A rewardingly cheap experience for the brave
Ah, Spirit. The airline that travelers love to hate, yet somehow keeps convincing those who say “I’ll NEVER fly Spirit again” to give the ultra low cost carrier another go. There are a number of good reasons why Spirit has become as notorious as it has, but perhaps none are as infamous as its fee-driven business model. After flying on it a few times though, I’m convinced that Spirit is a viable option for higher flyers, albeit with a few conditions. You can’t go in expecting Emirates — this passenger experience will be much more akin to riding a public bus (that flies!) — but you can definitely count on a safe, affordable, and effective mean to your end. For those reasons alone, it’s worth your while to at least consider Spirit for accomplishing your travel goal(s).
As noted in the trip report’s introduction, this review covers two flights. Please don’t think this is because I’m lazy, but instead know that this is because writing two, several-thousand-word-long entries only differentiated by the kinds of hard products on an ultra low cost carrier would be redundant. There’s obviously a huge difference between a seat with 28 inches of pitch in the back of a Spirit Airbus and a Big Front, but in the grand scheme of things, they’re really quite similar. There’s a much bigger disparity between, say, economy class and the Residence on an Etihad A380. Beyond those considerations, how much can one really write about Spirit’s soft product anyway? Everything is so consistent (for better or for worse), and that starts at the airport:
If you do the Spirit “experience” correctly, you hopefully won’t be spending too much time here, as you will have checked-in beforehand in order to save yourself from paying a fee. If you must have a physical boarding pass and don’t have the means to print at home, be prepared to pay $2 at a kiosk or $10 if you talk to an actual person.
In any case, this is where you drop off your checked bag(s). Feel free to stay away from this part of the airport and proceed straight to security if you’re traveling light and/or already have your boarding pass.
Bag drop, thankfully, is included in the price of your luggage allowance, but beware of the published maximum dimensions. Spirit takes those seriously…
…too seriously. You will be forced to weigh your suitcase(s) at a kiosk before handing them over to a representative, who will then stuff them in to a sizer similar to what you see above, and then put them on another scale. If you fail any of these tests, get ready for a hefty penalty.
After you’ve dropped off your bags (or not), you’ll proceed through airport security and on to your gate as if you were flying economy class on any other airline. If you have PreCheck and/or CLEAR, you’ll be able to access those lines without any issue (assuming that your boarding pass has the required PreCheck markings and/or CLEAR has a presence at the airport), and if you sprung for expedited security during the booking process, you’ll be granted access to the premium line (typically reserved for first class flyers and elite status holders) too. If you’re traveling during rush hour, it might make sense to pay for this perk, but I wouldn’t if you’re departing early in the morning, in the middle of the day, or late at night.
Also beware that at some airports, the Spirit Shortcut Security may lead you away from the PreCheck screenings and funnel you through to the regular checkpoint. The benefits you may have with PreCheck would then be negated, which would be a colossal waste for most travelers.
There’s nothing particularly of note once you get airside. In my own Priority Pass-aided experiences, I enjoyed The Club at BWI (review forthcoming) and Stephanie’s at Boston Logan, but those are unique to those two airports. If you don’t have Priority Pass and/or are originating in, say, Fort Lauderdale — where there are no lounges in Spirit’s terminal — you might have a different opinion. At least it’s pretty hard to screw up seating at a gate…
A quick, opinionated sidenote: BWI is a vastly underrated airport. It’s clean and fresh, has simple-yet-pleasing amenities, and from Washington, it is much easier to get to than Dulles is. Most importantly, it’s just an overall pleasant place to wait for a flight.
Thanks to having a carry-on with me for both flights, I was able to board first and get settled early. It still probably would have been fine had I not had that privilege; Spirit uses a straightforward process to get people on its planes. Passengers are assigned a spot in one of four groups, and when a section is called, its members — go figure! — get in line.
Baltimore-Washington (BWI) – Boston Logan (BOS)
Scheduled Departure: 19:19 (19:36 wheels up)
Scheduled Arrival: 20:39 (20:35 wheels down)
Aircraft: Airbus A319
Seat: 11F (Exit Row)
Boston Logan (BOS) – Baltimore Washington (BWI)
Scheduled Departure: 21:59 (22:18 wheels up)
Scheduled Arrival: 23:27 (23:19 wheels down)
Aircraft: Airbus A319
Seat: 2D (Big Front)
Due to Spirit’s pricing structure/business model that incentivizes checking bags, its passengers have fewer carry-on bags. This means that because fewer people are fighting for overhead bin space, boarding is even more of a breeze; the majority of folks just get on and sit down. While you probably won’t be stuck waiting on the jet bridge for an extended period of time (if at all), you also probably won’t miss a boast like this proclaiming Spirit to have the youngest fleet in the United States.
