Spirit Airlines: Flying on a Budget

I read a hotel review recently about how at a certain upscale hotel, you wouldn’t see backpackers. It was then I realized that budget traveling has a negative connotation. I may travel only with a backpack, but I don’t let money slow me down if there’s something I want to do! I ended up staying at that upscale hotel with just my backpack.

So why travel with only a backpack? A new little jewel called “budget airlines.” These low-cost carriers began in the 1980s and keep their costs low by not charging people for things they don’t use. Think of them as “à la carte” airlines. Some American budget airlines include Spirit Airlines, Frontier Airlines, and Allegiant Airlines. Their European counterparts include Ryanair, Easyjet, and Vueling.

Budget airlines have gotten a bad reputation within the last year or so. I’ve heard people say not to fly them because there’s more turbulence so they’re not safe. Reviews say to stay away because they nickel and dime you anywhere they can. Complainers paint the internet with negativity and tell people to pay a little more for a “good” airline. In my experience, people only write a review or tell people when they had a bad experience, so I’m going to play devil’s advocate and tell you why you shouldn’t listen to these negative people.

Let me first start by saying that I have no connections to Spirit Airlines or any other airline. No one has asked me to write anything like this, and I haven’t been compensated in any way to promote any airline. I simply have flown with Spirit Airlines more times than I can count and have always had a great experience and I want to share how excellent I think the airline is to keep them in business so I can keep flying to exotic destinations for super cheap. So first, I’ll talk about the negative reviews I’ve heard and tell you why I think they are inaccurate.

Spirit Airlines

There’s More Turbulence on Budget Airlines, So They’re Not Safe

Haha. I can’t help but laugh at this one.

Airplanes ride the wind like a bird. Wind flows in currents, like the ocean. Sometimes, it’s smooth sailing (pun intended). Sometimes, the air waves can get a little choppy. We’ve all heard that warm air rises, cool air falls, right? It’s the same in the sky. Turbulence can occur because the warm air interferes with the cool air causing some rough air waves. Sometimes, flying over a mountain or tall structure can alter the air waves too. And sometimes, a pilot might move across air currents to take advantage of a stream moving in the right direction (kind of like changing lanes and going over those annoying rumble strips).

Turbulence is normal and to be expected. Click To TweetTurbulence happens on every airline and has nothing to do with safety. In fact, airplanes are built to withstand massive amounts of it. It’s more likely for a car to spin out of control by hitting a rumble strip than for a plane to spin out of control by hitting turbulence. Turbulence might be a little more uncomfortable, but it won’t cause a plane to crash. Planes go through such rigorous tests that we can safely trust that they can withstand a lightning strike, extreme heat or cold, and even wind gusts so strong it bends a wing up to 90 degrees.

Don’t let turbulence be a factor in choosing an airline. All planes go through the same winds, and turbulence is normal. Next time you’re on a plane, get excited for that roller coaster feeling knowing you’re completely safe in the hands of experienced pilots.

Bad Service and Unfriendly Personnel

I’ve read plenty of horror stories about how mean and unhelpful the airline attendants are from departing airport to destination airport. They ignore you, they yell at you, they don’t help solve your problems, they have no answers for you, they’re miserable people. First, I have to say that I’ve never once met an unhelpful or unfriendly Spirit employee, on the ground or in the air. Second, if you’re the person yelling at these people to solve your problems, imagine dealing with 250 of yourself every day, all day. Good for them for keeping a happy face and attempting to problems solve for you!

Spirit Airlines crew
Image via Flickr by frankieleon

I’ve been on Spirit planes during the football games where the captains keep the entire plane updated on the status of the games at customer requests. On holidays, like Christmas or New Year’s Eve, the captains and flight attendants have greeted everyone with a “happy whatever” and even played holiday music to keep everyone traveling in good spirits (no pun intended on that one). A few times, the flight attendants had everyone do airplane yoga to keep moving and healthy. Some flight attendants even cracked jokes to make people laugh.

Lately, Spirit Airlines has even started doing contests on their flights where one lucky middle seat passenger per flight wins free miles, because they know those are the worst seats. I’ve seen flight attendants help smaller or older passengers get their carry on bags up into the overhead bins for them, move the seats of people uncomfortable by PDAs, allergies, or tight squeezes, and find sick passengers (like my boyfriend on our last trip to Colombia) an empty row to lay down and feel better.

I know that if you don’t fly often, you might not be prepared for the low-cost carrier goals and you might not understand why they’re asking you for money for a soda. But go to the homepage of Spirit’s website and it spells it out in two sentences for you. A little research goes a long way in understanding what to expect, and once you try it their way, you’ll probably never go back to paying for things you don’t use. I know I won’t.

