Despite holding status on other carriers, I find myself flying Spirit Airlines and loving it. Why would I willingly give up a shot at free first class seats, meals, free bags, and other perks? Because Spirit is very good at what they do.
Limited First Class Seats On The Flag Carriers
I love first class and business class products as much as everyone else, well, perhaps not as much as Lucky does – no one is on his level. But I don’t need it for every flight and especially not on short flights. On some short routes from United and American (I hold top-tier status with both) they don’t even offer first class seats. Even if there are first class seats, I may not clear my upgrades. The airlines have worked hard to monetize the cabin (fair enough) but have also reduced the number of first class seats (I’m less forgiving on this) further reducing the chances for an upgrade.
If I am sitting in the back, the flag carriers will still put me in an extra leg room seat most of the time anyway, but a middle seat in extra leg room cabin is still a middle seat. If I am not sitting in the front, we might as well only focus on the back of the bus anyway, and that is not as excruciating as you might think.
Short Direct Flights Not Long Haul
Flights from the northeast US to Florida are great examples of ideal Spirit Airlines flights. I frequently fly to the south but doing so on United/American/Delta requires a connection from my home city adding hours to my journey and a layover. I’ll gladly trade a slim chance at an upgrade for a shorter journey time.
Here’s what I mean:
Comparable Pricing Isn’t Comparable
Using the same example (Pittsburgh to Fort Myers), Delta comes in closest at $194, right? Wrong, that’s a basic economy seat and for any of the other factors to come into play, like a chance for an upgrade, a carry-on bag, status and mileage earning potential, I will need to pay more.
Basic economy fares are nothing new and I understand why the airlines do it. They want an opportunity to capture the business on a comparable service level or acquire the fare creep from add-ons that Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant push during the sales process. The problem is that they aren’t hitting the mark. Delta is offering a competing basic economy fare on the route at twice the price before the flag carrier buy-ups become available.
Our last Spirit flight home from Florida wasn’t perfect. We had an issue buying a seat assignment to secure space together, were reseated to the back of the plane in a windowless row. The FA reseated folks that had been assigned the last row (they had 2 of 3 seats with one open) to the row in front of us with one occupant making the row full and leaving the back row for the FA to sit and read magazines for about an hour and a half. That being said, Spirit was still selling their Big Front Seat for $41 as an upgrade, if they would have had three, I would have bought them without a doubt. Delta has buy-up upgrades, so does United and American, but they will never be $41. As an elite, I am glad they aren’t, but as a non-elite on that airline, I wish they had more for sale.
Product Is Better Than Frontier
Frontier has done a great job of focusing on secondary and tertiary markets with point-to-point service. From Pittsburgh to Orlando and Cleveland to Fort Myers, flights direct to Florida are cheap, quick and easy. However, as delightful as their flight attendants may be (they really do seem to enjoy their job) – the seats are just painful. It’s not the seat pitch, that’s not actually bad, but their slimline seats are unlike any other I have tried and particularly uncomfortable. It’s one thing to make the passenger space small in the back of the bus, all the carriers have done that, it’s quite another to make the seat actually painful to sit in.
On Spirit, they may not have La-Z-Boy recliners, but their seats aren’t painful to sit in. They also sell 2-2 “Big Front Seats” which get cheaper once the door has closed and they remain unsold. And upgrading is usually really cheap, our last offered a Big Front Seat for just $41 more than what we had already paid. Considering that choosing any seat would incur at least $10, and seats towards the front but not necessarily exit rows would cost at least $17, the extra cost is almost negligible. No wonder they sold 7 of 8 our last flight.
