We have all heard horror stories from friends and family about flying Spirit Airlines. The much maligned “ultra low cost carrier” gets a bad rap for being the pioneer among U.S. carriers for excessive fees. Bringing an overhead carry-on into the cabin? That will set you back $37 if you pay for it during the booking process, $57 if you declare it during check in at the airport, and a ridiculous $65 if you declare it at the gate. Forgot to print your boarding pass at home? Having them print your boarding pass at the airport will cost you $10 (although Spirit does have kiosks at some airports which allows you to print for free). Thirsty while on the plane? You’re not getting a complimentary beverage. I literally had to get a rundown of all the rules from a friend so they wouldn’t have that “gotcha” moment with me. Love them or hate them, this is Spirit’s business model and Wall Street will tell you it’s been a relatively successful one. In fact it’s been so successful that American, United, and Delta have all dedicated the rear of their cabin to basic economy where customers can purchase a similar no frills ticket at a cost that competes with Spirit and Frontier. When I fly an airline for the first time, I really look forward to the experience if they are known for excellence in customer service. Admittedly, I also look forward to flying an airline for the first time when the customer service is on the opposite end of the spectrum.
Morbid curiosity on whether my experience would affirm the hellish experience of others led me to book a flight on Spirit in January. It also helped that I was looking for a late flight from NYC to Chicago and Spirit offered the last flight to Chicago, a 10 pm departure. The one way fare was $59, or $20 cheaper than what the legacy carriers were charging for the same route. I didn’t check in any bags or have any item that was large enough to be classified as a carry-on. I purchased a rolling bag that was small enough to fit under the seat, but big enough to fit five days worth of clothes. I made sure to print out my boarding pass at home and wasn’t assigned a seat until I got to the airport (Spirit charges $5 if you want to select your seat). For those of you traveling with children, Spirit will try their best to seat families together but there is no guarantee without paying for advanced seat assignments. Checking in at LaGuardia was hassle free and off I went to my gate.
As I was waiting at the gate, the thought occurred that this might not be terrible after all. I haven’t seen anyone get slugged, they haven’t had their “gotcha” moment with me, and I might get to Chicago in a timely manner. And then 10 minutes after that thought, I hear a Spirit gate agent announce “Good evening ladies and gentleman, Spirit flight 331 that was scheduled to depart for Chicago O’Hare at 10 pm is now scheduled to depart at 10:40 pm.” Okay then. I can live with a 40 minute delay. This was something I expected prior to booking so I was not all that annoyed or disappointed. You see, Spirit Airlines is routinely ranked dead last among all U.S. carriers in on time performance. While many airlines structure their schedules to comfortably deplane, clean the plane, and board again, Spirit does not. Their goal is to land and turn the plane around to their next destination as soon as possible. Their entire motto is if the plane is sitting idle, it is isn’t making money so more time in the air is good, more time on the ground is very bad. This works fine throughout the day if weather and maintenance issues don’t creep up. But if something goes wrong earlier in the day, the domino effect is felt all the way until the last flight takes off. And that is precisely what occurred with my flight (as well as the flight scheduled to depart before mine). But again, 40 minutes was not the end of the world. It can be a whole lot worse.
Now it was time to board the flight. The Spirit gate agents eyeballed everyone’s carry-on luggage and checked to see if anything that wasn’t fitting in the personal item bin had been paid for as a carry-on item. This is the step when people who don’t pay attention to the rules or have never flown Spirit end up wasting away the savings they got on their low fare. If your carry-on was not paid for or your personal item is too big for the bin, you’re paying $65 at the gate. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. I looked to see if any unwitting passenger got caught and fortunately no one did. It seemed like everyone on the flight was either a Spirit veteran or a rookie who knew the rules.
When I boarded the flight I braced myself for the industry low leg room that Spirit offers. Once I was seated, it certainly felt more spacious than that. It’s quite possible that the smaller seat size created an artificial feeling of extra leg room but it felt like any other airline seat in coach. The one catch? Spirit seats do not recline. This is fine for a 90 minute flight. I couldn’t imagine the discomfort on a transcontinental flight.
Once on the flight, Spirit did not offer any complimentary beverages or snacks but they did make them available for purchase There was no WiFi (free or paid) or seat-back entertainment. They managed to get me home safely and that was all that I expected.
Would I recommend flying Spirit? Yes, but with a few caveats. Above all, you would have to score a really cheap fare. A lot cheaper than the competition. If you scored a really cheap fare and you are on a leisure trip where you can afford to be late by several hours in case of the inevitable delay, go for it. If you are on a route that isn’t between two airports that suffer from chronic delays, you might also fare better.
When should you avoid Spirit? If you are flying on the day of a wedding, an interview, a meeting, a funeral, or if you are flying in the winter months to or from a cold weather city. If you are planning to use Spirit to connect to a different airline on the same day, think long and hard about it.
Here are a few odd facts about Spirit Airlines: If you go to the airport and book your flight, you will save on the passenger usage fee which is usually around $15-$18. It seems odd that in 2017, an airline would discourage booking online vs booking in person but that’s what Spirit does. Spirit also charges MORE for a carry-on than they do for a checked-in bag. So if you have a rolling bag that’s too large to be a personal item and doesn’t contain anything of significant value, you’re better off just checking it in. It costs $32 when you pay for it during booking (this increases to $52 if you pay for it at the airport) and your bag can be as heavy as 40 lbs.
I have heard from friends that if you ask to be seated in an exit row seat at the gate, Spirit agents will put you there at no cost if it’s available. This will give you plenty of leg room if you can score a seat. It doesn’t hurt to ask and the worse thing that can happen is them saying “no.”
Spirit also has a frequent flier program called Free Spirit. Any flight you take with them will earn miles. In addition to that, they have a unique program called the $9 fare club which gives you access to lower fares and cheaper check-in fees for a cost of $59 per year. I suppose if you are really loyal to Spirit and fly them multiple times per year, it’s a program which might benefit you.