Budget Airlines Nickel and Dime You

Many people feel like budget airlines take every penny they can get out of people. It’s true you buy everything separately instead of things you might not use being automatically included. So why wouldn’t you expect to pay for the things you’ll use? It’s not “nickel and diming,” it’s the whole motto of the low-cost carriers.

Traveling with lots of bags

Spirit Airlines charges you to bring a carry on or check a bag. They charge you if you want a soda or snack on the plane. They claim they charge you to check in with a gate agent at the airport instead of using a kiosk or printing your boarding pass at home, but I’ve never been charged to check in with a gate agent (especially if I’m abroad with no access to a computer for printing). Yes, they charge you for these extras. It’s not a secret and actually says it right on their home page: “no free bag, no free drink, it’s just your a** plus gas.” So why would you expect differently?

This is why I guess I technically fit into the “backpacker” category. I travel with just a free personal item because that’s all I need. I don’t need to pay extra for a bag, I just want the transportation to my next exotic destination. I’m trying to kick my soda habit so I don’t want a free soda to tempt me anyway. If I want a beer or cup of wine, I’d pay for it in the airport or at a bar anyway, so pay for it on the flight. But Spirit doesn’t force a drink on someone who doesn’t want to pay for it, and for that I thank them.

Does traveling with just a backpack make me a backpacker?
Does traveling with just a backpack make me a backpacker?

I print my boarding pass at home whenever possible because it saves me time. When you print it at home, you can skip the lines and go straight to security. That means an extra 15-20 minutes of sleep for me for those early morning flights! Who wants to wait in lines?

I know, girls. It’s hard to pack everything you need into a backpack. Those adorable shoes that only go with one outfit. That hair dryer, straightener, and curler. Shampoo and conditioner. Lotion. How is it even possible for a girl to travel with just a backpack?

Ways to Keep Flights Cheap

I’m a girl, so I get it. I need to wash my hair. And straighten it if I want to take good vacation pictures. I need suntan lotion and after sun lotion on a beach trip. So how do I travel with only a backpack to keep costs low on Spirit flights?

Keep your liquids under 3 oz
Image via Flickr by javajoba

I collect hotel shampoos, conditioners, soaps, body washes, and lotions. I have a bag full of stuff from various hotels around the world. For a short trip, I bring only one of each. For a longer trip, I bring three or four of each. Those small bar soaps last forever, too!

CVS has a row dedicated to trial size everything. I call it travel size. It’s all under 3 oz. and perfect for going through security. You can buy travel-sized toothpaste, mouth wash, shaving lotion, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, and lots of other things. If you can’t find something, like suntan lotion, they sell empty 3 oz. bottles that you can fill up with your product of choice.

Pack your light clothes, wear your heavy clothes. Planes are always cold anyway, just make sure you can take off your layers if you’re going somewhere hot. If you’re bringing more than one pair of shoes, wear your biggest shoes and pack your smallest. Keep hair products simple; just bring a straightener. Hair can always air dry if your hotel doesn’t have a blow dryer. Finally, you can re-wear clothes, so try to bring things that mix and match. Jeans, black leggings or shorts, and khaki go with everything, so you’ll only need one or two bottoms for the whole trip. Also, small dresses really cut down on space!

What to Expect on a Spirit Airlines Flight

A lot of budget airlines fly into smaller, out-of-the-way airports. This is ideal because there’s very little traffic getting to them, parking is a breeze (many times you can park right across the street from the entrance), and there aren’t a ton of flights leaving out of them so security lines are smaller. Most recently, I flew Spirit Airlines out of Atlantic City into Cartagena with a layover in Fort Lauderdale. I’ve also previously taken Spirit flights into Myrtle Beach, Fort Myers Beach, Orlando, Cancun, and Las Vegas.

If you print your boarding pass out at home, bypass everything and go straight to the security line. Otherwise, Spirit usually has a kiosk you can use to check in and print your boarding pass quickly. If you’re flying internationally or checking bags, you will have to go to the counter to talk to an agent.

Once you’re through security, the departure gate usually isn’t too far. In Atlantic City, it was just up the escalator from security. I sat down at the bar next door for a bloody mary and bagel, then boarded the plane.

Spirit flights do have tighter seating and smaller, thinner seats to accommodate more passengers, so it feels a little tight. The tray tables aren’t as big as you might be used to and there aren’t any seat back pockets anymore to store things like water bottles. The leg room is tight if you have long legs, but Spirit does offer upgraded exit row seats for extra leg room (and there is a fee for those). If you’re prepared for the smaller seating areas, it’s not a big deal. With a 2 hour flight, then a layover, then a 2.5 hour flight, it wasn’t bad at all.

Tighter seating on Spirit helps add more passengers and keep costs low
Tighter seating on Spirit helps add more passengers and keep costs low

I had a lucky middle seat for both flights. As I mentioned before, Spirit is offering contests now to middle seaters. Just before landing, the flight attendants ask everyone to check for a sticker on their tray table. The person with the sticker wins 2500 bonus miles, no strings attached. I wasn’t one of the lucky winners on either of my four flights, unfortunately.

