How to Fly Spirit Airlines (and Actually Enjoy the Experience)

Spirit Airlines might be America’s most hated airline—and sure, it deserves some of its bad press. (Leaving passengers stranded? Not a good look.) But by and large, I think the biggest reason for Spirit's poor reviews is that most travelers simply don’t know how to fly Spirit Airlines.

Tips for Traveling on Spirit Airlines

To avoid confusion and disappointment at any stage of the travel process, from booking to boarding to the inflight experience, follow this step-by-step guide on what to expect when flying with Spirit Airlines.

What to Know Before You Book with Spirit Airlines

First, familiarize yourself with Spirit’s business model. Spirit is not like the major airlines such as American, Delta, or United, nor are they like so-called low-cost airlines such as JetBlue and Southwest. Spirit is what we now refer to as an ultra-low-cost-carrier (ULCC). For this reason, Spirit is not for everyone. But if you’re willing to forgo some amenities, you may be able to save big by flying Spirit Airlines.

When booking with Spirit, always start by comparing the total cost of your flight with other airlines to see if it would make sense to purchase a ticket on another carrier. Spirit’s Bare Fares only include one small personal item, such as a backpack, purse, or briefcase. Most people have difficulty traveling this light, but you might be surprised at how many essentials you can actually fit in a small backpack. If you're planning to check a bag, Spirit’s checked bag fees are similar to the major airlines. Checked bag fees start at $30 each way on Spirit. Large carry-on bag fees start at $35 each way.

Spirit's Bare Fares are exactly what the name implies. Everything other than transportation and a small personal item will cost extra. Do you want to choose a seat? That’s extra. Do you want to check-in with a human being at the airport? Extra. Bottle of water on-board? Extra. If you know this ahead of time, you can allow Spirit to auto-assign you a seat upon online check-in for free and bring an empty water bottle to fill up once you pass the security checkpoint.

So, you’ve added up all the items you think you need for your journey, decided whether or not to select your own seat, check-in at the airport, and check your luggage. Now ask yourself: How flexible are your travel plans? How often does Spirit fly the route you’re about to take? These are very important questions, because on some routes Spirit offers limited service—particularly to or from small markets and to/from Latin America. Since Spirit does not have any interline agreements with other carriers, if there is a mechanical issue or severe weather that ends up cancelling a flight, the airline will not be able to book you on another carrier.

Spirit's domestic network is now fairly large, but its planes are often full, and sometimes it can be difficult to get re-booked on another flight. This is rare, but if you are about to book a Spirit Airlines flight on a route with limited service, have a backup plan if things go awry.

The good news is that most of what you need to know about flying Spirit Airlines comes in this pre-booking phase. It’s important to consider all factors with other airlines before booking your flight. Spirit can sometimes be hundreds of dollars less than the competition, so if you want to get in on the savings, read on.

How to Book a Flight with Spirit Airlines

Spirit’s extra fees begin at the booking stage. The airline has a few different booking-related fees, some of which can be avoided by booking at an airport counter. Yes, that’s right—it may be cheaper to book a Spirit Airlines flight at the airport ticket counter than online. Is it worth it? That depends, but odds are that after figuring in gas, parking, and time, most people will not find it worthwhile to make a special trip to the airport just to purchase a ticket.

In any case, if you live near an airport or happen to be at the airport when a good sale pops up, you can try this method. The savings add up if you’re buying for the entire family; online booking fees, which range between $8 and $56 round-trip, are on a per-ticket basis similar to Ticketmaster’s convenience fee. Keep in mind that at smaller stations the ticket counter will only be open in the hours surrounding flight times. Update April 24, 2018: Fees have increased; Online booking fees now range between $8 and $60 round-trip.

When booking online, it's usually a little cheaper to book directly on Spirit's website. However, it's always a good idea to search third-party sites as well in order to compare with other airlines. Spirit has weekly promo code sales, which can sometimes completely counteract the cost of the online booking fees. Since the promo codes only discount the base fare, some routes don’t always drop much in price. To find out about promo code offers, make sure to sign up for alerts.

Spirit also has a club membership program, which gives you access to exclusive fares for an annual fee. The $9 Fare Club membership starts at $59.95 for your first year and will automatically renew at $69.95/year unless you cancel. There is also the option to add a 60-day trial membership for $19.95 at the end of the booking process, which will be valid on your next booking. Membership also gives you a slight discount on bag fees. The savings can sometimes offset the cost of membership with one flight, but I wouldn’t recommend signing up unless you plan on flying Spirit on a regular basis.

