Are $10 airfares too good to be true?
A Globe reporter booked a trip aboard the über-low-cost start-up Skybus Airlines Inc. to find out. The airline, which launched last year, garnered much attention for bringing new lows to airfares by setting aside 10, $10 seats on each flight. That would mean one could fly to, say, Kansas City, Mo., for $40 roundtrip, plus taxes and fees. That's cheaper than the $200 or more it can ordinarily cost to fly from Boston to Kansas City.
Skybus can offer such cheap fares because a lot of amenities are usually included in a tickairfares are not. Passengers must pay for beverages (water costs $2 a bottle), checked luggage ($5 a bag per flight), and pillows ($12 each). And you'll have to drive to Portsmouth International Airport in New Hampshire to catch a Skybus flight. But the biggest hurdle is scoring one of the coveted cheap seats.
In the end, we found the airline's $10 deal works best for people who have lots of time and flexibility. The airline uses smaller, out-of-the-way airports, so travelers may have to drive an hour or more for good deals. The best way to snag the $10 seats is to sign up for e-mailed airfare updates that can arrive at 4:15 a.m. and rush to Skybus.com since that's the only way to book Skybus tickets.
And having flexible travel dates helps. Our mid-October search showed the soonest we could take this trip was January due to the scarcity of $10 tickets between Columbus and "Boston," what the Columbus-based carrier calls the Portsmouth airport about 60 miles north of the Hub.
Chief financial officer Michael Hodge said the airline's strategy is to keep airfares substantially lower than competitors'. The bare-bones experience helps offset airfare for those who don't want the perks, he said.
"People appreciate the option to take it if they want, but they appreciate also if they don't want it that they don't have to pay for the sandwich or the drink for the person sitting next to them," he said.
Our original plan was to fly Skybus to San Francisco - a $40 round-trip destination by way of Columbus. But the $10 deals on the daily flight between Columbus and San Francisco vanished by late September. After those seats disappeared, prices edged up to $35 , then to $55, and ultimately to $390 for last-minute fares.
So we went as far west as possible for $20 one-way. We booked two one-way tickets (Kansas City via Columbus from Portsmouth) - even though Skybus doesn't advise passengers to cobble together connecting flights. Those who do must run two separate searches and credit card transactions.
Our trip began in a taxi that picked us up in Cambridge at 3:40 a.m. on a recent Wednesday and whisked us to Boston's South Station bus terminal for $29.05, including a $4 tip. The T would have been cheaper, but it wouldn't get us there in time to catch the 4:40 a.m. C&J Trailways bus that Skybus.com advised us to take in order to get to Portsmouth two hours before the flight. The $12 bus fare included bottled water, blankets, and pillows during the 80-minute ride to the Portsmouth Transportation Center, where we waited another hour for the free airport shuttle.
At the airport, we paid $5 to check a suitcase that would qualify as a carry-on on some other airlines. On Skybus, however, only luggage as large as school backpacks can be stowed overhead, so about 80 percent of passengers check bags, an airline spokesman said.
Most aircraft in the growing Skybus fleet are brand new, but our plane was one of its first, a 144-seater leased from Virgin America. Newer planes are able to squeeze in 156 roomy leather seats since there are no seat-back pockets.
The 8:12 a.m. flight took off with 56 passengers, or 39 percent of the seats filled. There's no assigned seating, but an extra $10 per flight segment buys "priority boarding" and a better chance at plopping down in the extra-legroom exit row. (We didn't pony up for priority boarding.)
Fifteen minutes after take-off, flight attendant Jennifer Lyons announced that Skybus sells food to keep airfare low. Donna Klei, a $20 traveler from Mason, Ohio, bought a $2 cup of coffee. The 63-year-old was concluding a short vacation, a surprise visit to see her recently widowed sister.
Klei said she flew out of Columbus instead of Cincinnati - which is 70 miles closer to her home - because, "I'm not about to pay $500 to fly out to Boston." But even with the savings on the flight, she skipped the $5 cinnamon roll. On her way to the airport, she stopped at Dunkin' Donuts, where "it's cheaper," she said.
Halfway into our two-hour flight, Lyons pushed a cart down the aisle piled high with chocolates, toys, and luxury goods featured in the seatback shopping catalogs, asking, "Trinkets? Gifts? Valentine's Day is just around the corner." The trio of flight attendants, who typically have completed a two-day sales crash-course, split a 10 percent commission on passenger purchases, including the $44 Vera Wang Princess eau de toilette spray and $199 Hugo Boss men's black leather watch.
An hour after the plane landed in Columbus, we finished fetching our checked luggage from the baggage carousel, checking it back in for the second flight segment for another $5, and clearing security. (The carrier doesn't staff a call center, so passengers need to report lost or damaged bags before leaving the airport.) An hour and 40 minutes after that, our connecting flight departed.
Despite not liking the soggy $8 breakfast bagel and bland potato wedges during the first flight, we shelled out $10 for a turkey sandwich with an orange slice, 10 red grapes, and a cold chocolate-chip cookie. The $2 can of juice washed the lunch down, and $3 bottled Starbucks Frappuccino helped us stay awake after rising so early.
The $12 "executive travel pillow" wasn't comfortable, but was ours to keep. The woman in front of us made do by wedging her purse and puffy jacket into the gap between her window seat and the wall. We would have done the same but needed our wool coat to keep us warm rather than buy an $8 blanket.
Twenty-five minutes after we landed in Kansas City, the once-daily Skybus flight returning to Columbus departed, at 1:45 p.m. So we had to stay overnight.
In the end, our $20 one-way ticket cost us $122.35 with taxes, perks, and ground transportation. If you value saving money more than saving time, the $10 seats may be worth it for you. On our next trip, though, we will book a regular airfare.
Nicole C. Wong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.