Avgeeks certainly love to hate Spirit Airlines, the plucky low-cost carrier that revels in its el cheapo reputation. Unfortunately, that reputation typically involves poor customer service, high ancillary fees, and middling on-time performance. But hey, I’m a glutton for punishment to provide world-class entertainment for readers of this blog. I decided that one day, I really need to subject myself to the Spirit Experience as a gimmick for The Road More Traveled. My goals were simple: find the cheapest possible non-stop fare out of DFW, and beat Spirit at its own game by not paying any fees. Could it be done?
Finding a date to try this proved challenging, with tons of personal travel already planned for the fourth quarter of 2015. Finally, I settled on the weekend of December 5th. Spirit ran a sale featuring a base fare of one penny from DFW to Tampa that Saturday. A same-day turn on Spirit wasn’t possible, but Southwest offered returns for $41. Best yet, I was heading to DFW in a couple of days anyway to pick up my sister, providing the opportunity to even dodge the “Passenger Usage Fee” by buying my ticket at the airport. And so, the plan was set.
Note: Rohan pulled off a similar gimmick, only on steroids, over the summer. Read his witty post for his take on the airline.
Spirit Airlines (NK) Flight 812
- Saturday, December 5, 2015
- Depart: DFW International Airport (DFW), Gate E32, 10:40, 17m late
- Arrive: Tampa International Airport (TPA), Gate A16, 14:10, 28m late
- Duration: 2 hours 30 minutes
- Seat: 20F
- Equipment: Airbus A320
Circumstances nearly derailed my plan from the start. As I waited for my sister to arrive, I moseyed on over to the Spirit Airlines ticket counter in Terminal E. There, I intended to purchase my cheap ticket to Tampa. Based on the information provided on the Spirit Airlines website for this flight, I expected to pay a total of $16.11 for the ticket. This consisted of the all-in price of $34.10, less the $17.99 passenger usage fee.
The friendly agent behind the counter was happy to sell me a ticket. But, even after I gave her the flight number and date I wanted, she said she couldn’t find a Flight 812 to Tampa at 10:23 in the morning. The only one she could find was at 4:00 in the afternoon, and it would be $29.45. Strange, because no such flight even appeared to exist on the Spirit website. I’m not sure if this was just incompetence on the part of the agent, or if Spirit deliberately restricts the number of deeply discounted tickets sold at airport ticket counters to thwart cheapskates like me trying to avoid the odious passenger usage fee.
Either way, I now had a choice. I could either abandon this trip altogether, since I could no longer claim that to have flown completely fee-free, or I could just deal with the extra $17.99 and do it anyway. At the end of the day, I decided to just go home and buy the ticket online and pay the fee. You can also see why I asterisked the title of this post. No, I didn’t really fly for a penny, but that was really the base airfare, before taxes and fees.
Not wanting to pay any seat selection fees, I just let the computer assign me a random seat when I checked in online the day before. To improve my chances of a decent seat, I literally checked in exactly 24 hours before departure. I might not take the chance if traveling with small kids, but since I was by myself, I really didn’t care where I sat. Fortunately, the computer gave me a window seat, 20F. So that turned out well.
Meanwhile, come travel day, I discovered the second annoyance with flying Spirit. They don’t participate in TSA PreCheck. Even if you’ve paid the fee or have access through Global Entry, you receive no benefit when flying Spirit. (Update: Spirit Airlines will join PreCheck, though the exact date is unknown). And apparently, many of their customers have no clue how to pass through airport security. The line ground to a halt at least three times because of water bottles inside carry-ons. The end result: I walked up go Gate E32 just as boarding was scheduled to begin.
Speaking of boarding, my boarding pass oddly showed a boarding time of 9:38 A.M., a full 45 minutes before departure. I say odd, because the incoming flight from Detroit wasn’t even scheduled to arrive until 9:30, making that boarding time pretty much impossible. Maybe it’s a ploy by Spirit to stop passengers from dilly-dallying and get them to the gate early. The point here is, check the incoming flight info before heading to the gate to wait. Our incoming flight was running about 25 minutes late, but annoyingly, the gate agent never announced nor posted a delay. Boarding began around 10:15, which proceeded quickly. We pushed back 17 minutes past the scheduled departure time.
Spirit Airlines: Seating and Interior
It was a great day for flying, and our plane looked quite cheerful, if reveling in cheapness. The gate agents were pleasant as well. And the passengers, though apparently clueless about how to go through security, actually sat patiently until groups were called. No gate lice on this flight, at least.
On board, the plane was clean, though the seats were starting to show their age just a bit.
You’ve undoubtedly heard about Spirit’s notoriously tight seat pitch, at just 28 inches. Furthermore, the seats don’t recline at all. At first glance, this sounds like a torture chamber. But in practice, legroom wasn’t that bad. Though tighter than Southwest (see the second photo for comparison), my knees weren’t crunching up against the seat in front. In addition, though I’m yet to discover a truly comfortable Slimline seat, these seemed no worse than American or Southwest.
