Forget everything you were taught and find
the real best fare for you

You know the drill: You need a flight, you hop online, you take a spin round all the airline websites sussing out the prices on offer.

You might go a step further and check out the fare rules, do some weighing up of how much date and time flexibility or comfort you're willing to forfeit for that extra-bargain-basement price tag. These sacrifices are the price you pay for a cheap flight, right?

Or are they?

Seasoned travellers might have noticed that gone are the days of vast, gaping differences between major and discount carriers: today major airlines match and undercut discount carriers' prices, and discount carriers respond by investing in ever-roomier seats.

This isn’t to say no differences remain. The problem now is that you need to read the fine print to figure them out!

To save you time, we’ve put together a guide to all the important differences you’ll need to know about to pick the perfect fare for you.


The best flight for you, and where to find it:
Comparing economy-class fare differences on Australian airlines

1. Food and beverages

There’s no question one area that major airlines excel is with their complimentary food and beverage service. The most you’ll get for free from the low-cost carriers is a bottle of water, so if there’s little in the price to differentiate the Qantas fare from the alternatives, Qantas’s complimentary meals and drinks might well be the decider for you. After 4pm weekdays, drink up with complimentary beer and wine on Qantas CityFlyer flights between capital cities. And it gets better still with international-standard catering if you're flying between Perth and the east coast.

The bottom line:

  • Flying with the major airline can be worth a little extra cost if you think you'll want to take advantage of the free food and bev.
  • If the budget carriers’ deals are too good to resist, Virgin and Jetstar won't let you go hungry with meals and snacks available for purchase in-flight.
  • Qantas flights between Perth and the east coast are catered at international standards with more meal choices, larger servings, and complimentary beer and wine from lunchtime.

2. Seat pitch

“Seat pitch” is industry-speak for what you’ve more likely experienced as “leg room”. Measured in inches, the term refers to the distance between the back of each seat and the back of the one in front of it – and in a space where 2.5cm of real estate can mean the difference between being able to open your laptop all the way or position yourself in a manner that doesn't involve your knees being around your neck, variations in seat pitch can mean a world of difference.

For an additional fee, Virgin and Tiger let you pre-book their roomier seats by the exits and in the front rows; but for your regular economy seat, here's what you'll get:

Qantas 31”
Virgin Blue 31”
Jetstar Airbus A320 30”
Jetstar's new Airbus A330 31”
Tiger Airways 29”


The bottom line:

  • If you can’t scrimp on space, Virgin sells their extra-leg-roomy “Blue Zone” seats by the exits and in the front rows for an extra $30 per sector, pre-reserved. Tiger does the same for an extra $25.
  • If your budget’s tight, all isn’t lost. Even within a class, not all seats are created equal, giving rise to a growing class of seating aficionados shopping with an eye to those coveted, relatively roomy seats in the exit rows and other secret spots scattered round each cabin.... and they're sharing the fruit of their sufferings with you online. Check out websites like for the lowdown – and arrive early at the airport if you can't pre select online!

3. On-time performance record

If your priority is knowing you're going to get there on time, you'll be glad to know airlines keep track of and report their on-time performance.

At the time of writing, overall on-time performance records from the past twelve months are highly variable, and don't reveal much to position any one airline consistently in the lead. Airlines regularly report their performance records on their websites, though, so keep an eye on their websites for up-to-date details.

The bottom line:

  • Overall records don’t put any airline clearly in the lead for on-time performance in recent months. Figures change fast, and airlines keep records on their website. Check them out before you fly.

4. Frequent flier schemes

Qantas’ Frequent Flyer scheme and Virgin Blue’s Velocity both comprise a three-tier privilege system in which the number of points earnt per dollar spent on flights and other purchases (in both cases including hotels, rental vehicles, credit cards, entertainment) rises the more you travel.

The bottom line:

  • Huge loyalty bonuses makes Qantas a good option if you fly regularly, plus their membership in the OneWorld Alliance means you can gain and use points on airlines worldwide.
  • Flying Jetstar also earns you Qantas Frequent Flyer points and status credits, though not on their discount-class JetSaver or JetSaver Plus fares.

5. Luggage allowance

Big shopping trip planned? Lots of sporting equipment to cart along? You'll want to be aware of the amount of baggage you can carry before you start attracting excess charges, because your allowance varies widely between carriers.

Airline Checked baggage Carry-on allowance
Qantas 32kg two 105cm bags with a max of 7kg for each
Virgin Blue 20kg one 105cm bag + one garment bag/other small bag
Jetstar 20kg one 115cm bag + one garment bag/other small bag
Tiger 15kg one 115cm bag with a max of 7kg + one laptop

The bottom line:

  • If you’re planning on carrying lots of luggage, be aware that budget airlines sometimes have smaller allowances. Flying with the major airline could save in excess baggage fees.
  • Most airlines permit bulky items like sporting equipment or musical instruments, but you may have to pre-arrange carriage and you might have to check the item or purchase an extra seat to carry it.

6. Routing

Budget airlines like Tiger Airways and Virgin Blue can advertise some truly eye-opening deals, but often one of the ways they can do this is with routes that avoid major city airports with their higher taxes.

If you're not flying to the major city anyway, great! If you are, you’ll have to weigh up the positives against the negatives. If you’re happy to use ground transportation to get you from a more regional airport to the nearest major city, these can offer you fantastic deals, but it’s something to be aware of. Check out your transport options before you book to make sure it’s going to be feasible.

The bottom line:

  • If you’re happy to take a connecting train or bus to your destination city from a nearby regional airport, budget routes are one way to save. Check out the availability and cost of connections in advance.

7. Check-ins and connections

Qantas, Virgin and Jetstar all allow online check-in before you get to the airport, as long as you have a printer to print out your boarding pass for presentation at the airport. For the smaller, discount carriers, though, check on websites before you book your flight: online check-in is only rarely offered by budget airlines.

Luggage transfer is traditionally one of the perks skipped on by budget carriers, but industry changes in recent times have resulted in perks where you mightn’t expect to find them. Virgin Blue will transfer your luggage between flights as long as you've formally booked a connecting/follow-on flight. Qantas unsurprisingly lets you through-check yourself and your luggage for the entire trip; their alliance with Jetstar means they’ll also transfer your luggage if you switch to Jetstar en route. Jetstar themselves offer no baggage through-check, however — so if you’re switching from Jetstar to a Qantas flight, you'll still be picking up your suitcases at the connecting airport.

The bottom line:

  • Qantas permits through-check of your luggage to any Qantas or Jetstar flight. Jetstar doesn't, so connect from Jetstar to a Qantas flight and you'll still need to collect and re-check your baggage.
  • Virgin Blue can through-check your luggage, but make sure you book a connecting/follow-on flight and not two separate flights: this can't be arranged post-booking.
  • If you’re travelling with carry-on bags only, consider an airline with online check-in to save yourself a wait at the baggage drop-off counter and go straight to the gate.


Between food and beverages, seat sizes, on-time performance, frequent flier schemes, luggage allowance, routing, check-ins and connections, there’s no shortage of options offered — and this is just in economy class! — by Australia’s domestic airlines.

Some of these things will be important to you; some won't matter at all. Some will be of no consequence to someone else, but will mean the world to you. It’s part of what makes us individuals. It’s why there’s no one-size-fits-all flight that’s perfect for everyone — and why it’s great that we have such competition in Australian skies.

Here’s to you booking the fare that’s right for you!