Should I fly Spirit Airlines?
Nov. 20, 2018 | Updated Dec. 18, 2018
Concourse in terminal at Chicago O'Hare.
Recently, I flew Spirit for the first time. Begrudgingly, I admit.
I have flown on all of the major airlines in the U.S., some many times. I have flown domestic low-cost carriers like Southwest. I have even flown low-cost carriers in Europe, like EasyJet. Yet, I had been avoiding Spirit Airlines like the plague because of the many horror stories I had heard and read.
I'll cut to the chase: After experiencing first hand, Spirit Airlines has a much worse reputation than it deserves. There are situations where it will make complete sense to fly Spirit, and situations where it completely makes sense to avoid it. I’ll give my story here and my own suggestions for when one should, and should not, plan a trip on Spirit.
On very short notice, I needed to fly from NYC to Detroit for an overnight trip, and I didn’t have much flexibility in my schedule. Delta is my preferred carrier, and it so happens that Detroit is one of their major hubs, but when I started to shop for flights that fit my very rigid schedule, the cheapest seat was more than $1,100! This was well out of my budget, so I looked at alternatives. I came across a Spirit fare for a direct flight, with departure and arrival times neatly fitting my schedule, that was priced at $160 round trip.
Compared to the $1,100 that Delta wanted, the Spirit ticket was priced fantastically. But, I still hesitated. A LOT! It was hard to ignore the horror stories I’d heard about this airline; their brand’s image was very damaged in my mind. But I have no regrets about choosing Spirit this time around. In fact, after this experience I would absolutely consider them again in the future, under certain circumstances.
All that said, my trip wasn't exactly smooth. There were weather issues that severely disrupted my return trip. Because of this, my experience probably ran the gamut of what someone is ever likely to encounter while traveling on Spirit Airlines, so here’s my story, covering the good, bad, and ugly.
The Spirit Airlines gate agents and flight attendants that I encountered were all friendly and appeared to be good at their jobs. In fact, they impressed me more than staff I’ve encountered on some larger airlines. Perhaps because of Spirit's rigid processes and protocols, they were under less pressure than workers on other airlines. For instance, the boarding process on major airlines can sometimes feel chaotic, due to passengers jockeying for position in the boarding line to get space in the overhead bin. But Spirit's boarding process was the smoothest that I've seen in a long time.
Spirit boasts of having the youngest plane fleet of all U.S. carriers, which is probably accurate. Both planes had modern and clean interiors. There was a minor maintenance issue that needed to be addressed before the plane departed from LaGuardia to Detroit, but it seemed pretty routine.
For the Detroit-bound flight, I purchased (in advance) an upgrade to a Big Front Seat (BFS) seat, which is Spirit’s version of a premium cabin seat. The seats in the BFS section are equivalent to that of First Class cabins on short and medium haul planes (737s, A320s, A321s, etc) on Delta and the other major U.S. carriers. The caveat about BFS is that they do not recline, like all seats on Spirit flights. But it only costed $45 to “upgrade” to a BFS seat, and it was worth it. The same seat on a major airline would easily be hundreds/thousands of dollars more than the economy ticket.
On the return flight, I did not pre-select my seat but I did make sure to check-in as soon as check-in opened. I was auto assigned a window seat near the front of the plane, which I was pleased with since I prefer window seats close to the front of the plane. As I mentioned, Spirit seats do not have functionality to recline, but I otherwise found the seat to be the same as the economy seats on major airlines. But this flight was ultimately cancelled, so I did not actually fly in this seat. More on that in a bit.
Spirit's mobile app has some pretty bad reviews online, so I made sure to save my boarding passes in my Apple wallet, but I ultimately didn't need to because I found the app functional and easy to use. I am enrolled in TSA PreCheck, and I added my Known Traveler Number to the itinerary when I purchased the ticket. I was granted TSA PreCheck on both boarding passes without issue.