Extra Fees on Spirit Airlines During the Booking Process

If you book your flights on Spirit's website, you will be offered the opportunity to purchase extras at each step. If you want to get the lowest possible price, you’ll have to decline all extras, but make sure to pay for the amount of baggage you need at the time of booking to avoid higher costs later.

The first extra you're offered is a bundle called the “Thrills Combo.” This package includes one 50 lb. checked bag (10 lbs. extra), one standard carry-on bag, seat selection, priority boarding, no change fees, and double miles. It would cost you more to purchase all of these items separately, but odds are if you’re flying Spirit you don’t need all those extras.

The booking process continues with offers to add hotel, car rental, ground transfers, etc. Just scroll to the bottom and click the “continue without” button if you don’t want to add extras. After filling in passenger details, you’ll be asked to add bags, pick your seats, and then select more extras.

It may seem like you're required to pay to choose a seat, but look for the link that says “continue without seats” and you’ll be auto-assigned a seat at check-in for free. Many travelers swear by Spirit’s “Big Front Seat,” which is somewhat comparable in space to domestic first class on other airlines. If all you want is extra space, paying extra for this seat is probably the best value available on Spirit. 

After the 10-step booking process, you’ve finally made it to the payment page. Double check all the charges to ensure you're only paying for what you need. If everything looks correct, click "book reservation," and then double check the confirmation email once again. Should you change your mind within 24-hours of booking, you can still cancel for free as long as your travel is at least seven days away.

Check-In for a Spirit Airlines Flight 

Long after you book, you'll likely continue to receive emails from Spirit offering the opportunity to purchase extras for your flight. If you've decided that you need more bags, pay for them before or during online check-in. Bag fees are much higher at the airport. When it finally comes time to check-in, do it online 24-hours before departure, and either print your boarding pass at home or use the kiosk for free check-in at the airport. Spirit lists a fee for kiosk check-in on its site, but I have never actually encountered such a fee myself when checking-in at an airport kiosk. However, if you wait in line and check-in at the counter, you are subject to a check-in fee.

When checking-in, you’ll be asked again if you want to pay to choose a seat. Although some may think that the computer is programmed to split up your party unless you pay, more often than not you’ll be auto-assigned seats next to each other as long as you’re on the same reservation and there are adjoining seats available. Of course, no guarantees. 

If you have to check bags, check-in online or at a kiosk before entering the line to check your bags. Drop off your bags and proceed to the security checkpoint.

Boarding a Spirit Airlines Flight

There's likely to be a large crowd of people at the boarding gate, because Spirit flights are generally pretty full. As with travel on any airline, it’s best to just sit and relax until your boarding zone is called. When boarding, if you have a question as to whether or not your personal item is oversized, I recommend carrying the bag even if it has wheels.

The majority of gate agents are not going to take the time to size your bag as long as it doesn’t look overwhelmingly large. Obviously, this really depends on the agent and circumstance, and if you know for sure your bag is too large, you do risk paying the exorbitant $65 at-gate bag fee. To be on the safe side, you can confirm your bag fits the correct dimensions in Spirit's bag sizers near the check-in desk. Bag fees at check-in are slightly less than at the gate.

The Spirit Airlines Inflight Experience

Once onboard, it's best not to have high expectations about your inflight experience. Spirit has a modern fleet, but the seats on the new planes are slimmed down to the bare minimum. You can think of flying Spirit as similar to taking the bus or subway in lieu of taking a taxi. It's cheaper, but don’t expect the comfort level of other options.

The seats do not recline, which may be a good thing since the seat pitch is the lowest of all U.S. airlines at around 28 inches. If you're under six feet tall, this may not be much of an issue. However, if you are always being asked “How’s the weather up there?” you may want to pay extra for Spirit’s "Big Front Seat."

All beverages and snacks cost extra on-board, so bring your own water bottle to fill up at the airport if you don’t want to pay. The cost of on-board snacks and drinks is similar to what you might find inside the airport.

There is no Wi-Fi and no inflight entertainment on Spirit flights, so load up your e-reader, download your favorite videos, or bring a good ol’ fashioned paperback to read. Alternatively, use the disconnected time to unwind and try to get some rest. After all, your flight is only part of the journey. Once you arrive at your destination, that’s when the fun begins.

Above image by EQRoy via Shutterstock.

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