Review: Spirit Airlines Low-Cost Carrier

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Spirit Airlines reviews frequently proclaim a common perception: the low-cost carrier imposes strict baggage fees that are unavoidable unless you get on the plane with nothing but a purse or camera bag. Its rules are enforced to the letter, and initial cheap airfare quotes quickly grow when the final tab comes into view.

In my experience, there is truth in this perception. But as with most low-cost carriers, Spirit is misunderstood by a large group of budget travelers who make the false assumption that low-cost carriers are the same as traditional air carriers, only cheaper.

It pays to familiarize yourself with Spirit's approach to air travel before you make non-refundable bookings with the airline. 

Itinerary for Review

The itinerary reviewed on Spirit was a one-way, non-stop flight from Chicago (O'Hare) to New Orleans in July 2016. The total cost of the trip for two passengers was $250.18 USD, which broke down as follows: flight price $130.86, baggage $64, seat reservations $20, and taxes $35.32. Remember, this total was for two passengers. A cost of $125/person for a Chicago-New Orleans run is reasonable.

The non-stop flight departed Chicago at 8:15 a.m. There were two other flights to New Orleans from O'Hare that day, but both included changing planes and a base fare nearly twice what I paid.

Spirit Airlines Baggage Fees

At Spirit, if you have luggage, there is no avoiding a baggage fee. The low-cost carrier charges for checked bags and even for the use of overhead bins. In fact, carry-on arrangements will cost more than checking your luggage.

This throws a new wrinkle in the typical one-bag, carry-on baggage strategy most budget travelers practice. So pay attention to these arrangements. 

You are permitted one free carry-on item, but it must fit under the seat in front of you (16" x 14" x 12" maximum size). This would include a larger purse, laptop case, or briefcase.

At the time of the reviewed flight, the first checked bag was $32, but a carry-on space was $35. Spirit was among the first airlines to charge for carry-on space. Warning: these prices apply to purchase at time of online booking. At the airport, the charges are $15/bag higher. At the gate, both baggage options cost $100/bag. 

You'll be warned about these various layers of baggage fees. If you choose not to reserve either option, a pop-up appears with the message "You really don't need bags? If you change your mind, they'll only be more expensive at the airport."

When the $100 charge was announced, the Spirit news release said choosing baggage options at the gate "slows the boarding process for all customers, delays flights, increases costs for the company, and ultimately results in higher fares for everyone."

When checking bags, keep in mind that the cost rises sharply with multiple bags. At the time of this flight, a second checked bag was $74; a third $161. 

You can earn baggage fee discounts and access to cheaper fares if you join the airline's "$9 Fare Club." The actual cost is $59.95, and it's one of those auto-renew memberships that will continue to charge your credit card each year until you order it stopped. If you fly Spirit frequently, it's probably worth consideration. Rest assured you'll land on Spirit's marketing lists, but if you like emailed airfare deals, this won't be much of a problem.

Logistics

Spirit offers an option called "The Fast Lane" that bundles the costs of a carry-on bag, seat selection, and airport check-in for $63/person. It's not much of a deal.

The airport check-in to obtain a boarding pass will cost $10. You can perform this function yourself online for nothing. You'll also be asked to pony up between $10-$25 for each seat reservation. Without it, the airline will assign your seat. 

Spirit also will try to sell you a $45 "Flight Flex" policy, which allows one free itinerary change up to 24 hours prior to your flight. You can move up in the boarding order for a $6 charge (with no scramble for an overhead bin, what's the point?), and Spirit will present a chance to contribute $1 or $5 to an environmental fund called "GreenUp."

You'll also be encouraged to book your hotel and car rental through Spirit. The same kind of sales offers are made on other low-cost carriers such as Allegiant and Ryanair.

The offers don't end there. On the next page, you'll be asked to spend $14/person on Spirit travel insurance. Before you buy, consider if the coverage is written in your favor, or to Spirit's benefit. Many times, it's a good idea to buy insurance independently.

You'll need some sales resistance as you book. Many of these things are impulse buys. Frequently, you can make better arrangements on your own.

Departure and arrival were both on-time for the reviewed flight. Spirit personnel during this trip were friendly and professional.

Markets Served

Spirit flies to about 60 destinations in the United States, the Caribbean, Central America and South America. Although Spirit does not serve any Canadian destinations, it offers flights to the New York cities of Plattsburgh (63 mi. from Montreal) or Niagara Falls (81 mi. from Toronto). 

Keep in mind that not every Spirit city is served with daily flights. 

Its major U.S. hubs include Detroit and Fort Lauderdale, with eight other focus cities in Atlantic City, N.J., Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Las VegasLos Angeles, and Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Spirit serves some attractive vacation spots such as Aruba, Cabo San Lucas, Cancun, Punta Cana, St. Thomas and San Francisco.

Conclusions

You will find many negative reviews of Spirit, and no doubt some of them are justified. But many others are the result of travelers who didn't do their homework. All of Spirit's potentially troublesome baggage policies are spelled out clearly on the airline's website. 

Don't book a Spirit flight if you can't deal with its many rules and its lengthy fee schedule. In fact, you'll probably make mistakes with other low-cost airlines, too. Spirit offers a prime example for how they operate.

If you can pay attention to the rules and find a low base airfare, Spirit can be extremely helpful in making budget travel plans for some terrific vacation spots.