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Spirit Airlines Survival Guide Update: 2014 Edition

One of the most popular posts in the history of the OTR (at least judging by the 100+ comments) was my Spirit Airlines Survival Guide, which recommended, among other things, just cutting everybody at the check-in line and pretending that you were there first. Yeah, I’m a classy guy.

We flew Spirit down to Florida again this weekend and a few things have changed since then, so I thought it would be useful to update the Spirit Airlines Survival Guide for 2014.

First – forget everything you know and expect about commercial airline travel. Have zero expectations going in. Pretend you’re from a planet where there is no air travel. Wipe clean all memories of flying before. You need to have your mind clear. Clear like Tom Cruise. Level 7 Thetan clear.

Spirit operates on a different, er, plane than all other airlines – their processes and how they charge you are completely different from all other airlines. If you think about your past experiences you will just be annoyed. Clear your mind. Clear.

Good.

If you are going to check a bag, buy it when you purchase your ticket. You can buy it later – but you’re going to forget. And if you have to do it at the airport they charge you more. If you have to do it at the gate because you forgot to pay the fee for that carry-on bag they charge you for, they will charge you $100, as they did the person in front of me today. You will be unhappy about that.

Please note that, unbelievably, Spirit does NOT charge you to check a car seat.

When you pre-purchase the bags you will have the opportunity to drop your bags off at the Fast Bag Drop. Or, in truth, “fast” bag drop. There will be a line there, and it will not be particularly fast. But it is faster than the non-fast lie. If you are leaving from LaGuardia, they will apparently allow you 50 lbs of bag for no additional charge over the initial baggage charge. But when we got to Ft Lauderdale, they were charging people extra whose bags weighed more than 40 lbs. I don’t know why the weight cutoffs were different in each airport. Spirit likes to keep you on your toes.

The bag drop, however, does eliminate much of the “give us your huddled masses yearning to be free” situation I have found in the past, with a tower-of-babbel-like mishmash of languages being spoken as people drag their life’s belongings through the never-ending check-in line. If you’ve checked in online and pre-purchased your bags, this part of your trip has gone much smoother.

You’ll find out about the Fast Bag Drop when you print your boarding pass at home, which you should do because they will charge you at the airport. They do not offer a mobile boarding pass option, because, well, I don’t know why. But they don’t.

Security will take longer than you expect. Spirit does not participate in TSA Pre, and they do not have Elite members, so everyone is on the same line. That means that you will wait in line, and, if you have status on some other airline, you will wait longer than you have waited for a while. Also, everyone in front of you will either be in a wheelchair or have a stroller. I don’t know why.

When you purchase your ticket they will offer to sell you your seat assignment. Whether this is a good deal is really up to you – you can buy the “big front seat” which is like a domestic business class seat (no other amenities) for roughly $50 (price varies a bit). Exit rows are $25. They’ll charge you $10 for a regular seat in the back.

Keep in mind, though, that they will also just assign you a seat for free when you check in. If you are with a family, you are risking it, of course, that you won’t be able to sit with your family. That may be a blessing. If it is not a blessing, you can try switching with people, but, I’ve seen a few times, the cabin staff aren’t thrilled about that because it slows down the boarding process, and they claim to board an A320 with 170+ seats in it in 20 minutes. Yeah, that’s right.

Speaking of seats, on the A320 on which I am sitting, there is 28” pitch. It sounds worse than it is because the top of the seat in front of me is right under my nose, but the bottom of the seat in front of me is angled away from me, leaving me with the legroom of a 30-31” seat. The seats do not recline, which is a good thing, because the person in front of you would be staring up at your nostrils.

One positive outcome of the controversial fee to carry on bags is that there will be overhead bin space for your coat, which was a pleasant change. Also there will not be people trying to shove their bags into those overhead bins, clogging up the aisles. When you experience this it will occur to you that charging for carry on bags is not completely insane (I didn’t say you’d like it, I’m just saying you’ll understand the decision).

I have found an interesting split among Spirit Airlines staff. Many of the employees I have encountered at check-in and at the gate have a certain surliness to them that I think of as the Spirit Ground Staff attitude. They are clearly not happy to see you, and they are not there to help. I’ve thought a lot about why this might be, and I think the answer is that they are under an enormous amount of pressure to turn their planes around very quickly and that they see their jobs as getting people on the aircraft as quickly as possible. Given that, think of the ground staff as expeditors, not as customer service people.

Cabin staff, on the other hand, have to-a-person been wonderful. They are kind, helpful, funny and casual. We had trainees on the flight down here, and at the end of the flight the lead flight attendant came on the PA and announced that the trainees had completed their training and they were now officially flight attendants, and the plane burst into applause. The lead FA kept asking people to clap louder and louder – it was actually a genuine and very sweet moment.

(On a side note – I was once on a United flight where they announced that it was a flight attendant’s first flight ever – she was working the 1255am departure from LAX to Houston, which I assumed was considered the worst flight in the network).