The sign you see above is adhered to pretty much every ‘flying banana’ that Spirit operates (Spirit has three liveries, but one is far more, um, ‘iconic’ than the others), and even seems a bit inappropriate in some instances. Sure, there are new planes that are fine so-to-speak, but the older ones haven’t aged nearly as well. For better or for worse I got to experience both, and it’s a little bit jarring to see proclamations of “the youngest fleet in the country” and then entering a VERY tired looking cabin. I mean, upholstery probably shouldn’t look this wrinkled…
…overhead bins probably shouldn’t look this scuffy…
Nor should the carpet be this trampled AND dirty…
…and no matter how new the plane is, it probably won’t be the cleanest one that you’ve ever seen either. Employing a crew of custodians doesn’t help Spirit’s bottom line after all…
Ironically, the all-important lavatories were kept spotless on both flights, although the sinks were a rather regrettable rust color.
Maybe they were designed to look like that, or maybe they collected dirt and turned brown after thousands of pairs of hands were washed in them. Maybe if each sink didn’t have to cater to at least 75 passengers per flight they’d keep their shines longer… But all things considered, would you expect anything more on Spirit? The conditions are perfectly cromulent for the price you pay. If you’re a germaphobe and repulsed by what you see, just wear long sleeves and pants and stow away some wet wipes in your personal item before leaving home. The brand-less soap is pretty okay too if you’re feeling kinda grimy while in-flight.
Perhaps you’ll get a brand-spanking-new plane, like I did in one instance. Its cleanliness is far from guaranteed, but its physical features are generally fresher compared to everything shown above.
Spirit offers three kinds of hard products: “Big Front” seats in the first couple rows of the plane, “premium” seats that are conveniently located and/or are exit rows with extra space, and seats with the standard 28 inches of pitch. If you want to reserve a specific seat — even the crappy ones — be prepared to pay a few more bucks. Letting the computer randomly assign me a spot wasn’t particularly appealing, nor was the prospect of cramming into a chair with no legroom whatsoever, so I wound up purchasing a Big Front on one leg and an exit row on another. The former is marketed as the “best value in the sky” and, at face value, that seems to be a fair assessment. It’s comparable to domestic first class on a legacy carrier, but only marginally more expensive than economy. The difference is only $25 between BWI and Boston! Longer flights naturally command greater premiums (BWI to Las Vegas is an $80 difference), but that’s still far below what it would cost otherwise.
You’ll get around 36 inches of pitch, so eight more than what’s offered in the back (!!!), and each seat is around 20 inches wide. Coincidentally, these dimensions are nearly identical to what American is putting in its premium cabins on board its new 737 MAX8s.
There’s a decent amount of floor space, but some annoyingly-placed seat mounts might frustrate those sitting in the aisles. They’re not a big deal on such short flights, but you’ll definitely notice them as you move your legs around.
While those mounts may be irritating as you try to spread out, they’re probably preferable to sitting in the actual front, where the legroom is seemingly restricted by the bulkhead divider.
There are two issues on display in the above photo: 1) it seems like the passenger barely has enough floor space for his feet, rendering the benefits of a Big Front useless (he can’t even stretch out under the seat in front of him); and 2) why is the divider transparent? If the sensation of being in an aquarium doesn’t make you feel awkward, certainly sitting face-to-face with flight attendants during take-off and landing will!
The Big Front chair itself exceeds most expectations, although just like the rest of the Spirit fleet, there is no recline whatsoever. Executives/marketing people dubiously claim that the seats are “pre-reclined” — which seems like a euphemism intended to mask the fact that an extra row or two can be crammed in when the seats don’t move back and forth — but the Big Front is comfy nevertheless. Its padding is exceptional, and it feels spacious and otherwise well-made. The full-sized tray table, for example, extends out from the armrest and is stabilized by a small ledge on the opposite side. The setup is far from janky, and in all seriousness, other airlines should consider installing similar products. It makes eating and typing on a computer all the more pleasant.
There were drink rings stained on one of the table’s surfaces, and that unfortunately tainted the experience; who would want to use that?!? It’s nasty, but at least it gives me an opportunity to reiterate: if you’re a germaphobe flying on Spirit, bring wet wipes with you!
