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I recently completed my third round-trip itinerary on low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines and decided it was time to collate all of my observations on flying the discount carrier in one spot. This isn't a post describing the typical packing techniques or reminding you to read the Spirit website. Instead, we'll talk about a few things that, until now, have been relatively unspoken when it comes to maximizing your time and experience on the big yellow bus in the sky.
Five Unspoken Tips
1. Check The Scales — Spirit has strict rules about the size and weight of checked baggage. In order to speed up the check-in process at airports, self-service kiosks are located in the check-in area at airports where Spirit flies. These kiosks have scales next to them where you can weigh your checked bag and ensure it's not overweight. If it is too heavy, you can pay for overweight baggage right there at the kiosk.
On my first trip with Spirit, I thought it'd be interesting to check how the different scales compared at each kiosk. At the Atlanta airport, I found the Spirit kiosk scales varied by as much as nine pounds when weighing my same bag. This means you could potentially end up paying an overweight-baggage fee when you're really within the limits. I was pretty surprised since every state has a weights-and-measures authority that has the ability to fine companies that use inaccurate scales. If you think this is happening at your Spirit check-in area, you can also file a complaint with the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Weights and Measures Division. Above all else, make sure your bag is within Spirit's standard 40 lbs. weight allowance.
2. Observe The Boarding Area — There are a few things you're looking for once you get to your assigned departure gate. First is evaluating the number of passengers to see how close to full the flight will be. This comes in handy for our next unspoken tip. The second thing to observe is the number of carry-on bags people have with them in order to judge the availability of overhead-bin space. On a legacy carrier, almost everyone has a rollaboard suitcase or large backpack to avoid checked-bag fees and hassles—meaning overhead bins fill up quickly.
I’ve found that with Spirit, overhead-bin space isn’t usually a concern. Spirit charges more for a carry-on bag than a checked bag, and their typical customers aren’t business road warriors, so far fewer people have rollaboard bags with them.
The last thing to observe may be obvious if you fly often, but less so to infrequent travelers: Look to ensure there's a gate agent, your plane is at the gate (more below on this) and your crew for your flight has arrived or is already onboard. You can almost always see the pilot and co-pilot on the flight deck before boarding starts. These are all good indications your flight will depart as scheduled.
3. Board Last — I almost always board flights last as I have no desire to sit on a plane for an extra thirty minutes in addition to taxi and flight time. With Spirit, boarding last is a great way to set yourself up for a comfortable flight. If your boarding-area observations have convinced you that your flight won’t be full—an occurrence more common on Spirit than with legacy carriers—you can board last and head straight to an empty row.
With no one behind you, you can spread out with confidence that you aren’t taking anyone’s assigned seat. Hopefully, boarding last will at least let you find a row with an empty middle seat. I usually head straight to the back of the plane, and on four out of my six flights, I've had an empty row to myself.
4. Flight Attendants and Buzzballz Are Your Friends — Because I travel often and witness a lot of fellow passengers and airport crowds, it's hard not to make a few generalizations about Spirit passengers compared to the run-of-the-mill, legacy-airline customer. Without getting too specific, I can say Spirit passengers are generally not regular flyers or travelers. There are very few business folks, mainly leisure travelers and a lot of families. I think it's great that Spirit allows almost anyone to fly because of their price point, but the passengers' inexperience with flying can sometimes create a lot of stress for the flight attendants and fellow travelers.
I've taken this as a lesson to be incredibly friendly and polite to my Spirit flight crew, and in return, I've had wonderful onboard experiences. A couple of times, a grateful crew member has shown their appreciation by offering me a free Buzzball—which is a fairly stiff, premade cocktail with plenty of sugar. They are actually rather wretched things which I've only ever drunk on Spirit flights, but it is an experience you need to have at least once (or more). A friendly attitude and a sugary buzz certainly help make the flight a more enjoyable experience.
5. Track Your Inbound Flight —A common complaint about Spirit Airlines has been their poor on-time performance and inability to quickly rebook passengers when something goes wrong. Since some routes aren’t operated daily, travelers could end up being stranded for several days after a cancellation. The good news is that Spirit has made massive progress on this front. They recently lead all U.S. carriers in on-time performance at 89% after spending years at the back of the pack. Out of my six flights, only one has been delayed.
To keep ahead of the day’s flight situation, I always track my inbound aircraft, starting with its last segment the night before I travel and each segment throughout the day. That way, I’ll know if my plane runs into any trouble, and I can make other arrangements if a delay is imminent. I use an app called Flightaware to do this which conveniently has an option to quickly track your inbound aircraft with the push of a button.
The Standard Tips
Here's a quick recap of the standard tips for flying Spirit Airlines:
- Read The Rules — Spirit has a great guide to all of their rules and avoiding any surprise fees called Spirit 101 on their website. Read it so you know things like, if you don't check-in online and don't have a mobile or paper copy of your boarding pass, you're going to pay at the airport.
- Pack Carefully — Personal items, carry-on bags and checked bags each have dimensions and weight limits. Sometimes these are strictly enforced, other times you might get away with a minor violation. Play within the rules and pack smartly to save as much money as possible.
- Buy Your Ticket At The Airport — Buying your Spirit ticket at the airport counter can reduce the fees you pay online by as much as $20 per person, per leg. If you can get to an airport counter a few weeks before your intended flight date, your savings could be substantial.
- Bring Your Own Entertainment — No Wi-Fi, no tablets, no inflight entertainment. If you're getting on a Spirit flight, you need to bring something to entertain yourself and any traveling companions for the duration of the flight plus any potential tarmac delays. You also need to bring some snacks and fill up your water bottle after clearing security—especially if you have kid in tow.
- Roll With The Punches — Delays and cancellations happen every day with mainline and low-cost carriers. Stay on top of the weather situation and your travel day as much as possible, but if something happens, keep a positive attitude and roll with it. I book Spirit flights with my Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, which offers superb travel protections in case my trip is delayed or interrupted.
I don't have any qualms about flying Spirit if the price is significantly better than the mainline carriers, and I have no hard deadline to arrive at a destination. However, I'm still hesitant to book business trips with Spirit due to the lack of backup flights in case of delays. With Atlanta (ATL) as my home airport, Spirit's route network continues to improve, providing an affordable alternative to Delta. Using the tips above, I have a pleasant enough domestic-flying experience when my goal is simply to get from A to B in the most efficient and affordable manner possible.
What unspoken tips do you have for flying Spirit?
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