Spirit sells food and drink on board. Nothing is free. Nothing. That bottle of water is $3. Deal with it. That’s another reason why I say forget your expectations – they charge for food and water. There’s no reason to complain, because they are going to charge you anyway.

There are no power plugs on board, even though the A320 I’m on is less than a year old. There is no video, overhead nor seatback. There is no wi-fi. The traytable is so close to you that you cannot open a laptop on it.

There will be a crapload of children. There will be old people. 75% of the people have appeared never to have flown before, judging by how they went through security. 62% of people will complain about one of the policies I mentioned above (especially if they are charged $100 for a gate-checked bag).

People will complain, loooooord will they complain. They complained about how long it took to pull away from the gate and how long it took to get to the gate when we landed. They complained about how long the luggage took, and the attitude of the flight attendants. They complained about the $3 water. They complained about no video. Complain complain complain. There’s a lyric by a group called Sloan that I love: “It’s not the band I hate, it’s their fans.” That’s how I feel about Spirit – it’s not the airline I hate, it’s the passengers.

I guess what I’m saying is this: if you know what you’re getting into before you fly them, Spirit can be a spectacular bargain. The things people complain about are ALL things they could have known beforehand. They are free to choose another airline – if they fly JetBlue, I certainly don’t blame them. But their rules are their rules, and if you don’t compare them to what every other airline does, it actually starts to make sense – why wouldn’t they charge for the services that you use, and not charge you for what you don’t use? Doesn’t THAT make the most sense? (Answer: maybe).

Oh – they were offering to bump people from this flight and giving 2 free roundtrip tickets PLUS $100. PER PERSON. That’s a helluva deal. I’m not sure if they would charge you to accept that offer.

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  1. Very few frequent flyers are willing to fly Spirit, so there doesn’t seem to be the “inside information” you can get on other airlines. So your advice is helpful.

    From my own experience, I would also note the following.

    First, they tell me ice is free on Spirit. I haven’t tried it, but if you’re thirsty and don’t feel like giving them $3 for water, try getting free ice and letting it melt!

    Also, if you don’t like your free seat assignment, try changing it at the gate at boarding time. This has worked for me, but it doesn’t work when the flight is full (which, as everyone knows, is common these days).

    When buying tickets, especially for a group, consider picking them up at the airport. Spirit has this bizarre policy where many fares are more expensive online! I think it can be about $34 roundtrip, so look at the breakdown and see if it makes sense — perhaps if you’re going to be at the airport anyway?

    I generally only buy Spirit’s deepest discount tickets. Sadly, these are generally only available mid-week. If your departure is on a weekend, you probably can pay about the same to fly on a “real” airline. If that’s the case, do not fly Spirit. If you have a group, you can get a short-term membership in their “$9 fare club” for a low price which may be cheaper than paying their regular prices even if you never buy another Spirit ticket.

    Unless you’re a fashionista, it’s very easy to avoid Spirit’s luggage charges by taking a smaller carry on (large backpack or duffel bag) for free. Just check the measurements. People seem to pack insanely — I’m always amazed at the humungous suitcases on the baggage carousel — but you can easily live out of large backpack for 5 days for almost any travel situation (and do laundry if your trip is longer).

  2. How tall are you guys? I flew spirit about five years ago and my only issue was that I literally did not have where to put my legs. I am 6’2″ and I was lucky I was flying with someone because I had to sit sideways. Has that changed perhaps? I never had this problem with any other airline (Ryan air).

    Could you elaborate on the cheaper fares at the airport? How would you know of the possibility?

    • 5’10″. I was sitting next to my kids, which allowed me to angle my feet. I think if you’re over 6 feet tall you could have a problem.

      Spirit says that they waive their web booking fee if you buy the ticket at the airport. You can just go to one of their desks and buy it there.

  3. I’m about 6 feet and the legroom is the single worst feature of flying Spirit. It does seem to be a little bit better on the newer planes that don’t recline (as noted above). I don’t know how many of the old planes are left — I did run into one a couple months ago. I was assigned a middle seat on a full plane, and the 2-hour flight was pretty miserable. If you’re taller than 6′, you risk a really bad flight: you probably should upgrade to an emergency exit row.

    I haven’t bought Spirit tickets at an airport counter yet and, sadly, there’s not a lot of information out there about this (“sophisticated” fliers tend to avoid Spirit, so information can be lean). It definitely is possible, though. Look for the breakdown in your ticket price to see how much you can save. The online coupons Spirit often offers may negate this savings, though — I don’t think you can use them for at-airport purchases. Hopefully, somebody will research and right a Complete Guide to Spirit Ticketing sometime. I don’t fly them enough to be that familiar with it.

  4. Quick question – do you or anyone else know if Spirit charges carry on fees for purses?
    Thanks for these posts about Spirit. Very helpful.

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