Spirit itemizes just about every part of the trip in order to keep the sticker price of the tickets so low. Advanced seat selection is itemized, and that price varies based on what section of the plane you choose to sit. If you do not pre-select your seat, I suspect that the better seats (windows and aisles) are auto-assigned in order of check-in for the flight. If you are flying in a group, and want to be seated with your group, it is best to pay for seat assignments in advance.
Spirit has found a way to monetize the actual ticketing process, but I doubt they make much money from it. Basically, they want you to not bother their agents with printing your boarding pass. You can print the boarding pass at home, download it to your phone, or print it at an airport kiosk, all for free. But if you ask an agent to print one for you it will cost $10. Tech-savvy or not, saving $10 per boarding pass is a good incentive to figure out how to do it yourself.
Spirit has also come up with a way to monetize access to the overhead bin space for carry-on items, which can substantially inflate the cost of travel from the ticket's sticker price. Just to recap some terminology, a carry-on item is considered a bag or item that can fit in the overhead bin of the airliner. This is different from a personal bag, which is an item that can fit entirely underneath the seat. Though many airlines monetize checked bags -- those are the bags that you give to the agent at the check-in counter and retrieve from the carousels after arrival -- as of this writing, all major U.S. carriers still allow one free personal bag, and one free checked bag, for all passengers.
It is very important to have an idea of how much luggage you will need in advance, because this is where Spirit’s costs start to add up. When you purchase the ticket you should have an idea of whether you will need a more than a personal item-sized bag. Most people will. Bag fees get more expensive 24 hours before departure (at start of check-in). As of now, the overhead bin prices are $35/bag before check-in, $45/bag after check-in begins, and $65/bag after check-in closes. These fees are each way, so if you need overhead bin space it will be a minimum of $70 added on to the price of the ticket.
I was aware of Spirit's baggage fee policies, and I was only planning an overnight trip, so I made sure that all I needed to carry would fit in my backpack. Do not carry anything larger than a backpack, or large purse, as a personal item. The gate agents will notice it and will force you to pay the carry-on fee. I witnessed the gate agents enforce this first hand.
As far as amenities, there are none on Spirit flights. Spirit does not offer any complimentary snacks or beverages, so particularly on longer journeys, either plan to pay for a snack with a debit or credit card, or make sure you bring your own. Expect the same type of extortion that you would encounter in the airport, as the prices seemed to be in line with what you would pay in the terminal.
Being a very budget airline, Spirit does not offer W-Fi or any onboard entertainment options. Unlike most flights on a major airline, you won’t have options to connect to the outside world until the plane lands. If you want to watch movies, make sure you have a mobile device that is well charged, with all of your preferred shows already downloaded, especially for a longer flight. Perhaps, bring a good book as a backup if you can fit one in your bag.
On return the next day, I was booked on a flight from Detroit to New York’s LaGuardia Airport, that was originally scheduled to depart at 3:45pm and arrive in New York at 5:35pm. That day, New York was hit by a surprise 6-inch snowfall. As a result, LaGuardia was shut down that afternoon and my flight was cancelled. The plane that was supposed to take us to New York was scheduled to continue on to Myrtle Beach, SC, after New York. With LaGuardia closed, Spirit had the New York passengers deplane and then flew the mostly empty plane directly to Myrtle Beach.
The cancelled flight left me in a bad spot. I did not have much flexibility in my personal schedule due to prior commitments in New York the next day. Spirit only operates two flights between Detroit and New York per day, one departing at 6am, and the other at 3:45pm. The only way Spirit could get me to New York in time for the event would be on the 6am flight. However, there were only 10 seats open, and they now had 120 people from the cancelled flight scrambling for those seats. Attempting to get on that 6am flight was a futile effort.
Less relevant to me but also worth noting, there were only 5 seats available on the 3:45pm flight the next day. There were 120 people stranded and only 15 empty seats to accommodate them the next day. It would take days for Spirit to get all of those people to New York at that rate, and the airline seemed well aware. They offered refunds right on the spot for the cancelled flight, and with the refund I rented a car and drove home to New York instead.