More Reliable Than Allegiant
I refuse to fly Allegiant. As far as LCC carriers go, there are well-run airlines and poorly-run airlines (just as there are in the legacy carrier segment). Allegiant’s operations have been anecdotally terrible and involve too many sacrifices for an inferior experience. Allow me to digress. Three groups of travelers I know flew Allegiant within the last six months and each one of them sustained substantial delays (no less than 12 hours, one was delayed two days). Contributing factors to Allegiant’s competency issues are an aging fleet of MD-80s (they have already replaced all of the 757s) and a very tight equipment supply. As those very old frames experience more and more maintenance delays (always better to be delayed than dead), there aren’t adequate spares positioned to carry passengers forward.
Allegiant also uses the Ryan Air/Southwest airport model as opposed to Spirit Airlines adaptation of it. People will fly from nowhere to somewhere, but not nowhere to nowhere. What that means is that Allegiant can fill an airplane from almost any smaller community like Grand Island, NE to Las Vegas. But their use of secondary airports (like Chicago Midway is for Southwest) like St. Petersburg for Tampa, Punta Gorda for Fort Myers, and Mesa, AZ for Phoenix are a significant distance from their associated city. I just don’t want to add 45 minutes to my journey to get to where I really want to go.
Why My Love Affair With Spirit Was Unlikely
Currently, I hold United 1K status and American Airlines Executive Platinum (though I am not going out of my way anymore to sustain it). I have also held Alaska Airlines MVP 75k, Jet Blue Mosaic and Southwest Airlines Companion Pass in the last few years, but none of those have been my regular choices. With top-tier status elsewhere, why wouldn’t I fly with them when flights are comparable in price? The legacy carriers are going to give me free checked bags, priority boarding, miles, seat selection and – if I don’t clear an upgrade – a snack and a drink.
- Miles are less valuable than before. Seats on American for routes I want to redeem are less available than ever before though it looks as though they have started to turn that tide recently.
- Fewer upgrades. As mentioned before there are both fewer seats and cheaper first class tickets (or paid upgrades).
- Direct flights are better. Direct flights make long weekend trips possible from anywhere, adding connections on both ends of the trip almost certainly eat a vacation day.
- Meals on short, direct flights aren’t important. I just don’t need to eat on a two-hour flight.
- It makes more travel possible. Normal prices for a weekend trip to Florida have traditionally been $250-350/each. That’s honestly a fair price for the distance of the journey and the origin and destination. But at $99/each, my family has the opportunity to travel much more frequently and to more destinations.
Cheap, Cheerful, Easy
If you board a Ryan Air plane expecting Lufthansa, you’re going to hate the flight. If you get on a Ryan Air flight happy as can be that you snagged a £10 fare somewhere then you have a different approach. Using Spirit with full knowledge of how to avoid day-of-travel pain points, I couldn’t be happier with the carrier. Their flight attendants are generally pleasant and helpful. The flights we take are short, direct, and easy.
If you don’t live in a major hub city, Spirit may be the best option for you. Here are some quick and easy tips to help you fall in love with Spirit and avoid punitive add-ons.
- Watch for cheap tickets. Set alerts on Google.com/flights for direct routes on Spirit, they will drop sometimes close to your travel period.
- Pay in advance for luggage options. If you always carry-on a rollaboard, just pay for it, your fare is cheap enough that it won’t really impact your budget. You might be able to get around paying for luggage if you see the next item.
- Buy more than one seat. Seats are typically assigned together, though the airline is only required to keep families together with at least one parent and one child under 13 – in practice, they don’t separate parties unless they have to. By pure coincidence, I ended up with three tickets (my wife and daughter skipped a flight) and an entire row to myself. But frankly, at $50 each way (perhaps as cheap as $30 if you buy at the airport) why not just buy three tickets and spread out? You may or may not even be able to bring three personal items as a result. On some routes, $90-150 one-way is still cheaper than basic economy on a competitor.
- Don’t stretch the rules. While we have never had an agent twist the screws on us (like they have at Ryan Air), they could. If they ever put my backpack in a personal item sizer or on a scale, I’d be in big trouble. If you follow their rules, you’ll be in good shape.
Have you had a good experience with an LCC? Am I just having lucky experiences with Spirit?