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Are all Canadian airlines adopting an 'ultra-low-cost' model?

That might mean more restrictions and fewer perks for budget fares.

Metro Vancouverites looking to book flights across Canada shouldn't count on free seat selection or carry-on luggage even with the country's largest airlines. 

Air Canada and WestJet have taken a nod from ultra-low-cost carriers and started implementing fares with less flexible re-booking policies and fewer inclusions, such as free seat selection and carry-on bags. 

Air Canada received widespread backlash after announcing it would remove the free seat selection during the 24-hour check-in before flights. The airline tells V.I.A.  that it has "not made any changes" but will "monitor competitive offerings regularly."

Travellers also spoke out after WestJet implemented its new UltraBasic fare that doesn't include a carry-on bag. 

What are the options for flying in Canada on a budget right now?

Budget airlines, including Lynx Air, Swoop, and Canada Jetlines, have stopped providing service to travellers based in the Lower Mainland or shut down operations completely. 

Lynx Air unexpectedly shut down operations on Feb. 25, citing fierce market competition, surging fuel prices, exchange rates, and increasing airport charges. In the fall of 2023, WestJet ended operations on its budget brand, Swoop, citing similar reasons.

Canada Jetlines, rebranded Jetlines, quietly ended its twice-weekly service connecting Vancouver International Airport (YVR) with Toronto Lester B. Pearson International Airport (YYZ); it has shifted its focus to Toronto, providing service to popular sun destinations including Miami, Montego Bay, Orlando, and Cancun.

In March 2023, the Government of Canada gave the green light to WestJet's merger with Sunwing Airlines. The airline plans to wind down the Sunwing brand by 2025.

Flair Airlines, Canada's only ultra-low-cost carrier, has a similar policy to WestJet's new UltraBasic option for travellers flying in its lowest fare class. They may bring a small personal item but carry-on or checked luggage costs an additional fee. The prices vary depending on the length of the route.

What should I keep in mind when selecting fares with Canadian airlines?

Chris Lynes, Managing Director for Flight Centre Travel Group, including global brands Flight Centre and Corporate Traveller, said Canada's largest airlines have adopted policies that align with global trends, catering to diverse needs and budgets.

"The trend, known as 'unbundling,' allows consumers to choose how they travel based on their personal preferences for cost, convenience, and comfort, presenting opportunities for savings," he told V.I.A.

Lynes pointed to WestJet's new UltraBasic fare class that doesn't include a carry-on bag but offers a cheaper ticket for budget-conscious travellers. These fares feature "transparent pricing," allowing customers to tailor their trips to suit their budgets and needs. 

But travellers need to understand the details of the fare class they purchase.

"When evaluating airfare options, it is crucial to match the fare to your needs.  For example, a non-refundable, non-changeable fare generally does not offer additional perks and may not suit everyone," he noted. 

Business travellers require flexibility since their plans may change frequently and should purchase a "fully bundled fare that covers seat selection, upgrades and meals to accommodate any changes," he added.

Travellers on holiday who want to save money and don't anticipate plans changing can benefit from low-cost options.

"This is where the expertise of a travel advisor can be invaluable, providing insights into the specifics of various fare categories across different airlines—what's included and what's not—to avoid unexpected costs or disruptions," Lynes said.

What are some important considerations with Air Canada and WestJet?

Canada's biggest airlines have drastically different pricing for carry-on and checked luggage. 

WestJet's UltraBasic ticket-holders may only bring a personal item, such as a purse, backpack, or another small personal item that travellers can store under the seat in front of them. They don't have access to the overhead bins for larger luggage. They must also board the plane last. 

Air Canada's lowest fare class, Basic, includes a piece of carry-on luggage but does not allow changes to the ticket and customers must also board last. Travellers in this fare class must also pay to select a seat until the 24-hour check-in (until the new rule is implemented).

Air Canada told V.I.A. its "range of fares enable customers to choose the products and services that each fare type offers to suit their travel plans."

But customers should look at the inclusions for each fare since the airlines offer similarly-priced flights, including on popular trips to destinations like Hawaii.

For example, WestJet and Air Canada typically offer the best prices on the route from YVR to Kahului Airport (OGG) but their inclusions vary dramatically. 

Travellers can get the best deals on one-way, direct flights from YVR to OGG starting in October and continuing through November. Prices start at $216 on multiple dates with Air Canada and WestJet (see slide two).

But travellers who don't need to check a bag and can get away with carry-on luggage and a personal item may want to book with Air Canada. Canada's largest airline includes a free carry-on bag with a checked one for $35 (see slide three).

WestJet's lowest fare does not include a carry-on bag and the first piece of checked luggage costs $65 (see slide four).

Find more information about exciting destinations in B.C. and across the globe, as well as travel deals and tips, by signing up for V.I.A.'s weekly travel newsletter The Wanderer. Since travel deals can sell out, find out the day they are posted by signing up for our daily Travel Deals newsletter.

Want to learn more about a specific destination or have a travel concern or idea you would like V.I.A. to write about? Email us at [email protected]. Send us stories about recent holidays that you've been on, or if you have any tips you think our readers should know about.