Spirit legroom (28″ pitch)
Southwest legroom (32″ pitch)
Alas, where the tight pitch does create problems is if you want to work on a laptop in-flight. This photo came out blurry, but you can see the problem. It’s practically impossible to keep a screen at a readable angle, even though the seat in front doesn’t recline. Additionally, there is no in-seat power. Though not really a problem on a 2 1/2 hour flight, make sure your devices contain a sufficient charge before boarding.
Low fares means that the airline must cover its costs in other ways. Spirit’s legendary fees for everything, even water, is one way. You’ll also notice ads like this one placed throughout the cabin. You will also be subjected to the annoying credit card shilling shortly before landing, yet somehow, I found it a little more palatable on Spirit than I did on US Airways (and increasingly, on American flights). I guess it’s just because you expect that kind of thing on a ULCC.
Spirit Airlines: A Word About Baggage
Speaking of fees, a strong word of caution about carry-ons. You are allowed one “personal item” for free, defined on the Spirit Airlines website as an item measuring no larger than 16″ x 14″ x 12″. This is smaller than you might think. A laptop bag is fine, but even the medium-sized backpack I usually carry is technically over the limit. Even though it does fit under any airline seat.
Too large for Spirit, as it measures more than 20″ in length
The gate agents weren’t stringently checking the size of personal items. I didn’t feel like pressing my luck, though, and risking a $100 upcharge, and so only took my laptop bag. But buyer beware. Unless you can pack really light, the fee for a single carry-on (minimum $35, unless you pay the fee to join the $9 fare club, or minimum $30 to check it in) can wipe out any savings from flying Spirit (more on that later).
Meanwhile, the aforementioned window seat provided the exact same view as any other airplane. A Spirit aircraft in the older livery was sitting next door. As we took off to the south, you could sneak in a brief view of the south end of the DFW airfield if you were paying attention.
Once at cruising altitude, the flight attendants came through to sell drinks. The take rate appeared to be pretty low, as most everyone had brought their own sodas or waters on board with them. I didn’t order anything, but I was pleasantly surprised at the courteousness of the crew. I’d heard several stories about how Spirit’s crews can be surly. They did their jobs with a smile, and even came through a second time to offer items from the cart. Meanwhile, though the glare out the window made things difficult, I did manage to get in a few photos as we entered Florida. First, a nice shot of Escambia Bay, with the city of Pensacola on the bay’s arm on the right.
Then, the gorgeous white sand beaches towards Destin and Panama City.
And finally, a close-up of the Macdill Air Force Base airfield and downtown Tampa on final approach.
We managed to make up a few minutes of the delay en-route. Uunfortunately, it was all eaten up and then some by a trip to the dreaded penalty box. The culprit: the plane occupying our gate was also delayed departing. And ultimately, this is the biggest risk you take flying Spirit. Their on-time performance simply isn’t good; in October, Spirit had an on-time arrivals rate of 78 percent.
In absolute terms, that’s not bad, but was well below the industry average of 87 percent, and the airline has pretty consistently fallen at the bottom of on-time performance rankings. The delays on this flight were pretty minor, but my sister has encountered delays of an hour or two, and my mom was once delayed getting home from Fort Myers by a whopping 8 hours. Use caution if you’re thinking of “hacking” a connection from a Spirit flight on to another carrier, especially if checking a bag.
Spirit Airlines: The Verdict
I have to say, the experience wasn’t that bad, certainly not to the level of the Spirit horror stories. I was pleasantly surprised by the professional and courteous attitudes of the Spirit employees I encountered. No surliness to be found either at the ticket counter, the gate, or onboard. The seats are tight, but really weren’t any more uncomfortable than the brutal Slimline seats that are proliferating like weeds even on full-service carriers, and the planes were clean and well-maintained. On the other hand, if you need to work on-board, this isn’t the airline for you. No WiFi, no on-board power, and the tight pitch makes it difficult to use a laptop. It also takes some work to avoid the fees, and it was disappointing that my attempt to avoid the passenger usage fee by buying at the airport was foiled.
So when is it worth it to fly Spirit? Simply put, maybe, but you have to do your homework in advance. For this trip, Spirit was $34 each way, with Southwest coming in at $41 each way. I’d rather take Southwest with that minimal a price difference, if for no other reason that I can use my PreCheck benefits with Southwest. On the other hand, for an upcoming trip to Fort Myers, American sells round-trip fares as low as $107 from DFW. Spirit will get you there for $68; I’m assuming once again that buying at the airport to dodge the passenger usage fee will prove to be elusive. That’s enough to get my attention. A $39 difference times two pays for a rental car for a couple of days, or a nice dinner.
BUT unless you can cram everything into a tiny bag, your savings disappear because of fees. Even checking one bag to save $5 each way, you pay $21 MORE to fly with Spirit for the roundtrip ($68 base fare + $30 each way checked bag fee). Simply put, that isn’t going to fly, no pun intended. Moral of the story – check your options, and be realistic about which fees you’ll have to pay. But if the math works itself out, aside from being delay prone, Spirit isn’t nearly as bad as you’ve probably heard, and is worth a look.