Don’t Be So Afraid of Spirit Airlines

(c)Mark D. Kahler

Despite the friendly “HOWDY” that appears on the wingtips of Spirit Airlines planes, lots of travelers approach the budget carrier with fear and trepidation.

With Spirit and all budget carriers, there are indeed reasons for budgetary caution. Spirit, for example, requires fees not only for checked baggage, but also for cabin stowing of carry-ons.

Yet there’s no reason to automatically reject a low Spirit airfare without at least making a few calculations and considerations. I present an example from my recent travels.

I had reason to make a brief (one night) trip from Chicago O’Hare to Greenville, South Carolina. Round-trip fares five weeks prior to the trip were consistently priced at more than $400. That’s before renting a car or booking a hotel.

Knowing that alternative airports can save money, my next airfare search was for Atlanta, about 160 miles away. Spirit offered nonstop service for $140 round-trip, including a one-day intermediate car rental with unlimited mileage through Dollar. Bundled as a so-called “vacation package,” the car rental amounted to less than $15!

Remember, that $125 airfare figure transports only my flesh and bones between Chicago and Atlanta. Each flight segment on Spirit requires a $35 fee per carry-on item, or $30 for each checked bag. It’s important to snag nonstop flights when available and make the annoying baggage arrangements early to avoid much higher fees later.

A man with a rolling carry-on in front of me apparently neglected to do so. He was pulled out of line and informed that he would need to cough up $65 for the privilege of continuing the trip with bag in tow.

Good travelers don’t make those mistakes. But they can still pay dearly for previously routine privileges under the budget airline model.

My $140 flight was going to be $210 if I brought a carry-on bag. Other add-ons include choosing a seat ($9-$35 per flight segment), early boarding privileges ($6 per flight) or skipping a boarding pass printing at home in favor of airport check-in ($10).

All the fees are clearly displayed at alongside vague threats of added expense if the baggage options are ignored at booking.

Take note, however, of one baggage freebie: each passenger is allowed one “personal item” no larger than 18″ x 12″ x 8″ (roughly the size of a puffed up laptop bag). This must fit under the seat in front of you.

For my one-day trip, I needed to bring a business suit, a change of clothing, some toiletries and a few random documents. I wore the suit on the flight, meaning the rest of what I needed fit comfortably into a laptop bag. There was also room to squeeze in a book to read on the plane.

Sorry Spirit, but your revenue on bags for this passenger is $0.

Not too practical for a multi-day trip, I know. But two people with strong packing skills, flying together for a few days, could split a checked bag and cut costs significantly.  One more advantage: if I don’t have to worry about carry-on space, there’s really no need for me to book priority boarding. That’s $6 saved per flight segment.

I printed my boarding passes at home for the outbound flight and in my hotel’s business center for the trip home. At this point, I’ve short-circuited any reason to be afraid of booking on Spirit.

Now, I can enjoy that nice round-trip airfare and inexplicable car rental rate. Confession: to aid in my enjoyment, I did spend $9 each way for reserving a window seat. That’s $18 for four hours worth of loading, taxiing, and flying.

The thought of spending four hours in a middle seat scares me a lot more than Spirit’s fee structure.