Spirit offers a far from glamorous flying experience, but its no-frills service approach isn’t exactly the reason why the airline so reviled. Its flight crews and staff are helpful and competent and pretty kind, while the carrier’s operational reliability is just about in line with everyone else in the industry. Its fleet is even the youngest in North America! Spirit is fine — definitely no more awful than its legacy competitors like American, Delta, and United — and its fares are markedly cheaper. “How does the airline make money?” you might wonder. Easy: its notorious fees make profit margins skyrocket. You definitely wouldn’t be the first to scream “Spirit sucks!” as your expenses balloon and frustrations mount… but you don’t have to suffer this fate.

Spirit could very well be the perfect, most cost-effective solution to your travel goal. Its low fares alone at least warrant your consideration, but you have to be careful and diligent to make sure that you’re not spending too much AND that you know exactly where your dollars are going. You should be aware of what you’re entitled to — don’t make any assumptions! — and be sure that you crunch your numbers before you book. Hopefully this guide will help you make the informed decisions that Spirit requires.

When you first log on to its website and search for flights, Spirit will present you with options differentiated primarily by time and by price. I would hope that this concept is nothing new to you, you seasoned traveler, but hey, you can never be so sure.

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Is there really a difference between the $51.20 at 6am and the $51.20 at 7:30pm?

Disclaimer: the itinerary you see here is just a random example of Spirit’s “cheapness.” Everything beyond that is representative of a flight I took. The travel times, prices, and add-ons are similar to my own, they’re just not the exact same. The dead giveaway is the date — Friday, January 11, 2019 — that’s far off in the future at the time of this writing/publishing (October 30, 2018).

After the selection screen, you’ll be prompted to log in or proceed as a guest. Down below is an initial break down of your expenses, dividing the total in to two categories: how much goes to Spirit and how much goes to the government.

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Notice the ACTUAL cost of the airfare (“Flight Price”) and the cost of taxes and fees (“Government’s Cut”)

You’ll then be invited to bundle popular paid extras — a checked and carry-on bag allowance, seat selection, priority boarding, the ability to make free changes to your itinerary, and double award miles — all at a discounted wholesale rate. This deal is referred to as the “Thrills Combo,” because why not?

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C’mon! What’s more thrilling than a greater baggage allowance?

If you know you’re going to be needing all of these benefits on your trip, ponying up the cash is a no brainer. This particular package costs $44, although the price of it naturally varies depending on the flight distance. In the hop between Washington and Boston, you’d save more than $100 compared to paying for everything separately. Even if you only want a couple of the perks, it could still make sense to purchase the combo. A checked bag and a carry-on, for example, would together cost $65. Therefore, buying the entire bundle would put you ahead by $21. Say you just need to pack a carry-on instead, but you’re tall and want to sit in an exit row to avoid the standard, knee-crushing 28 inch seat pitch. That all-in cost is $47, so you’d still be getting a bargain.

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Get ready to see A LOT of this

If you’re not already an esteemed member of the $9 Fare Club, you will frequently encounter pop-ups throughout the booking process inviting you to join. If you belong and/or know what that is, more power to you (#FlyHigher!), and if not, you might want to consider it simply for the potential it offers. You see, Spirit effectively operates two loyalty programs: the $9 Fare Club and Free Spirit. The latter is free and kind of crappy and only useful in VERY specific situations. The points you accrue with it can only be redeemed for flights — don’t worry, you still have to pay cash for add-ons! — and they last a measly 90 days before expiring.

The former, on the other hand, mixes the benefits of status on a legacy carrier with Costco’s business model. There’s a $60 annual fee during the first year, which subsequently increases to $70 per year, and you’ll get privileged access to $9 fares and other similarly low priced specials in exchange. Many of these deals come with heavy restrictions… but those aren’t the primary reasons to join. The main attractions, rather, are the heavily discounted add-ons. The “Thrills Combo,” as you can see above, costs members $26, which is $18 cheaper than the norm. If you fly Spirit more than once or travel with a companion, the initial investment is quickly recouped. I’m an independent reviewer and have no vested interest in whether or not you sign up, but if it makes sense for you and your needs/goals, the $9FC could be an optimal solution.

In any case, returning customers can forego inputting their personal data in to the system. That service doesn’t even cost extra! If you haven’t flown Spirit before, well, you know the drill.

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Pretty standard stuff here

Regardless of whether you’re in the $9FC, you opted for the “Thrills Combo,” or you’re just a regular ol’ flyer, you can purchase additional perks once you are registered in the system. You’ll have to navigate through so many screens — there are so many things that you can pay for! — but they collectively add to an overall sense of greater transparency. If you make your booking correctly, you’ll know exactly where your money is going. You’ll start this next “fare-additive” process first by choosing a luggage allowance.

