In 2015, Lifehacker tried to answer the question "Does Tiger Airways still suck?" and the results were almost positive. In 2017, I flew on both budget airlines at least once a month, alternating between the two based on price and convenience — and I learnt a lot about flying low-cost.
For the uninitiated, Australia's two major premium airlines - Qantas and Virgin - operate our two low-cost options. Qantas owns Jetstar and Virgin bought Tigerair back in 2015 for $1. That doesn't mean that our low-cost airlines share all that much in common with their owners though. Genuinely, budget airlines are all about Get-What-You-Pay-For. Seriously, every aspect of flying premium is stripped from the price so that the fare is cheap and you have to pay for your baggage allowance, your meals in flight and extra leg room, should you want it.
Take that into account before continuing — this isn't a dissection of flying services, this is just what happens on the bare bones domestic flights across the country.
First, good news: Over the entire year, I had one flight completely cancelled due to " an engineering fault". That was a Jetstar flight and I was notified of the cancellation several hours before take-off — in fact, I was still asleep when they sent me a text.
The bad news? I had booked the departure and return flights separately through Jetstar but they would only offer to refund my departing flight — even though their cancellation and lack of subsequent flights to be moved to meant I would miss the event I was travelling for and thus, I didn't travel at all — but after a lot of back and forth I was refunded. That was probably the most disappointing experience over the entire year, so that might give you a good indication as to how these airlines have improved their quality (or not) in recent time.
Tiger Airways was once known as the worst budget airline in Australia. In recent times, the company has made some drastic changes to improve its reputation and claw back former customers. We were recently invited to test the airline on a return flight from Sydney to Melbourne. So has the Tiger changed its stripes? I put my body on the line to find out.
I picked a few random dates out of the 2018 calendar year to see how much I'd be paying on the two airlines. In both cases, I went with the bare-bones option - Tiger call this their 'Light Fare' and Jetstar call it a 'Starter Fare' - which doesn't include any luggage, seat selection or any of those optional extras. It's just a guarantee you get on the flight with 7kg of carry-on and... that's about it. I looked at fares on Friday and Monday morning — a weekend jaunt away and, as expected, the traditionally busy Monday morning period was always most expensive. I did this for dates between May and June and came up with an average price.
- Tiger Airways: $89.63
- Jetstar: $95.25
I should qualify that $6 difference largely comes down to Jetstar's Monday morning fares, which go as high as $127 without any checked baggage. However, Friday morning fares with Jetstar were as low as $59 on certain days, whereas Tiger's cheapest price hovers around the $65 mark. Generally, you'll find Tiger offering cheaper flights, more constantly - with their Tiger Tuesdays a good place to start looking for discounts.
Before flying low-cost, there's two major tips I have. The first is to give yourself an extra day, where possible, to depart — ie. If you want to see something in Melbourne on a Thursday, book on the Wednesday where you can. The second is to familiarize yourself with the flight you'll be taking. You can easily track flights on services like FlightRadar, which allows you to search for airport delays, the flight you'll be taking and get a history of that flight's performance history, delays and times. Google even helps out, if you're just searching flight numbers.
If you're travelling for business, the first tip isn't so great — you'll need to be in and out and all over the place at certain times — and that's where you begin to run into issues. But if you're travelling for business, you're less likely to be looking at the Low-Cost Carriers anyway, right?
Based on the number of flights and the distance to terminals, Jetstar just edges Tiger out for this one - though sometimes you will have to catch a bus to a Jetstar flight out in the middle of the tarmac, if you're unlucky at Sydney Airport.
At The Airport
Of course, this all depends where you take off from. In my case, over the past year I have flown between Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide with a sneaky jaunt up to Coolangatta airport in there, too.
There's definitely been improvements across both services to the check-in experience over the past three years. Both allow for web check-in, so if you're just heading down with carry-on luggage, it's a painless process. Both Tiger and Jetstar allow you to send your boarding pass via SMS and scan it in at the gate. Essentially, this just opens a webpage with a unique QR code, so make sure you have internet connection if you're using this option or you've stored it in a digital wallet before getting to the airport.
Again, depending on your departure terminal, you may or may not have access to a bag drop facility. Tiger at Sydney Airport allow you to print boarding tags and use their automated bag drop, as does Jetstar. Essentially this service allows you to stick your tags on yourself, drop bags on an automated belt and go straight through security. Every time I travelled with baggage, I used these services and every time, the baggage got there.
