What is a bundle?
The bundling of airfare has been done since de-regulation and the onset of frequent flyer program in the 1980s. Prior to the last 10-15 years, an airline ticket generally came with a seat assignment, a meal, a pair of free checked bags, and frequent flyer miles. If we go even further back you might have gotten a pair of wings for your kid and a deck of playing cards to keep you occupied. However, in real terms the prices for flights have not gotten more expensive since then, even though other costs had skyrocketed (during the oil price surge) and something had to give. It’s not all bad news for flyers though, let me give a couple of examples of how both bundled and unbundled fares can be used to the flyer’s advantage.
The case for unbundled fares
RyanAir, an Irish carrier in Europe and the fourth largest international carrier in the world, sells you just a seat when you buy a ticket from them. It doesn’t come with a seat assignment, a right to board in any particular order, a bag, a meal, or anything else – they even charge you for the processing fees to use a debit or credit card. It sounds terrible, but for the light packer it is a dream come true. All of their flights are sold point to point and they have over 40 “hubs” across Europe which provide direct flights from almost every large city on the continent. Seats often sell for as little as €10 each way, so a Friday night departure and Sunday night return make for a cheap weekend away. As an experienced flyer, I don’t need a checked bag for two nights away, a backpack will do though your results may vary. Most flights within Europe are less than two hours away, and for that journey length I don’t mind either paying for a drink or waiting until I get to my destination – it’s just not that long of a flight. And as for boarding in any particular order, who cares where you sit on a two-hour flight?
Passengers will save money on airfare by not checking bags, drinking or eating on the plane, or buying other frills. For those passengers that travel light these unbundled fares (pay for each aspect of the journey) will get some of the cheapest flights of their life. Perhaps you would like just one or two of the perks, why pay for all of them? By purchasing a base ticket, you can add things you don’t mind paying for (like priority boarding to secure an exit row seat with more room) and not paying for things you don’t need (like checking a bag).
A case for fare bundling
Staying in Europe for this example, we find RyanAir competitor EasyJet with an alternative model. EasyJet has already started to bundle fares back up from a similar unbundled model like RyanAir that just a few years ago was their bread and butter. In fact until recently, bundles were not even available for EasyJet travelers – rather, they believed that by charging customers more for certain items they increased their profits over including all benefits for a bundled price. Today EasyJet, like many other carriers, offers both a bundled and an a-la-carte (unbundled) option.
Packages are offered for as little as €20 that include a bag, fast lanes at security, priority boarding or an assigned seat in a preferential row. Their airfare base prices are often just €30 each way; adding another €30 in the bundled services is one way to beat the costs of flying traditional European carriers like British Airways, KLM/Air France, and Alitalia.
Closer to home
In the US, discounters like Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant have gone a step further than their European counterparts. Frontier and Spirit charge for access to discount fares and some of the three super-discounters even charge for carry-on baggage. But the majors have gotten into the game too. American, Delta, and United all offer some sort of bundled deal in addition to the cost of the ticket that provide some of these benefits in the cost of the bundle. Their tickets have mostly become unbundled as well, with food, checked bags, and priority options reserved for top-tier flyers or sold on to consumers.
So wait, should I or shouldn’t I?
Frustratingly, the answer is really up to you and your travel patterns. If it is a short trip, and you don’t mind where you sit the answer might be no. But if you will be checking a bag anyway, how much more is it to add the other items? If it costs $25 to check a bag domestically in the US and a more comfortable seat with priority boarding can be added for just $15-20 more, it’s probably worth it for a more comfortable ride. Remember to weigh all of the options before you make your choice and consider taking the leap. If you do find value in the additional services then you must also consider suspending any tirades against the airlines for gouging customers on extra fees, after all, the ticket price was so cheap.