I had my bloody mary in the airport and wanted to try to sleep on the flight, so I didn’t by any drinks or snacks. It kept my plane fare cost low! I also only had a backpack because I was traveling to hot Colombia, where I only needed shorts and tank tops. My backpack fit under the seat in front of me perfectly, although it did cut back on the already sparse leg room. Not bothering with the overhead cabins was nice and quick. Security was quick. The flight was smooth and quick. Overall, four very uneventful flights, which means good flights.

On the last leg of my trip home, from Fort Lauderdale back to Atlantic City, a tropical storm passed over Florida. It downpoured and though we tried to take off in the pouring rain, thunder and lightning kept us grounded for an extra 30 minutes. Then, we were fourth or fifth in line to take off which took another 30 minutes. So with only an hour delay sitting in the plane on the runway, we got home safe and sound without the fear of lightning hitting our plane. Luckily, I had a really good book to read and a Colombian documentary to watch.

The flight attendants were all smiles and happy on each flight. They came around to answer questions, sell food and beverages, led a stretch and airplane yoga session, and offer bonus miles for signing up for the Spirit Mastercard. After four or five years of deliberating, this is the flight that won me over to sign up for the card. I’ll talk more about that in a minute.

Cancelled Flights

Recently, Spirit had to cancel a bunch of flights. I actually got an email from Spirit Airlines’ CEO apologizing for the inconvenience, even though it didn’t affect me. I know airlines in general have been under a lot of heat lately for the way they treat passengers, but it’s up to passengers to work with airlines instead of demand the airline cater to them. There is more than just you on a flight, and everyone has to work together to make things acceptable for everyone.

I understand people get annoyed when their flight gets delayed or cancelled. They may miss trips all together. They may miss important events. My sister had a flight to Florida for Christmas a few years ago that was cancelled due to a snowstorm and she missed the entire vacation because there were no flights out for the next four days. I get that can be hard on people, but that’s the weather, not Spirit.

A lot of times, Spirit Airlines has no control over whether their planes can get out or not. If there’s a storm, do you really want to be flying in it anyway? If the previous flight was delayed, your flight can’t magically appear on time, as hard as Spirit tries to make that happen. You have to roll with the punches. If you have an event you absolutely can’t miss, book the flight a day or two in advance just in case. If your flight gets delayed while you’re at the airport, go into the VIP lounge and eat and drink for free for a few more hours. There are worse things that could happen.

Spirit Airlines Mastercard

On one last note, I want to mention Spirit Airlines’ credit card. I was against it for a while because I hate credit cards with an annual fee. I thought about it for about four or five years and always declined because of that annual fee, but I finally caved after my trip to Colombia and applied.

If you apply in flight, you get an extra 2500 bonus miles. If you apply at all (in flight, online, or at a Spirit Airlines desk), you get 15,000 bonus miles. That’s 3 round trip flights for free. The annual fee is waved for the first year, then $59 a year after that. I justify the $59 a year because that’s the same cost as the $9 Fare Club for even cheaper fares. The credit card doesn’t automatically enroll you in the $9 fare club, but you do get special Spirit Mastercard fares which are about the same as the $9 fare club. And with the Mastercard, there are no blackout dates or special dates to redeem your miles. Additionally, your miles won’t expire after a year like they would if you were just a random person trying to collect miles.

Spirit Airlines MasterCard
Image via spirit.com

You can earn Spirit Airlines miles by flying, eating at partner restaurants, using the Mastercard, and taking surveys online. Then use your miles to head to Fort Lauderdale or Miami for a weekend, go to Peru and see Machu Picchu, visit an exotic island in Colombia, party in Las Vegas, grab tacos in Cancun for dinner, or relax on a beach in St. Thomas, USVI.

I hate seeing the bad publicity that great airlines get. I love Spirit Airlines and fly them all around the U.S., Mexico, Caribbean, and South America. After flying on low-cost carriers throughout every continent I’ve been to (North America, South America, Europe, and Africa), I can honestly say these airlines are the wave of the future. Do your homework, research the airlines’ policies, and follow the rules and you’ll be fine. Pay for only what you need or want – it’ll still be less than a full price luxury airline.

Spirit Airlines in the sky

At the end of the day, you’re not looking for a cruise in the sky, right? Just a bus to get you from one place to the next (unless the plane ride is the highlight of your trip). You’ll be safe, happy, and have plenty of leftover spending money in your destination.

Have you flown Spirit Airlines, or any other budget airline? Was your experience good, bad, or neutral? How do you feel about all the negative airline publicity? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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Spirit Airlines: Flying on a Budget

P.S. You might also love Earn Miles and Points for Everyday Activities or 6 Airline Travel Hacks to Save Money

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