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Getchyer bags here!

Be aware of the fact that a carry-on ($35, $26 for $9FC) costs more than a checked bag ($30, $21 for $9FC). That seems to be counterintuitive on the surface, but it serves a useful purpose for both the airline and the customers. There’s an incentive to check suitcases, but those who spring for the more expensive option anyway receive priority boarding. Once the plane has been “turned” and is ready for the next crowd, there is, theoretically, a smaller number of people who need access to the overhead compartments. There’ll be fewer passengers clumsily navigating throughout the cabin desperately searching for a spot to stow their belongings — because Lord knows you don’t want to try and cram it under the seat in front of you! — and thus making the process that much easier for everyone involved. Those with only a personal item can happily walk right on, and Spirit can get the plane in the air that much faster.

The fare price will adjust in real time once you make a selection…and also show how much you might save if you joined the $9 Fare Club.

In any case, be SURE to buy your bags during the booking process and pay close attention to the published dimensions. If your luggage is too big and you’re forced check it at the airport, you’ll have to pay upwards of $100 (!!!) per bag. Don’t let that happen to you!

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Get a carry-on AND priority boarding

Spirit even alerts you to how bad it could be if you don’t preorder your allowance.

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You’ve been warned…

That said, the “penalties” for late luggage allowances aren’t specifically publicized on any of the booking screens, and that’s decidedly not cool. Vague threats about how the bags will “only be more expensive” isn’t enough of a warning, especially given how stiff the fines can be. They’re listed elsewhere on the Spirit website — click here to see them — but nevertheless, stashing this information away in a hard-to-navigate spot seems wrong, if not downright predatory. You could be in for a nasty surprise if you don’t pre-pay for your bags, and then arrive at the airport to see this…

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Spotted at the airport near the self-serve check-in kiosks.  Note that you’d have to pay the checked bag price, which for Boston to Baltimore is $30, plus another $30 penalty.
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Checking your bags at the airport can be SO expensive!

Next up after bags is seat selection. You’ll be informed/warned on a subsequent splash screen that if you would like to sit in a specific spot or guarantee that you and your companions are together, you must pay extra or hope for the best (note: never hope for anything when flying on Spirit). The exact price depends on how long the trip is, and “better” seats toward the front of the plane cost more. For my hop up to Boston, reservations started at $7 and topped out at $25.

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Choose where you’ll plant your butt!

That’s not ideal, especially if you’re in a bigger group, but at least you’re not handing over a bank-busting amount. You’ll still come out ahead compared to what you might pay on a legacy carrier, and you’ll have access to what Spirit markets as “Big Front seats” AKA “the best deal in the sky.”

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Ah, yes, the best deal in the sky!

For an airline as hyperbolic and cheeky as this one (see: the terms “Bare Fare” and “Thrills Combo,” or its ‘edgy’ marketing campaigns, if you have any doubts), you would be right in feeling skeptical when reading such high praises. That said, this self-assessment isn’t completely ludicrous; the Big Front seats are in fact excellent values. While the buy-on-board-based soft product remains unchanged, you’ll sit in a recliner with a similar pitch and width and padding as a legacy’s domestic first class… but at a fraction of the cost! Between Baltimore and Boston, an “upgrade” will run you only $25, but longer routes can cost upwards of $150. On a transcontinental flight or one to/from Latin America, even the high end would represent significant savings compared to the alternatives.

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Big Front seats are just like domestic first class but without the added service. Image courtesy of Spirit Airlines.
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What Big Front seats really look like…so, quite frankly, pretty similar to the promotional imagery

For such a short trip to Boston, an exit row is more than enough for me and so, for $12, I purchased one. I wanted an experience that was more typical of Spirit for purposes of THF, but couldn’t bring myself to cram in to the standard offerings. 28 inches of pitch is borderline barbaric, and Seatguru seems to agree.

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The yellow alerts users to potential flaws with the seats. In this case, it’s the 28″ pitch that triggers the warning. Image courtesy of SeatGuru, click to zoom!

The reality doesn’t appear to be too terrible, but be aware that the bottom cushions are shorter than average. You effectively trade a few extra inches of perceived space for less leg support. Woohoo?

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Not AS bad as you might think, but this is definitely not great

You’d think that this would be a moot point if you buy a more-premium seat, but no. Shrunken seats, save for the Big Fronts, are the standard offering even in exit rows; they are unbearable for tall people like me. My butt was sore for days after landing (!), so on the next flight, I decided to bite the bullet and “upgrade” to something far more comfortable…

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There’s markedly more space in an exit row…
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…and Big Fronts are MUCH more comfortable…
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…and both are definitely worth the additional costs

Once you’ve arranged for the basics, Spirit will invite you to add other vacation packages to your fare. While you might get a good deal on lodging and transportation, the carrier doesn’t have your best interests at heart. It receives nice kickbacks from the hotels and rental car agencies often times at your expense; you might forego accruing reward points and you might forfeit the elite benefits you’re entitled to. If you have the time and resources, you’re better off shopping around yourself (or hiring a humble travel consultant to do it for you…) and keep scrolling straight through to the bottom of this section.

