Review: Spirit Airlines

Spirit-Airline

 

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.

 

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One  of the many warnings to pay for your carry-on prior to arriving at the 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.

 

Spirit is usually at the bottom for on time performance among U.S. carriers

 

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.

 

 

If your personal item does not fit in this bin, I can assure you the rest of your day will not be pleasant.

 

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.

 

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I had plenty of legroom with space to spare. Your miles might vary depending on your height

 

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.

 

Etihad Business Class: Airline Review

Before I get to the review, let me explain the ways you can go about redeeming miles. For people that have accumulated airline miles, there are two prevailing thoughts on how to use them.  The first is redeeming for a product that gives you the most value. For example, redeeming 60k miles for a business class ticket that would cost $3,000 if you were to pay with cash. This gives you a value of 5 cents per mile ($3,000/60,000 miles = 0.05 cents/mile).  The second is using the redemption that costs the least number of miles so you can put the savings into another trip for the future. An example of this is using 30k miles to book a ticket in economy class  that would usually cost $600. This gives you a lower value of 2 cents per mile ($600/30,000 miles = 0.02 cents per mile) but now you have miles left over for a future trip.

Up until this particular trip, I have always fell into the latter. I usually preferred sacrificing comfort and indulgence for the opportunity to travel more. When I called American Airlines to redeem their miles on their partner airline Etihad, I did so fully intending to book economy for my wife and I. This would have came at a cost of 15k miles per 1 way ticket from Abu Dhabi to Maldives. When the customer service rep looked into my inquiry, she informed me that only business class redemption’s were available on this flight since economy was fully booked. The redemption was 30k miles per ticket. I thought about the opportunity cost the higher redemption might have for a future flight but  gave her the green light to book business class. And it was probably the best redemption decision I have ever made in terms of value.  Had I booked that same business class ticket using cash, it would have cost 6,345 AED or $1,727.47 per ticket.  Using this redemption, my wife and I got an incredible value. of 5.7 cents per mile.

The cash price of booking a one way business class ticket from Abu Dhabi, UAE to Male, Maldives

 

As for the product itself, you really feel like you’re getting the most for your miles when you book with Etihad.  When your flight originates from Abu Dhabi, you reap the benefits before you even arrive at the airport. Etihad offers a luxury chauffeur service for business class travelers where a Mercedes or BMW will pick up you up from your hotel/home and take you to the airport. This service was offered in various cities worldwide before Etihad pared it down to their hub city. Unfortunately, I had a one-way car rental from Dubai so I was not able to utilize this service. Upon checking in at Abu Dhabi airport, my wife and I had complimentary access to the Etihad Business Class lounge. You can read about that experience here.  After spending over an hour at the lounge, it was time to head over to our gate for our flight to Male. Our plane was parked on the tarmac away from the jet bridge and a shuttle would ferry us there. The first shuttle was only for first class and business class passengers. It was 75% empty and they could have easily fit an additional 30-35 passengers. At that point it became clear that Etihad really goes the extra mile in adding to the exclusiveness for their first and business class customers. Once seated on the plane we were immediately offered beverages and given a menu. The choices are seen below.

Business class breakfast

 

Scrambled eggs, chicken sausage, and a hashbrown

vanilla pancakes, fruits, croissant, and orange juice

I went with the scrambled egg option while the wife opted for the vanilla pancakes.  I’ve never had chicken sausage before and while I would have preferred beef, it still tasted pretty good. I took a bite from the wife’s pancakes and kind of wished I ordered that instead.  Both were delicious but the pancakes were a tad bit better.  The flight was about 4 hours long and the flight attendants came by routinely to ask if we wanted any beverages. The cappuccino was good but not much different than any other cup of cappuccino I’ve had.  And they gave a pouch with eye covers and socks.

Since we were flying in the Airbus A320, our seats were not the fully lay-flat seats seen in the Boeing 777 or Airbus A380.  They still reclined a great deal and were plenty comfortable. Just prior to landing, we were given an expedited customs card which allowed us to go to the front of the line for immigration/customs. Looking back on it, the value we received for the extra 15k miles per person was tremendous. Had I booked economy (if it were available), the 15k miles per person saved might have been enough for two one-way saver award tickets or one round trip ticket anywhere in the continental U.S. on American. Perhaps the total maximum value would be $450 on the 30k miles saved. By booking business class, the extra 15k miles spent per person netted us a benefit of $900-$1000 per ticket. That is called getting value for your miles. It may also have me rethink my strategy when booking future award flights.