retreated to Europe to avoid going bankrupt and no longer even has a route map on their website.
“Budget” is in the eye of the beholder in some cases, but there’s no denying we have more options than just the big legacy airlines and national carriers. Some of them don’t show up on Skyscanner or Google Flights, however, so you may have to spend a little extra search time to shave off a few hundred bucks. Here are airlines to check for different regions.
Budget Flights to Europe from the USA and Canada
If you recently read a story about budget flights to Europe and the publish date was 2018, assume most of those airlines are now gone. Thankfully, companies don’t stop trying to make this work, so new ones on the scene usually pop up to take their place. Lately we’ve gotten French Bee, which travels between Newark and Paris, and Norse Atlantic, which currently travels on a few select routes such as New York to Berlin, Oslo, and London.
Fingers crossed that one announced for mid-2023 will really pan out, called PLAY, that will fly between Canada and Europe. Here’s what their press release said:
Starting on June 22, 2023, PLAY will kick off flights between John C. Munro Hamilton International Airport and serve 15 different European destinations including London, Paris, Dublin, Liverpool, Stockholm, Gothenburg, Berlin, Hamburg, Dusseldorf, Brussels, Athens, Copenhagen, Billund, Aarhus, and Aalborg.
Intro prices will start below $200, but that’s if you travel with zero luggage, gladly take a middle seat in the back, and bring your own food and drink.
A few of the previous carriers did manage to hang on, however, including Edelweiss, a sister carrier of SwissAir. That airline flies into and out of Switzerland, not exactly a bargain destination, but it’s easy to reach or leave by train from other cities in Europe. I’ll probably fly into there next summer to go to nearby southern Germany.
Edelweiss flies across the ocean to Denver, Las Vegas, Orlando, Puerto Rico, Cancun, Costa Rica, Buenos Aires, Rio, and even as far as San Diego and Calgary. SATA is based in the Azores and it flies from there (or you can use it as a stopover) to Toronto, Montreal, Boston, New York, and Oakland.
Some of the existing carriers also cross the big ocean, including Virgin Atlantic and Westjet. The latter will get you from Canada to 11 destinations in Europe. JetBlue just started flying NYC to London.
One of the consistently cheapest airlines is IcelandAir, which has the oldest stopover program in the business. This is why so many people spend just a few days in Iceland: it’s a stopover on the way to somewhere else, which is a good thing since the country is quite expensive to visit.
If the past debacles at Norwegian, Wow, and Thomas Cook taught us anything though, it’s that you should never ever buy a flight on one of these upstarts without using a credit card and a travel insurance backup. The odds are just too high that the airline will disappear and leave customers in the lurch. Evaluate whether the risk/reward gap is high enough: if you’re only saving 50 bucks, it might be better to just go with the tried and true.
Don’t assume that you’re out of luck if you need to use an airline that has been around for a while, however. IcelandAir has long been a good deal, especially if you take advantage of their stopover offering. Often when a new upstart arrives on the scene, the established players start running deals to compensate for the new market pressure.
Cheap Flights to Mexico
I covered this in detail in the post on budget airlines of Mexico, laying out the different carriers and what you can expect from them.
There’s a spectrum of what you receive and what’s extra, from Viva Aerobus being on par with Spirit and RyanAir, while Volaris is only a tiny bit better. Interjet was a lot better, but the pandemic finished them off. Don’t write these off though because they can get you where you want to go direct sometimes, avoiding the need to change planes in Mexico City or Monterrey.
Southwest itself flies to Mexico too and I’ve found their flights consistently cheaper than the stingier U.S. legacy carriers, especially for a one-way ticket. They fly to Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, and Los Cabos. Some flights are direct but most go through Houston. Westjet flies to a lot of Mexico destinations from Canada.
Budget Flights to Central America
Many of the airlines serving Mexico also fly to Central America. So when checking the options you want to do a spot check on Spirit Air, Southwest, Volaris, and Viva Aerobus. Spirit flies to Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Panama. Most of these are via their Ft. Lauderdale hub, but the Honduras one comes from Houston. From any of these countries you can start and overland journey to the others and even down to South America. You might need an onward ticket of some kind though.
