In the latest Skytrax airline review, Spirit Airlines received an overall rating of 3 (out of 10). Not so good, eh? I’d love to debate that grade with those who fly Spirit. But what if those travelers also learned Spirit received a mere 4 for “value for money”. Value for money? This is an airline that touts itself as “the leading ultra-low cost carrier in the United States”! Have we been duped?
One of my family members flew Spirit earlier this week, and from her I learned the extent to which a business model can go “no frills”. I thought Spirit simply attached a fee to everything outside of the ticket itself. It’s more convoluted than that. Best example: Spirit’s checked bag fee starts at $30 (paid at time of booking), increases to $35 (before online check-in), then to $40 (during online check-in), then to $50 (at ticket counter), and summits at $100 (at gate). Pack carefully too, because an “overweight bag” begins at forty pounds (not fifty), and the fee-on-top-of-the-baggage-fee for overweight begins at $25.
Here are some other gotchas with Spirit; enough to consider your nearest emergency exit. Choosing a seat yourself runs $50 and up (not so unusual with the airlines these days). Carry-on bags that can’t be jammed under your seat cost you $55. Boarding passes are $2 if printed at a kiosk; $10 if printed by an agent (must be premium-weight paper, huh?) Unaccompanied minors are an extra $100 each way. Finally, the drink you’ll need to survive this a-la-carte menu starts at $3, even if it’s plain ol’ water. And don’t forget to press the flight attendant button or your beverage will never, ever arrive.
All of the above might read as criticism, but it’s apparent the Spirit model works for enough passengers to keep their planes in the air. If you choose to fly Spirit you are – ideally -a person traveling alone, carrying only one bite-sized piece of luggage, and you don’t mind where or with whom you sit on the plane. You also don’t care about comfort, because Spirit proudly reduces legroom to create “more seats for less airfare”.
I waged a little fares-war to see how Spirit’s “bare fare” stacks up to the competition. I chose five of Spirit’s larger-city destinations and compared those fares to the next lowest carrier. Here’s what you pay if you book a one-week round-trip flight from Denver starting April 15th:
- Chicago – Spirit: $108, Next Lowest: $117
- Atlanta – Lowest: $167, Spirit: $270
- Dallas – Spirit: $78, Next Lowest: $86
- Phoenix – Lowest: $130, Spirit: $150
- Los Angeles – Spirit: $91, Next Lowest: $138
Percentage-wise, the best deal is to Los Angeles, where you only pay 65% to Spirit vs. the next lowest. But are you going to fly all the way to the coast with a bag that fits under your seat? Not likely, so add another $55. Whoops – Spirit is no longer the lowest-cost option.
I’m not necessarily throwing Spirit under the bus here (even though a recent DOT report showed they had the highest number of complaints per-passenger among major U.S. airlines). I’m not saying they don’t care about you the customer (even though my sister-in-law took three hours and five agents/supervisors/managers to get her storm-delayed flight re-booked). I’m not even saying Spirit doesn’t run its business above board (even though the FAA recently slapped them with a $375,000 penalty for false advertising and refusal to reimburse customers).
What I am saying is do the math and know what you’re paying for. Don’t be duped.
I’ll conclude with a bit of irony. Three years ago my overnight flight to Florida was cancelled because I couldn’t connect through Houston on account of bad weather. But I simply had to get to Florida by the next morning. After exhausting all options the counter agent informed me my only option was out of another airport an hour’s drive to the north, and the only option out of that airport was… Spirit. And I’ll be damned if Spirit didn’t get me to Florida the next morning – right on time. So there you have it – I’m a fan of Spirit! Er, that is, after exhausting all other options.