Questionable hygienics aside, upgrading to the Big Fronts indeed represents terrific value. If you can afford it, by all means you should buy up. This is without a doubt the best way to fly Spirit. If you’re more budget conscious and/or don’t want to pay this premium on a short flight, then maybe consider paying for an exit row instead.
The seats are exactly the same as the rest of the standard economy class, truncated cushions and all, so don’t expect to be able to recline.
But depending on the aircraft, you may be pleasantly surprised by what is included. Although kinda grimy, having a full-sized tray table is pretty nice.
And you can’t go wrong with all of the additional legroom…
…especially compared to the extraordinary (in the worst possible way) 28 inches of pitch.
There simply is not enough legroom in Spirit’s standard offering to be anywhere close to comfortable on board, but realize that this claim is being made by a man who’s 6’3″; 30 inches of pitch isn’t nearly enough for me, let alone 28. There’s just nowhere for my knees to go except for jammed into the back of the row ahead. That said, if you’re of average or below-average height, you might be pleasantly surprised by what you find. This isn’t for me though and I’ll gladly pay a premium for something better.
Priority boarding is always nice to have, but it’s not necessarily an essential add-on. If you have a carry-on, early access privileges are included with the bag fee. If you do like what most Spirit customers do and check your luggage instead, you won’t have to fight for any overhead space… unless you really don’t want to stow your personal item under the seat in front of you. The convenience at least is worth some consideration, but on both of my flights however, there was no shortage of storage.
While there are relatively significant differences between the three hard products, Spirit’s soft product is, at its core, the same for everyone. When it comes to freebies, there are some light “reading materials” in the literature pouch and that’s about it.
Seriously, don’t get your hopes up for any traditional forms of inflight entertainment beyond what you see above. If you’re looking to catch up on a TV show or watch a movie, prepare yourself accordingly and be sure your device(s) are charged; there are no plugs so you’re screwed if you run out of juice. There are plans to eventually install high speed wifi throughout the fleet, so that should at least make the passenger experience more pleasant. However, you will not be surprised to learn that when this feature becomes available, it will not come free.
With regards to food, Spirit performs better than you might initially expect. As is the case with most everything else, you can tailor the experience to your tastes provided that you’re willing to pay extra. You can’t order a restaurant quality meal here (then again, you’d be a fool to trust Spirit to deliver on that anyway), but you have a variety of snacks and beverages to choose from. The buy on board model discourages people from ordering, and most passengers just bring stuff with them or wait to eat until after landing. This is especially true on short hops like between BWI and Boston. You can also count on quick service as a result. The cart will get to you soon, even if you’re in the last row, and that’s a nice and convenient consequence of an otherwise frustrating business practice. Eating on Spirit is like visiting a dive bar actually, it’s fast and simple and effective, but lacks the dirt cheap prices or free water (more on THAT later).
There are a few things worth calling attention to on this menu:
- You have to pay with a credit or debit card. Don’t forget: Spirit is a cashless airline.
- As alluded to earlier, bottled water costs money. I know charging for this is right in line with Spirit’s business model, but that will never ever be ethically justified. As disgusting as it may be to pay $3 for Dasani, it’s nowhere near as gross as the water that comes out of the lavatory taps. Do not substitute the latter for the former!
- There are no meals per se, and the closest you can get to those are bundles of cheeses and crackers and the like for $7. Rudimentary and eclectic as they may be (Oreos mixed with turkey jerky, anyone?), these can be quite satisfying.
- The most impressive part of all this is easily the selection of booze. There is so much to choose from if you need a special kind of “assistance” to survive Spirit!
- For those hungry AND thirsty, there are 10 meal combos for you to choose from, starting at $4 and ranging up to $28; the median price is $14. You’ll save a bit money if you opt for one of these instead of individually buying items.
The recent college graduate in me delighted at the sight of instant ramen on the menu, and the Buzzballs looked too whimsical (among other things) to turn down.
Buzzballs on their own are the most expensive items on the menu ($8 per ball), but boy are they worth it. Who could’ve predicted that Spirit of all airlines would have such a special “signature cocktail”?!? Not only do they complement the brand perfectly, but they taste delicious (and booze-y) in their own unique ways. Don’t get it twisted, you will never mistake something called “Mile High Lemonade” for a vintage port, but that’s just fine. There’s even a combo, called the “Buzz Plus,” for those interested/willing/brave enough: two Buzzballs and a snack for $17. That’s a 15% discount compared to buying all three items separately, so it’s not a bad bargain either!