Volaris flies to Guatemala, Belize, Costa Rica, and El Salvador. Viva Aerobus is on-again, off-again with their routes. My wife had a flight booked to Colombia and they completely canceled the route, so I’m not going to list where they fly in Central America here: it’s liable to change in a month.
Search for flight deals on Skyscanner
The Few Cheap Flights to South America
South America may be a big land mass, but it doesn’t have nearly as much flight traffic as North America or Europe. It’s mostly a land of monopolies and duopolies: try flying to anywhere in Argentina or Chile beyond the gateway city without flying on their national carrier. In general you’ll be on a U.S. carrier, Aeromexio, Copa, LATAM, or Avianca. On routes where two or more of those operate, prices will be lower.
Colombia offers the cheapest entry point, in no small part because Spirit Air supplies some competition. That airline also flies to Lima, though that’s a long flight with such minimal legroom. There’s also an airline there called Viva Air Colombia that has flights to Miami, plus onward from Bogota to Ecuador and Peru.
Brazil has a carrier called Azul that flies to three cities in Florida, but the prices are cheaper one-way from Brazil to the USA than they are going the other direction. Round-trip prices are on par with the legacy carriers most of the time. GOL flies from Brazil to Miami and Orlando.
I recently flew on one I’d never heard of called Wingo and it was less than $300 round-trip from Mexico. Open-jaw actually: I flew from Mexico City to Bogota direct, then from Medellin to Cancun. Unfortunately, that’s as far north as they go, so only look into that one if you’re on a long trip with multiple countries in the mix.
Volaris flies to Colombia and Peru, though you will probably have to string two routes together and change planes in Mexico.
Once you get into South America, you no longer have to choose between expensive flights or long overland bus rides. Finally we have a few South American carriers going between countries. Sky Airline, based in Santiago, flies to Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Uruguay, for example.
Amaszonas, which I once flew for a domestic flight in Bolivia, can get you from Bolivia to Peru and a few other spots, including Uruguay.
Gol will get you from Brazil to a whole lot of other South American destinations, including Argentina, Chile, and Peru.
Jetsmart, based in Chile, will get you to a few nearby destinations in other countries. For all of these, don’t get to excited about the first price you see. It can be as much as double by the time you add on all the extra fees, including one to just carry on your own bag. It can be cheaper to check one sometimes, especially if there’s a bundle that puts several fees together.
Join Scott’s Cheap Flights for bargain airfare alerts.
What About Budget Flights to Asia?
As far as I know, there’s not a single budget airline flying between Asia and the USA or Canada. That’s understandable since you’re often looking at 10 to 18 hours across a vast ocean to get there. You really have to pick between the existing legacy airlines and pick the one with the most comfort and amenities. It’s usually not worth saving 20 bucks to be on a lousy U.S. carrier instead of a great Asian one.
If you’re flying between Asia and Europe, the choices are better. There are charter flights from Europe to Phuket, for instance, plus Air Asia flies to three cities in Australia and to Hawaii. So in theory if you could find a bargain flight to Hawaii–a rather rare occurrence–you could proceed on to Southeast Asia via that airline.
Many experienced travelers will tell you that the best bet is to book a flight to anywhere in Southeast Asia that’s cheap, then get a flight from there to your final destination. That’s because once you get to a hub city like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, or Manila, you can get an onward flight in the region for quite cheap on the many regional budget airlines. You may have a long layover, but you’ll be in a nice airport when that happens in most cases.
Have you found any good international budget airline routes lately that are not well known? Leave me a comment and I’ll be happy to post an update. This one was updated in January, 2023.
Abraham J Franklin
Wednesday 30th of November 2022
Hi Tim. Great article. You are so helpful to many people.
I noticed the article needs some more editing. Some of the text is repeated in more than one paragraph. E.g., search for “big land mass.”
Wednesday 30th of November 2022
Thanks for the catch! I've deleted the duplicate section.