Spirit Airlines: Frugal dream or frugal failure?

Spirit AirlinesI was shocked and happy when the email came through in October: I was selected to participate in a NASA Social in November, in which 40-50 participants spent the day touring NASA facilities and learning from its scientist about their various missions. The only thing — it was in Greenbelt, Md.: how would I get there?

I’d contemplated driving from Wisconsin, which wouldn’t have been impossible — but after finding a killer deal for air travel, with the flight and hotel nights included, I decided to go for it. Because 12-plus hours of driving just didn’t sound appealing.

Why was it such a good deal? The package included a trip on Spirit Airlines. I’d heard plenty of bad rep about Spirit Airlines, which gave me pause. But the price couldn’t be beat and for two hours, how bad could it be?

That might seems like a set up for saying, oh my gosh, worse than I ever could have imagined! Well, it wasn’t. It turned out to be a good way to save money on my travel. I think Spirit might be a good flight option for frugal travelers; especially if you follow one-bag travel like I do.

Frugal traveling

In March 2015, I traveled to Phuket, Thailand (through Bangkok) to visit a good friend who once lived stateside. As with my other international trips, I took my big black suitcase that I need to check in and hoped it happened to make it to the same destination as I did. More importantly, I had to uncheck it and recheck it some times (I’ve never been clear when I do and don’t need to do this.)

I remember coming back from my trip and unpacking my giant suitcase. A realization hit me: I hardly used half the stuff in the suitcase! I had lugged this big bag all over Thailand, and for what? So I could more easily haul back a bunch of stuff I don’t need?

I thought back to my first trip to Japan, in which I taught English. One of the women on our trip had the tiniest little suitcase, and yet she seemed to have a new outfit every day. We could only surmise that she must have had a tiny portal to her bedroom contained within the suitcase through which she grabbed a different outfit every day.

She only smirked when we asked her her secret, but now I think I know. I first learned about one-bag travel through a podcast, and after a little digging, it turns out there’s a whole movement dedicated to one-bag travel. (Here’s a good reddit forum on the topic.)

Why do this? There’s some really good benefits to the frugal amongst us: 1. It prevents you from buying a bunch of junk on your trip you don’t really need. 2. Short layovers are a breeze. Grab your bag from the overhead, and go right to the next terminal. 3. Travel lightly during your destination, especially on longer trips. It makes any mode of transportation easier, but particularly crowded trains, if you only have one bag to contend with.

I first tried this out on a trip to Seattle last summer. For nearly two weeks, I only carried my Timbuktu bag. Two pairs of pants and four shirts, a rain jacket, and my laptop were all I needed. Some stuff you just obtain when you get to your destination, like deodorant. The fact is, you just don’t need to travel with that much. It allowed me to play around in the city during the day and easily get picked up by my friend to stay at her house in the afternoon. That would have been a lot harder if I’d been carrying a big suitcase.

Spirit: Great for one-bag travel?

Essentially what Spirit does for the one-bag traveler is reduce prices on things we wouldn’t need anyway. People with 3 bags need to pay extra — we get bare-bottom prices. No meals or beverages are served. Who cares? No one likes those meals anyway. Let me save my money for a good meal, or bring a snack.

Anyone who flies on Spirit knows the drill – for a free carry-on, your bag needs to fit within the slot featured in front of the ticket counter. Simple enough to check – just slip it in and see if it fits. If not, you pay a fee. My Timbuktu bag fits perfectly in the slot.

Is the service bad? Well, that wasn’t my experience. In fact, I thought it was more friendly and professional than most airlines I’ve flown on. (I say mostly, because the service on JAL, a Japanese airline, is simply unmatched.)  Flight attendants were friendly, and mostly left me alone, which I prefer. I like that the food and drink is available but I could also ignore the service if I wanted. Maybe I’m just not picky. I kind of always hate air travel. At least this way, I save money.


So what do other says about Spirit? Yes, there are complaints to be sure. People have talked about cancelled flights, which does seem to happen a lot with the airline. They talk about all the fees, cramped seats, and barebones services. You have to pay extra to pick your seat.

From my experience — and in all fairness, I have only flown once with the airline — I had some of the best service of any airline I’ve flown on (save for the Japanese airlines, which are over-the-top awesome). Staff were friendly, courteous, and mostly left me alone. I don’t really care where I sit, so that’s a non-issue. And I don’t want an airline’s crappy food, so that is also not an issue for me. I can bring a snack for myself if I’m hungry.

What about delays and cancellations? Those are irritating. They happen with every airline, of course. But some claim Spirit is the worst.

Not so, according to the US. Dept. of Transportation. In its latest Air Travel Consumer Report, of the 12 domestic carriers it studies, Spirit ranked 6th (the higher the ranking the fewer delays/cancellations). Not the best, of course, but not the worst either. (United claims this top spot, with Alaska and Delta close behind.) (Also of note, that was of the 30 reporting airpots to the US DOT — Spirit drops to 7th with all airports reporting.)

Delays and cancellations can be frustrating. On a trip to Thailand, my flight from Milwaukee to Chicago was cancelled outright, with no advanced notice (this was not Spirit, by the way). Thankfully my Milwaukee-based friend who drove me to the airport was able to drive me to Chicago instead. The airline offered no help other than to point to a bus that left as I was walking toward the terminal (I would have missed my flight if I’d taken the next bus to leave). Not even an apology was offered, by the way, and I had to request my refund. For a flight that THEY cancelled.

Bottom line

Will Spirit wow you? No. They really won’t. But I’ve been let down by many airlines I’ve taken. Sometimes I think Spirit gets the worst hate because of their barebones services.

But that’s not a concern with us frugal travelers. Most of the criticisms I’ve read seemed to come from high-consumers with high demands. For us frugal folks, the barebones service is just fine.

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Disclaimer: I use Amazon Affiliate links in the post. I never link to anything I do not use and enjoy myself. I have no affiliation with Spirit Airlines.


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