I adore Spirit Airlines.
OK, there, I admit it.
That doesn’t mean I am uncritical of the ultra-low-fare airline, much maligned for its cramped seats and extra fees and a chronic loser in the on-time sweepstakes. But factoring in the cheap prices, I frequently choose Spirit over major airlines and, most importantly, have learned to handle hard-class comfort challenges.
After comparing added costs, such as checked luggage, I’ve chosen Spirit over other airlines for numerous flights from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport to Denver, Baltimore-Washington, Cleveland, Portland and Boston. All have been nonstop flights, since connecting ones can add considerable travel time on Spirit. Sometimes I’ll fly, say, to Boston Logan on Spirit and return on JetBlue, depending on the most convenient flight schedule.
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When all the stars are aligned and I can save a bundle, I edge toward the steep discounter.
And, often, that’s Spirit.
The first time aboard a Spirit flight is a rude jolt, and people making their inaugural flight are easy to spot. Some are red-faced with anger for having to shell out $100 at the gate for a normal-sized carry-on bag, then fork over $3 for water. For water!
The seats on most Spirit planes are “pre-reclined,” meaning they don’t move back a few inches at the touch of an armrest button.
There are no outlets to recharge smartphones and laptops, no Wi-Fi, no movies, no music, no-inflight magazine. And like practically every other carrier now, don’t even think about a pillow or tiny blanket.
Spirit charges extra to get an assigned seat, and it won’t automatically seat family members together without that fee. Cabin crew might cooperate in reuniting parents and children, but if it’s a full flight, that might not be possible.
Then Spirit schedules its flights so tightly that many are late: reaching nearly 60 percent during a storm-filled week in 2015. (Spirit spokesman Paul Berry tells me that measurable improvements have been made by focusing on chronically troubled routes.)
My recent flight to Portland took off an hour late. But the hatch was closed on my return flight 10 minutes before the scheduled takeoff, and we arrived at DFW about 15 minutes early.
If your flight is canceled, chances are there will be a hefty wait or no later flight at all. To make matters worse, Spirit, unlike major airlines, doesn’t enjoy interline arrangements that allow, say, American to rebook you on United or Delta.
So, you may ask, why do I fly Spirit?
A few reasons.
Yes, it’s that cheap
Flying to Oregon in July for my mother’s 96th birthday, a roundtrip ticket was not only more than $200 cheaper than American or Alaskan, but the (seasonal) nonstop flights from DFW to Portland were more convenient. The cabin crew was extraordinarily friendly.
One passenger, Brittany Holder, 26, of Texarkana, who was flying Spirit for the first time with her toddler, said she’d have been stretched to afford flying any other way to Oregon. She avoided baggage fees by buying small roll-on bags that fit Spirit’s 16-by-14-by-12-inch “personal” item limit. (Dimensions will change to 18-by-14-by-8 inches after April 3, 2017.)
A Spirit pilot nearby nodded in approval of the East Texas mother’s advance planning.
When people say, ‘OH MY GOD, I hate Spirit, I hate it, I hate it,’ I tell them to do their research.
A Spirit pilot
“When people say, ‘OH MY GOD, I hate Spirit, I hate it, I hate it,’ I tell them to do their research,” said the pilot, who asked not to be identified, as he was not authorized to speak for the airline and would enjoy continuing to fly for it.
“Buy everything online and choose what you need,” he suggested.
I compacted four days’ worth of clothes into a small backpack and paid $25 for my girlfriend’s normal-sized carry-on.
Traveling with me were several dozen home-baked, sugar-free biscotti for my diabetic mother — smuggled aboard in plastic takeout-food bags as “my lunch.” (Food, cameras, diaper bags and medical devices can brought on board along with the one small “personal item.”)
On board, a flight attendant said there’s no free water (except to take medicine). But she informed me that passengers can get a cup of ice or a cup of hot water at no charge on request.
A new discovery this trip were steep-discount “walk up” fares, available only at the airport.
At the suggestion of the Spirit pilot, I found DFW-Denver flights during late summer for $12 each way. That’s not a misprint.
“Sometimes it’s a penny,” the pilot claimed. (To get an idea of what might be available, Spirit spokesman Berry said to look up flights and subtract the “passenger usage fee.” There’s no guarantee that a corresponding “walk up” fare would still be available by the time you get to the airport, however.)
Another strategy: Since Spirit charges for everything except the toilets, find fares on competing airlines. Compare the total cost on Spirit including baggage charges (if any), then determine if there’s enough savings. Just a $30 savings? You might choose a legacy airline, unless it’s a short hop and you’re traveling light.
“You’d be surprised how many people travel without bags,” Berry said.
Not always bare-bones
It didn’t start out as a bare-bones airline, but a decade ago Spirit saw better growth potential flying downmarket, Berry said.
It moved its headquarters from Detroit to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and quite consciously modeled itself after Ireland’s Ryanair, which flies all over Europe at ridiculously low advance fares but charges for everything.
Spirit’s last chief executive famously made no apologies for numerous complaints or poor service, or the often insensitive online ads. After BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, which killed 11 and ruined local economies, Spirit rushed out email ads depicting a sunbathing beauty under the headline, “Check out the Oil on Our Beaches.”
Berry noted that sales soared whenever a suggestive ad ran. And while they’ve been toned down, they’ll still be edgy and timely. After Melania Trump’s controversial speech at the Republican National Convention hit the news last month, Spirit ran one with the headline: “This promo isn’t plagiarized.” Under a circus elephant adorned with a Donald Trump hairstyle, the email went on: “This sale is yuuge. Yes, we defy convention and do things differently, like unbundling options so you pay only for what you want.”
The best part of Spirit is that its maniacally low fares help bring down all fares on some routes. Compare DFW-Denver ticket prices with, say, DFW-El Paso, which has no “Spirit effect.” (They used to call that the “Southwest effect,” Berry said, until the Dallas carrier became less of a discount airline.)
When United and Delta tried to compete head-on by launching discount subsidiaries TED and Song, respectively, they failed miserably. But heated rivalry makes it less profitable for all airlines, and Spirit is reportedly looking to fly to smaller, under-served cities.
And it’s expanding routes.
Spirit secured two flights a day to Havana from its Fort Lauderdale base. And while Berry says he has no idea what the fares will be when flights commence, he confidently said they’d be the cheapest to Cuba.
Passengers just won’t recline while they fly. And, maybe that’s OK. Some people actually prefer nonreclining seats — those long-legged individuals whose knees get crushed when the passenger in front of them goes full tilt on other airlines’ seats.
Still, Spirit is not for everyone.
“I call it the Dollar General of airlines,” said a Mesa pilot seated next to us on our recent flight. Why did he take it? Spirit’s flight was the best choice that time of day to Portland.
Turns out, pilots from other carriers get complimentary water.
Spirit survival tips
1. Bring an empty water bottle to the airport, and fill up after security. Pack a few teabags and packets of sugar or sweetener.
2. Pack a couple of sandwiches, fruit and trail mix in a supermarket plastic bag.
3. Depending on the length of your flight, you might consider bringing a small external battery power bank for your laptop, tablet or phone.
4. If it’s a long flight, consider paying $20 for an exit row seat. We did, and it was worth the $80 round trip for the two of us.
5. Wear a neck pillow. If it has a back zipper (and you are an extreme budget traveler), remove the foam stuffing, and replace it with a week’s worth of underwear.
6. Because of the low fares, expect a number of young families with crying infants. Pack earplugs and a sleep mask.
7. After deciding what luggage you need to bring, pay for it online, which is possible even after you buy the ticket.