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Low-Cost Airlines: What’s Best Onboard

Discount carriers are in growth mode in Latin America. Here's how to get the best service

So-called low-cost airlines may catch the eye of budget-conscious business travelers, especially in fast-growing markets like Brazil, Colombia and Mexico. But these alternatives to the mega-carriers are far from consistent in terms of the travel experience they offer. Read on to help unravel the intricacies of the discount airline industry in Latin America, learn how to get the best class of service from each of the biggest carriers and determine whether it's worth the price to fly.


Major hub: Viracopos-Campinas International Airport, São Paulo State


Best Services: Azul has two different seating categories in its all-economy cabin. The front of the plane, called Espaço Azul, has 86 cm of space between seats. Travelers can also buy an "extra seat" next to them without paying additional "taxa de embarque," or embarkation tax.  Azul bills itself as the first Latin American airline to offer live TV on all of its planes, with seatback screens that offer access to 48 live channels. Free light snacks and drinks are served.


Other Services: Azul offers free ground transfers aboard WiFi- and TV-equipped buses between Navegantes airport in Santa Catarina state, Brazil, and the City of Blumenau, and between Viracopos-Campinas airport and six different points in the state of São Paulo.



Major hubs: São Paulo-Congonhas Airport; Rio de Janeiro-Galeão-Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport; Brasília-Presidente Juscelino Kubitschek International Airport


Best Services: Travelers looking for extra space and better service should book Comfort Class, available only on international flights. It includes priority check-in and boarding, access to the international VIP lounge, a 50% bonus on miles accrual, and a 15-kilo extra baggage allowance. On board, passengers receive a cdomplimentary hot meal, snacks, beverages and amenity kit (Gol normally charges for meals and snacks).


On other flights, "Special Seats" are the best option. Located near emergency exits, they can be purchased at the time of booking for 10 or 20 reais, depending on the length of the flight. Travelers can also block the middle seat, to guarantee that no one sits next to them, for prices starting at 25 reais, on flights between Rio de Janeiro's Santos Dumont Airport and São Paulo-Congonhas Airport, Brasilia and Vitória, Espírito Santo state. Passengers flying with a Flexible Fare or Smiles Any Day ticket don't pay extra for Special Seats.


Gol On Air, the airline's entertainment portal, provides access to inflight entertainment for passengers with tablets and smart phones.


Other Services: Gol offers a free shuttle bus service for ticketed passengers between Congonhas and Guarulhos airports in São Paulo, and between Navegantes airport and downtown Blumenau in Santan Catarina state.



Major Hubs: Mexico City-Benito Juárez International Airport; Toluca-Lic. Adolfo López Mateos International Airport (near Mexico City)


Best Services: Interjet's fleet of 37 Airbus A320s have 150 economy-class seats with 34-inch pitch, which is better than the industry average. To appeal to business travelers, the company has a loyalty program, Club Interjet, as well as a managed corporate travel program called BusinessJet. For travelers who frequent the U.S. cities of San Antonio, Texas, and Miami, the company offers a product called JetBook, which includes 15 roundtrips that can be used within a 12-month period at a discounted rate, with name and date changes made free.



Major Hubs: Monterrey-General Mariano Escobedo International Airport; Mexico City-Benito Juárez International Airport


Best Services: Travelers looking for the best seat should buy the Pase VIP, priced at 125 pesos, which allows priority boarding and first dibs on seats, which are not assigned. The VivaExpress option, priced at 75 pesos, adds priority check-in (for a limited time, it's included free with Pase VIP).


Snacks, sandwiches and drinks are available on board for a fee; the onboard "VivaMenu" also allows passengers to buy discounted services and products, including taxi transfers, group shuttle services, tours and even cell phone service.



Hub: Medellín- José María Córdova International Airport


Best Services: VivaColombia's five Airbus A320/200 aircraft have 180 economy class seats. The carrier divides its fares into two categories; VivaLight allows for just one piece of carry-on luggage, weighing a maximum of 10 kilos. Viva allows one personal carry-on plus a suitcase weighing up to 20 kilos. If you buy a VivaLight ticket and then decide to bring an additional piece of luggage, the charge is 40,000 pesos online, via the call center or at a travel agency, or 80,000 pesos at the airport.



Hubs: Guadalajara-Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla International Airport; Mexico City-Benito Juárez International Airport; Toluca Lic. Adolfo López Mateos International Airport (near Mexico City)


Best Services: Passengers who want to select their seat before boarding pay between 39 and 189 pesos, depending on the length of the flight, for premium seats with more space. Travelers may choose their seats at no additional charge if they do it online within 72 hours of domestic flights and 24 hours before international flights. In-flight snacks are free, and the in-flight Volaris TV entertainment system is also free.


A "More Luggage" option, priced at 249 pesos, allows for an extra 10 kilos in checked luggage, five extra kilos in the carry-on and one piece of sporting equipment. 


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