I just flew Spirit for the first time ever — here’s what it was like

If there is one airline that generates strong opinions, it is Spirit Airlines SAVE. The budget airline is the one that popularized the “low base fare and no frills” style of travel — for those willing to forgo a bag and even water while in the air, the lowest fares can start at $20 for flights between nearby cities and $99 for the cheapest cross-country flights.

I write about airlines and frequently see travelers debate whether flying Spirit is “worth it” when you add additional expenses like paying for a bag and/or a carryon (I’m not going to another city without a change of clothes) and, in some cases, transportation to a farther-away airport. It is also the airline whose name happens to come up frequently in those “passengers behaving badly” incidents that have seen a strong uptick as travel surged in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Related: This is what it's like to take a 19-hour train from New York to Chicago

I recently had a chance to fly Spirit for the first time in my life (not because I’m too good for budget airlines or don’t travel enough but because I grew up in Canada and the airline has yet to break into that market). I was planning a personal trip from New York City to Texas and found a a direct flight with Spirit to Houston online through a flight aggregator for $59.24.

Even with the added checked cost of a bag for $26, his was significantly lower than the $350 I saw for the same route from mainstream airlines like Delta DAL and United UAL. An interesting fact to note is that checking a bag is slightly cheaper than bringing a suitcase that fits within the parameters as a carry-on.

(A personal item like a purse is not an extra charge).

A “Howdy” on the wing was a nice way to leave behind New York for Texas.

Veronika Bondarenko

Spirit flights are cheap but you have to forget the frills

As someone who spends almost all of her disposable income on trips, I have always been of the opinion that, unless you go all the way with those sleeper seats in first class on a long-haul flight between continents, it is better to splurge at your destination rather than on getting there. I jumped on the chance to both score a cheap flight and write about it (for the purposes of disclosure, I paid for the ticket myself and did not reach out to Spirit about writing this article.)

So what is Spirit like, those who are yet to fly with it may ask? I’ll start with the part that can significantly improve or derail your flying experience before it even begins depending on how well you plan things: getting to the airport. The fact that my flight was leaving from New York’s LaGuardia Airport was not insignificant to my decision to fly Spirit as it is an easy bus ride from where I live on the Upper West Side, thereby allowing me to bypass the expensive taxis or convoluted train transfers for JFK and Newark. While former President Donald Trump once helped cement its bad reputation by calling it “third world” in 2011, it is my favorite airport in the city both by ease of access and its looks post-renovation.

But those flying Spirit will not get to see the stunning color-switching musical fountain that was part of the airport's $8 billion upgrade. Low-cost airlines such as Spirit and Frontier ULCC have their own space in the older Terminal A that is significantly smaller and, as you can see from the attached photo, feels like walking through an earlier and more romantic time in aviation history.

Travelers check into their flights and print baggage tags at LaGuardia Airport.

Veronika Bondarenko

Dedicated Spirit terminal means faster check-in and security

The upside in being at a smaller terminal is that everything moves faster. While I worried about being late on my way to the airport, I received the baggage tag for my suitcase and cleared security in 15 minutes at most with neither Clear nor TSA pre-check and spent my time before boarding sitting at a work station with a view of the runway answering emails.

Neither the boarding process nor the flight itself was significantly different from a flight on a full-service airline. I did have the single best thing that can happen to you on an economy flight come my way: the plane was only about a third full and both seats in my row turned out to be unfilled. This obviously came down to the popularity of the route itself and a lot of luck moreso than to any feature of Spirit’s but it’s hard to find anything to criticize when you’re spread out between three seats like a queen. I was also far from the only person to travel this way; I observed at least six such rows with only one passenger on the 228-seat Airbus 321 EADSF.

Fair warning, though: don’t go around expecting this to happen on every or even any flight you book because, as I learned through my reporting, airlines are increasingly maximizing routes to prevent the financial loss that comes from planes flying as empty as this one did.

An empty row allowed the writer to spread out.

Veronika Bondarenko

The winning lottery ticket of an empty row (don’t bet on it, though)

With my mood at a high due to all this extra space, the “no frills” bothered me a lot less than it might have on another flight. It was a bit strange not to be given water but I knew what to expect and downed a bottle of Diet Coke purchased at the airport just before boarding. I didn’t end up buying any of the drinks or paying $14.99 for the in-air WiFi but I did give in to temptation to get a $5.49 cup of instant noodles. I love them as a snack both on the ground and in the air so this was my treat to myself. The one thing that jumped out when the noodles arrived was just how small the Spirit tray tables are — whether on the iPad or in a notebook, writing was a bit challenging.

Other than that, the rest of the flight passed by uneventfully and landed in Houston at 3:30 in the afternoon. My very positive experience with Spirit means that I am more likely to take it on future flights but anyone considering it for their trips needs to not just look at the base fare but do the math of what one will pay when any bags, early check-in and sitting together with family is factored in.

The numbers do not add up to forgo the frills in every situation but the line between low-cost and the lowest level of economy with a full-service airline are becoming increasingly blurred while those who travel light and alone can score some serious deals.

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