Check in times vary slightly for the two services. For Jetstar, you have to be checked-in and have deposited your bags 30 minutes before departure. Tiger are a little less lenient, closing check-in and bag drop 45 minutes prior to departure. Conversely, Jetstar close boarding services 15 minutes prior to departure, while Tiger close them 10 minutes before.
In the busier airports, both low cost carriers seem to be stuck down one end of the terminal, especially in Sydney - you've got a good five minute walk to get to your gate regardless of whether you're flying Jetstar or Tiger. Once there, Tiger are usually the most finicky when it comes to baggage checks. The 7kg limit for carry-on baggage is strictly upheld with staff members floating around with a weight, checking for any discrepancies. Jetstar sometimes pull the same trick, but I rarely saw them out checking bags.
All in all, there's not a lot of difference separating the two services before you board your flight but Jetstar provide a slightly longer check in time and usually have more terminals open at the airport for passengers. That's a bonus.
No frills. None.
Once wheels are up, both Jetstar and Tiger stay out of your hair for the length of the flight. Both providers allow you to book meals on the flight (you can see Jetstar's menu here and Tiger's here) or purchase on board. These are Not Cheap.
On one flight, I had Tiger's "posh ham and cheese toastie" and a $4 can of Pepsi Max and let me tell you — that was a totally okay $13 meal that should have cost less than a tenner. Most of the time, I'd carry my own chocolate bars and a bottle of water through security, so I had something to snack on when in the air. I recommend that, for both services.
If you ask for some tap water, you'll likely be able to score some for free, but you're going to get your air safety demonstration and that's it.
Entertainment is mostly up to you, especially on Tiger, where there is no access to TV shows or movies. Conversely, Jetstar offer in-flight entertainment at a price (around $10), where you can access the latest movies and TV shows, plus games and podcasts on international flights. Domestically, you'll want to bring a book or a Nintendo Switch — that's my go-to at least — or just sit there and admire the Big Blue.
How about the seats?
We joke about Economy being cattle class for a reason. There’s not a lot of room to move. Airlines squeeze as much human mass into the confines of an aircraft as possible, so you want to maximise every centimetre of space you can. I’m pretty small and compact, so I can fit in most seats with ease, but if you’re looking for a little extra room, we’ve done the leg work for you.
Tiger have the worst standard seat width in Australia, at a measly 43cm on any of their Boeing 737's. If you find yourself in one of these, there isn't a lot of room to work with. However, if you're in an old Tiger Airbus you'll have the most space with 46cm. Jetstar's Airbus fleet tops out at 45.7cm. Interestingly, Tiger also has a lot better seat pitch - with their fleet of 737's boasting a standard 78.7cm and Jetstar's Airbus A320 and A321's only managing 73.6cm and 71.1cm, respectively.
I guess I can throw a bunch of numbers at you — but do they differ in how comfortable they are?
I wouldn't suggest so. Tiger just feels a lot cheaper, the fabric traps a bit more heat and the armrests always seem wobbly. Jetstar have a slightly more comfortable seat with less room. So who wins here?
Finally, let's look outside the plane for a little bit and just take a minute to talk service. The one huge issue I had, as discussed earlier in this article, was a cancellation due to an engineering fault. This was the one major issue I had with Jetstar and one that took a couple of hours to remedy. My one consideration when dealing with these airlines is that there are a ton of terms and conditions that you need to keep an eye on, depending on the type of fare you're booking.
Beyond that, there's not too much interaction with the staff and attendants throughout the process. At some airports you might run into a guide, who helps you through the self-service kiosks, if you're lucky. For the most part, they're hands off. This is how the low-cost carriers operate and that's okay, but for troubleshooting and any issues checking-in it becomes a bit of a pain to chase down someone or wait for the often one or two desks that are open for check-in and additional services.
Tiger and Jetstar exist to funnel people into a giant aluminium box with wings and get them from one place to another.
Jetstar have a slight edge here though, with a bigger footprint at most of the major airports, with more attendants hovering around the place ready to help out, in my experience. It's only a slight edge - there is still definitely a lack of personnel on the ground - but it's an edge nonetheless.
There have been huge improvements to travelling on Australia's low cost carriers since they first started popping up around 15 years ago. I haven't come to love either of them, and they both have their fair share of issues. Issues that come with being a low-cost carrier that ferries people around the country. Based on our very broad categories, Jetstar claims a narrow victory here.
However, if you're being frugal, there's no reason why you shouldn't at least consider flying around Australia with either carrier. Just keep it right at the front of your mind, the oldest adage of them all rings true:
You get what you pay for.