I’m one of the few people I’ve seen actually defend Spirit Airlines, and I’m going to continue to today. I’ve blathered on about why I think people need to stop complaining about them ($17 fares do not imply any customer service), but I thought I would be more constructive and actually offer a Spirit Airlines Survival Guide to newbies flying the airline.
Step 1: Start by asking yourself if the ticket is actually as cheap as you think. Remember, Spirit Airlines’ fares do not include any bags, and they are going to charge you for a bag whether you check it ($15/$25 each way, depending whether you are a member of their $59.95/year “$9 Fare Club”) or carry it on ($20/$30 each way). When you see the fare, just tack on another $50, because you’re going to be paying it. There are plenty of times when the fare will continue to be less-to-extremely-less expensive than the competition. We just flew to Florida for the Christmas holiday for $160 round trip, about half of what others were charging; it was a steal even with bag charges.
Step 2: Consider whether you are someone who expects pampering on an airline regardless of what you pay. If that sounds like you, keep your fingers typing past spirit.com and head over to jetblue.com. Spirit offers a no-frills experience. I have found their staff to both be perfectly acceptable (most-to-all of the flight attendants I’ve encountered), to ornery (the gate agent last week who literally screamed at a passenger for mistakenly moving in line), to impressive (the pilot who was walking though the plane, saw crumbs on a seat, and told a gate agent that he would not fly a dirty plane and would wait there until they cleaned the mess). But overall, they are providing nothing other than a relatively new plane and cheap fares. No TV, no free snacks, no free drinks.
Step 3: You’ll have to make a choice about seating. It’s not entirely clear when you’re checking in, but you do not need to pay for a seat assignment. They kind of suggest that you do, but you do not. If you do not pick a seat (and the charge for that can be about $10 for a scrunched-in middle seat up to an actually-great-value $50 for a “big front seat” offering the space of domestic business class on other airlines), one will be assigned to you when you finish check in. Let me repeat that: they will assign you a seat for free if you are OK with accepting whatever seat you get.* You may decide, though, to pay for the assigned seat. That’s fine because of this fact: despite what Seatguru and SeatExpert and Spirit Airlines say, the rows on the A319 and A321 in front of the exit rows have more legroom than the rows behind it. The rows behind it have an almost humorously small amount of legroom. It is humorous in the way that watching 12 clowns get out of a VW Beetle is humorous in that it is humorous if you are not one of the clowns.
* You are free to ask the gate agent to change the seat when you get to the gate. I’ve seen them change the seat for free when they have a seat available.
Step 4: Only you are looking out for you, aka Spirit is an Every Man for Himself operation. Here’s the single most important piece of advice I can give you about Spirit: when you arrive at the check-in counter (and remember, since you basically have to check every bag because it is cheaper than carrying on, you will have to go to the check-in counter) you will note the similarities between that area and the roof of the American embassy during the fall of Saigon. Do not, whatever you do, join the other people in the seemingly interminable line to check in (or if you’ve used a self-serve machine, the interminable line to drop off your bags). Ignore the line. Plant yourself in front of the counter, and ask (nicely) for someone to help you. They will. You will check in, and you will be on your way. I really, really wish this were not the case. It pains me to write that. But not as much as it pains me to stand in those lines. I know, it makes me a jerk. And in general, I hate that guy. But seriously, this is pretty much your only option if you are accustomed to flying an airline not named Spirit. This doesn’t make you a bad person; it makes me a bad person for suggesting it.
Step 5: Ignore the credit card. You will hear several pitches for the Spirit Airlines Mastercard, where they suggest that by signing up you will get free $9 Fare Club membership and several free round trip tickets. Both of those are true, while offering significant drawbacks. To wit: the $9 Club membership is free only if you make a charge on the card each month. Big deal? No. But still. Also, those free tickets are only redeemable during a couple of months a year. Again, not a gigantic deal, but considering it’ll cost you $50 to check your bags, I’m not sure those are really free tickets.
Step 6: Sit back (hold your knees tight) and relax (unless you’re on one of their A320s where the seats don’t recline). If you’ve gotten a ticket for $200 cheaper than you would have anywhere else, stop worrying, bring a book, buy the $3 soda, and enjoy your trip. Remember, you aren’t traveling Spirit because flying is luxurious; you’re flying it because you want to go somewhere. Go there, and enjoy the extra couple of bucks in your pocket.