When should you fly Spirit?
My advice on when you should fly Spirit depends on several criteria: ticket price relative to major airlines, length of trip, distance, flexibility of schedule, availability of alternatives.
Ticket price and length of trip
A major consideration when looking at the sticker price of a Spirit flight is what the dollar difference is from a competitor fare with Spirit's fees included. Don't make the decision for purchasing a Spirit ticket based on the airfare alone. If your trip will be more than a day or two, you will most certainly need to carry-on or check e piece of luggage each way. This will, at minimum, add $60 to the price of your ticket.
If your trip is urgent, and the options on major airlines are significantly more expensive, then you should go with Spirit, without hesitation. This would also apply if your plans are very flexible. If there are options on major airlines that are within $100 of Spirit's ticket, particularly if you will need to bring luggage, then I think the piece of mind that comes with more flight options is worth a few extra dollars.
Something else to consider is the distance you are traveling. Seats on Spirit’s planes do not recline, so a long flight would be less comfortable than on another airline. This is not much of a concern on short flights, and Spirit is a great option for short hops if you become priced out from the major airlines. Spirit flies a few cross country routes, such as Cleveland to Los Angeles, but I would be hesitant to use Spirit for a non-stop longer than 2 hours.
Availability of Alternatives
This is a less obvious aspect of the decision to fly Spirit, and I suspect one that has frustrated Spirit travelers many times over the years. My cancelled flight was very inconvenient, but it could have been worse if I were in a place with more limited options for me to get home than Detroit.
Since Detroit is a major air hub, there are many ways to get to New York on other airlines., Last minute airfares can be expensive, but it is at least an option other than potentially waiting days for an available seat on Spirit. Detroit is also within a days drive of New York, so renting a car and driving, as I did, also becomes an option.
To recap, I would recommend Spirit under the following conditions:
- Your travel is urgent and the sticker price is substantially more than a larger airline. My personal rule of thumb would be if the ticket on a larger airline is $100 more than the Spirit ticket price + 2x the anticipated baggage fee.
- Your travel is flexible, and the sticker price is substantially more than a larger airline. See above.
- The flight time is within 2 hours and is non-stop. From the northeast, I probably rule out Spirit to go any farther than Chicago to the west, or Atlanta to the south.
- The destination has alternative travel options. Could I find alternative transportation, such as a flight on another airline, bus, train, or a rental car to drive, if need be?
And when would I not recommend Spirit:
- Rigid schedules. I would avoid Spirit for business travel. As a rule of thumb, if your schedule matters more than cost then it pay to use a major airline that can better absorb unanticipated travel disruptions. Weather events can easily disrupt scheduled travel, and this is out of Spirit's control. But larger airlines are better equipped to get their schedules back on track after a disruption.
- Long distances. Spirit has long distance non-stops, such as their route from Cleveland to Los Angeles, that would probably be too far for me due to the non-reclining seats.
- Limited alternatives. Spirit has routes into the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America, but I would be hesitant to fly Spirit abroad. The caveat here would be if your travel plans are extremely flexible. If you would not be severely inconvenienced by spending a few extra days in a destination abroad – maybe you are visiting family, so hotel costs are not an issue – then Spirit could make sense.
- Minimal cost difference from a ticket on a major airline. You will need to do your research on what fees you will be subjected to. If you calculate in advance all of the expected fees that you will incur on Spirit, and it is less than a $100 difference than a major airline, then I would say spring for the seat on the major airline. Bigger airlines are much more flexible to get you where you need to go if there is a weather disruption. That piece of mind is worth the extra money.
Added December 17, 2018:
Here's more evidence that Spirit's reputation is outdated. Spirit was the most on-time airline in America in October 2018
. The airline also had the second lowest rate of canceled flights
Stephon Owens is the Founder and CEO of Vezpuchi.