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Not bad prices, but there are better ways to find a good rental car…
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These aren’t even good prices!!! As is the case with the rental cars, there are much better ways to search for and book a hotel…

Depending on how many perks you want to buy, you should still pay attention to this page instead of blithely scanning past all of the glorified ads masquerading as “good deals.” If you check a bag but still want priority boarding, you can add it to your fare for $6. Access to the premium security line (a must if you: don’t have TSA PreCheck and/or Clear; will be traveling during rush hour), as well as the option to make your ticket refundable, can be purchased on this route for $5 and $45, respectively.

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The last few things you might need: an option to make your ticket refundable, priority security and boarding, and your preferred means to check-in

You’ll know that you’re almost ready to book once you’ve made it to this screen. Just before you can enter your credit/debit card information though, you’ll be prompted to choose how you want to check-in for your flight.

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Frivolous? Maybe, but crucially important if you’re trying to minimize expenses

Perhaps this seems a bit premature — and it definitely is! — but if you check-in at the airport instead of at home/on your phone/etc, be prepared to pay extra for that “luxury.” The bag drop is thankfully included in the price of the luggage allowance, but heaven forbid if you need to be issued a boarding pass. If a human performs the service, then you’ll be on the hook for $10/pass, whereas if an automated kiosk does it, it’s $2/pass. These potential fees won’t break the bank account, in the same way that seat selections won’t either, but collectively they’ll build up your expenses and they’ll build up your frustration. Are they annoying enough to deter you from flying Spirit though? I dunno, those prices can be too good to pass up sometimes, even after you see the final itemized bill.

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Like a receipt from the grocery store, you can see EXACTLY how the final total was calculated

Keep scrolling and you’ll be presented with the standard smattering of add-ons, like trip insurance (which you probably shouldn’t buy), a cobranded credit card (yes, really), and a trial $9FC membership that costs $19.95 (which ironically isn’t a good value. If Spirit did the decent thing and prorated the price in accordance with the annual fee, the intro should only cost $10-$12). I could go on and on about why you should probably ignore all of these, but just trust me: this is Spirit we’re talking here, where only the bottom line matters. Who cares about the customers unless they’re forking over more money, right?

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The end, finally (but only for now)!

Despite my negative, cynical outlook on Spirit’s business model, I do recognize that it could, and does, work for a lot of travelers. It gets more people in the air, which is always a good thing, and the value to be had is often second-to-none. Beware of that “often” though, and don’t automatically make assumptions when you’re planning a trip. Depending on your needs and your goals, it may make sense to fly a legacy carrier. On the sample date used for this post — January 11, 2019 — it DEFINITELY does not make sense to fly Spirit. Bear in mind that my final total in this somewhat hypothetical example is $98.20. A quick search on Google Flights yields the following results:

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$52 for Spirit, $74 for JetBlue, $79 on American

Spirit is obviously the best option here based solely on the initial sticker price, and if you and your personal item don’t care where you sit on the plane, then this is what you should book. If you’re like me and want more space than 28 inches of legroom and want to keep a carry on with you, both JetBlue and American become the better choices. The latter carriers include those two “features” in the cost of their fares, and Spirit obviously does not. When even more factors come in to the equation — do you plan on checking a bag? Do you have elite status? Are you a member of the $9 Fare Club? — then everything becomes a bit more complicated. Only you (or a professional consultant) can evaluate your situation and determine what works best… but do not skip this step. Otherwise, Spirit might successfully screw you out of your hard-earned cash, and that is decidedly not higher flyer.

There’s a lot to be wary of when you fly on Spirit — you will quite literally pay for your ignorance — but hopefully this guide can clarify some of the more complicated aspects of this, uh, experience. Spirit isn’t bad per se, it just uses a business model that’s so different from what so many are used to. You don’t have to like the glorified nickel-and-diming approach, but with some of the deals to be had, it can be worth putting up with. Just make sure that you pay attention to what you’re booking and ensure that you’re not being taken advantage of. Those fees can add up too quickly if you’re not careful, and then the carrier wins and you’re left feeling angry and disheartened. You wouldn’t want that, would you? You shouldn’t settle on your travel goals — #FlyHigher! — and if Spirit can help you accomplish what it is you dream of, by all means: go for it!

“(Dis)Spirited Away” Mini Trip Report