I have not flown before with low cost carriers on long haul routes. I have done a few short hauls on the intra-Asia routes with Air Asia, but none lasting over three hours.  It was an opportune time to experience one and make comparisons. I was very interested to deduce an arbitrary judgment whether the savings in air fare outweighed the overall benefits of a full service airline.

WestJet is a scheduled airline based in Canada. It really is a second fiddle to Air Canada. Historically, it claims to be a low cost airline, but in reality, prices between WestJet and Air Canada are closely comparable. For what it’s worth, WestJet is now aspiring to become a full service airline with its recent announcement to acquire 10 Boeing 787 jets, to be configured with economy, premium economy and lie-flat business classes. It is launching a new version of its low-cost airline, to be called ‘Swoop’. (Low cost and low fare are not mutually exclusive, in real life.)

I managed to steal a bargain with WestJet for an economy return flight from Vancouver to London Gatwick. I paid C$360 for a legitimate return fare, bought from an European based online travel agency, GoToGate. I said it was ‘legitimate’ because this was no mistake fare. This fare was a barebone – just the basic. It did not include seat selection and baggage fee. It also did not include meals despite this being a nine hour non-stop flight one way.

To make things more bearable, I bought a few options.

Firstly, for a trip lasting over two weeks, it was quite impossible or impractical to travel with just a carry-on. One check-in bag was deemed a necessity. The cost was C$25 per bag not exceeding 23kg. I had only 15kg. Too bad, there was no discount for this.

Next, since there were two of us travelling and the flight was a long one, for added comfort, it was quite desirable to be seated next to your travelling buddy. Seat selection set us back by C$25 each.

As the flight was a lengthy nine hour, it was natural to expect a couple helpings of food. I had the option, feed myself at the airport and go onboard with a loaded stomach, or just buy a meal on-board. Either way, I had to buy. The first meal was a chicken wrap that costed C$9.49, while the second meal was a cheese pizza, also costing C$9.49. Total food cost was C$18.98. Let’s round that up to C$19. Soft drinks, coffee and tea were complimentary.

WestJet meals for purchase

In-flight entertainment was also complementary. As long as you have an iPhone or iPad and that you have downloaded the WestJet app beforehand, you can view the latest movies. It did not work on laptops although WestJet’s website claimed otherwise. The movie choices were limited, but adequate if you do not mind repeats. If you do not have an iPad, it is available for rental at C$6.95. I had mine with me, so the in-flight entertainment did not cost me anything.

Tabulating the cost for one person, return trip:

Air fareC$360
Check-In bagC$25 outbound, £14.42 inbound (C$25.11)
Seat selectionC$25 outbound, C$25 inbound
Meals On-Board C$19 outbound, C$19 inbound
Total CostC$498

Using Google Flights, I captured a fare comparison for the same itinerary on the very day I booked my WestJet flights. Snapshot as below:

As you can see, through the standard distribution channel, Google Flights was pricing the same WestJet’s flights at C$769. I went directly on WestJet website – it priced the same as Google Flights. But using the European based online travel agent, I was also able to grab the flights for C$360 (yes, under half the price!). Bear in mind, even at C$769, I would still have to pay for bags, seats and food. Lesson learned here was that never assume the airline’s website would automatically give you the best deal. Air fares are not created equal; some channels may offer better deals.

From the snapshot, it was clear that Air Canada’s price (C$835) was comparable to WestJet (C$769). Add seat, food and bag, WestJet’s total came to C$839. At this price, I would vote to go with Air Canada – anytime. It is a full service airline, in the Star Alliance, have more flights to choose from, and if you have frequent flyer elite status with Air Canada or Star Alliance, you can enjoy a multitude of benefits (priority check-in, priority boarding, use of airport lounge, amongst others). But at C$498 all in, it was hard to ignore WestJet, and I would still favour Westjet, purely for the 40% savings over Air Canada. For a family of four, this would add up pretty nicely (a handsome total savings of C$1,348).

Apart from the price perspective, there are other tangible and intangible factors to consider. Flight schedules, non-stop versus connecting flights, frequent flyer programmes, aircraft types and choice of airports can also influence the decision. WestJet flies an older version of the Boeing 767-300, while with Air Canada, you can fly on the newer Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The 787 is much more comfortable to fly in; its fresh air intake and optimal cabin pressure do result in less jet lag. WestJet flies into Gatwick Airport, London’s secondary airport while Air Canada terminates in Heathrow. Heathrow is the second busiest airport in the world and has extensive flight connections. If you have a connecting flight, it is highly probable that you will have to get from Gatwick to Heathrow to catch your connection. The land transfer between the two airports is not cheap. One way National Express coach trip is £27 (C$47) and it takes a minimum of 70 minutes, and that is, during off peak hours without traffic jam on the M25 motorway. If you have frequent flyer’s elite status (for example Star Alliance Gold or One World Emerald/Sapphire), you would lose out on priority check-in, priority boarding, free check-in bags, free seat selection, free airline’s lounge use and frequent flyer points and/or status points. This is because WestJet is not a member of Star Alliance or One World or Skyteam (the three largest airlines’ alliances).

My conclusion is that the fares available at time of making the booking is paramount. If a low cost airline is substantially cheaper (eg 30%-50%), there is a strong case to favour the low cost carrier. If the difference is a mere 5%-15%, I would favour the full service airline, especially if you have frequent flyer elite status. I am also not a great fan of airlines that nickel-and-dime their customers.


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