On the way up to Boston, I had to take advantage of the Buzz Plus. Spirit offers three kinds of balls — Ginger Mule, Mile High Lemonade, and Tequila ‘Rita — but only the first two were available. I paired those with a cup of chicken ramen, and the whole “meal” tasted and looked a lot like my college experience. Take that comment as you will.
No food was in the cards on the return, but it was impossible to refuse another ball. The Ginger Mule is my favorite (and I’m looking for nearby stores to buy some more), and while the Mile High Lemonade was a bit too much for me, it seems to be a crowdpleaser nevertheless.
(If you don’t want to read me being all preachy, feel free to scroll until the “***end rant***” notation.)
The flight attendants responsible for selling and serving all of these goodies get a bad rap, but of all of the things Spirit gets criticized for, the service provided on board is undoubtedly the most undeserved. Remember, the employees on the front end are not responsible for the carrier’s stingy business model. It’s normal if you take offense to being forced to buy drinkable (i.e. not tap) water on board, but don’t take your beef up with the cabin crew! Likewise if you’re slapped with a $100 carry on bag fee at the gate. That sucks if that happens to you, but it’s not like it’s a secret either; you ought to know what you’re getting in to before purchasing a fare on Spirit. Don’t be rude to the others around you just because you were unpleasantly surprised by something. That kind of behavior is unfair and unjustified. You can consult the guide published with the trip report “How To: Not get screwed by Spirit” or even Spirit’s own website (click here for a definitive list of fees) for more information.
I’d go so far as to say that the duo working the flight to Boston was one of the best teams I’ve flown with all year (and this includes over 100,000 miles in international business and first class. Reviews are forthcoming!). Susanne and Kippie, as they introduced themselves, were industrious, attentive, and most importantly, genuine and fun. They went through the motions of good service, working quickly and effectively to get the (paying) passengers served in a short window of time. I appreciate how Kippie, completely unprompted, went out of her way to find me the coldest Buzzballs stowed in the galley. That was unexpected but nevertheless much obliged.
It’s seldom that one element of the passenger experience can completely elevate the perceived overall quality of the flight. No, Spirit is not glamorous nor does it pretend to be, but Susanne and Kippie interspersed the mundanities of commercial air travel with good-natured, self-deprecating humor so effectively. When we landed ahead of schedule for instance, Susanne facetiously quipped: “We’re sorry for getting you here early. We know you hate that because when we get you somewhere late, you all tell your friends about it!” They are wonderful representatives of the company, and when I look back on that trip, the thought that comes to my mind first was how much fun it was to fly with Spirit. No doubt that lasting impression is due to the charming crew.
If it weren’t for Susanne and Kippie, Spirit would just be another ultra low cost carrier: fine for what it is. The two of them alone made the airline exceed my expectations.
Despite its not-great reputation, Spirit is a fine option for higher flyers. Yes, the passenger experience on Spirit does not compare to that of, say, Etihad. For that matter, JetBlue and Southwest are of objectively higher quality too. But Spirit has those airlines — and many more — beat when it comes to the price. Sure, it sucks having to pay extra for everything that’s not the plane ticket, but if you plan and adapt accordingly, you’ll save yourself lots of money (and especially frustration) in the long run. As a means to get around the United States on the cheap, Spirit is remarkably compelling. If you’re like me and have flight attendants as fun as Susanne and Kippie, you’ll have an equally amusing time en route to your destination… and you’ll be eager to choose Spirit for your next adventure.
The good, the bad, the ugly of Spirit Airlines
- The Good
- Operationally on board, Spirit is smooth, with streamlined boarding and meal services.
- Susanne and Kippie were excellent flight attendants whose kindness and efficiency elevated the quality of a flight significantly.
- The indisputable value to be had with buying a ticket; “more go” is an excellent slogan that represents the best Spirit has to offer customers.
- Speaking of value, Big Front Seats are one of the best deals in the sky. They’re comfortable and relatively cheap and far superior to any of the other hard products.
- The Bad
- Some planes have seen much better days.
- There seemed to be a fine layer of grime on most surfaces in the cabin. Bring wet wipes for your tray table.
- The Ugly
- Paying for water will never, ever be cool, even on ultra low cost carriers.
- The euphemisms associated with the “unbundled” fare, like “pre-reclined seats” and “cozy” amounts of seat pitch, are goofy at best, patronizing at worst.