Spirit Airlines in August canceled thousands of flights after extreme weather impacted its operation, impacting its reputation for cheap on-time flights.
The event highlighted the risks of booking with an ultra-low-cost carrier, which may recover slower than larger carriers.
Even with the risks, Spirit still manages to attract flyers that are price-focused with fares lower than $35 one-way for cross-country travel.
Spirit Airlines is one of the US's leading budget carriers, known for cheap flights with no frills that make air travel more accessible to the masses.
But over the summer, Spirit briefly became known for delayed and canceled flights. Extreme weather led to thousands of Spirit flight cancellations over the course of a week, seriously impacting the airline's reputation for on-time performance.
The event highlighted the risk that can come with booking through an ultra-low-cost carrier. Specifically, travelers on these airlines may have less recourse when things go wrong, such as a lack of backup flights on a given route.
Airlines like Spirit also don't commonly partner with other airlines, preventing them from rebooking disrupted passengers onto a different carrier.
Those risks usually entice me to book flights on full-services carriers over budget airlines. But I couldn't resist the challenge when I saw the fare on a cross-country flight was only $34.57 on Spirit for a recent flight home.
I flew Spirit Airlines home from Santa Ana, California to Newark after a work trip to California. Here’s what it was like.
My transcontinental journey started dark and early with a 7 a.m. flight from Orange Country's John Wayne Airport. The first leg of my trip consisted of a short hop to Las Vegas, where I'd connect to a non-stop flight to Newark.
As per tradition when I book flights on ultra-low-cost carriers like Spirit, I didn't purchase any extras and let fate decide my experience. All I had with me was an overnight bag and a ticket to ride.
This would be the longest journey on Spirit at seven hours and 12 minutes from start to finish. I can't say I wasn't tempted to pre-pay for window seats, which started at $10 for the shorter flight and increased to $13 for the longer one.
Nevertheless, I stuck to my faith in the system and was rewarded with a choice of two window seats at check-in. Both were towards the back of the plane but I saved $25 by not pre-paying.
Tickets in hand, I went to the security checkpoint that was luckily empty at the ripe hour of 5 a.m.
Flying time to Las Vegas was a brief 44 minutes and I wasn't concerned at all with this leg of the journey. The route is among the shortest in Spirit's network and there's not much I can't put up with for 44 minutes on an airplane.
Boarding began in groups around 30 minutes prior to departure. Travelers that purchase extras like a carry-on bag or early boarded, as well as Spirit credit cardholders, are given the first two zones and board first.
I was given zone three and still boarded relatively early. But this also wasn't a full flight.
Spirit's newest fleet type, the Airbus A320neo, was operating the flight to Las Vegas. This was the second time I was getting to fly on the jet for Spirit as it took me to Boston in 2020.
A total of 182 seats comprise the all-economy class cabin spanning 31 rows in the standard 3-3 configuration for an A320neo.
The first two rows, however, house "big front seats" that are essential business class-style recliners without the business class perks. These seats offer 36 inches of pitch and 20 inches of width, with a wide center console and adjustable headrests.
There are no additional perks besides a larger seat with extra legroom but it did look comfortable. Upgrade bids for this seat started at $26 for the Santa Ana-Las Vegas flight and $31 for Las Vegas-Newark.
Regular economy seats offer 28 inches of pitch and 17.75 inches of width. It's a tight fit and the seats are remarkably thin.
There are no adjustable headrests, seat-back entertainment systems, in-seat power outlets, or even seat-back pockets.
A small literature holder acted as a makeshift seat-back pocket that just barely fit my iPhone.
Seat storage isn't Spirit's strong suit and putting a bag under the seat would only serve to further reduce legroom. That said, I didn't immediately feel too crammed into the seat, even as a larger traveler.
But these were all things for which I was prepared. I had downloaded entertainment to my phone ahead of time and packed a portable charger.
The only thing I forgot was a travel pillow to make up for the lack of a proper headrest. Other than that, the "deluxe leather" seats seemed to be comfortable enough for a cross-country journey.
I was also lucky enough to have the row to myself and feeling good that I didn't pay for a seat assignment. It didn't get better than this.
And where Spirit lacked in frills, it made up for in on-time performance on this short hop to Sin City. We pushed back to the gate a remarkable six minutes early and made our way to the runway.
We started our takeoff roll just after 7 a.m. and I could rest easy that the airline's troubles over the summer weren't going to affect this flight. Though, I still had one more flight to go.
The A320neo's performance capabilities truly shined on takeoff as we climbed incredibly quickly over Orange County. John Wayne Airport is known for complex departure procedures to keep noise levels down, and the A320neo handled it quite well.
Plus, the aircraft's Pratt & Whitney PW1000G geared turbofan engines were incredibly quiet on takeoff and throughout the flight.
Flight attendants quickly began the in-flight service once we reached our cruising altitude of 23,000 feet. Flight attendants walked around taking orders instead of rolling out the trolley, given the short duration of the flight.
Nothing is free on Spirit, not even water, but the prices were reasonable for what was on offer. Passengers could choose from combos or standalone purchases.
Tea was $2 per cup while coffee and hot chocolate were $3 per cup.
Soft drinks and bottled water were $3 each.
Servings of beer and liquor started at $8, comparable to what a beer costs in New York City, and cocktails were available for between $9 and $11.
Snacks then started a $3, with snack boxes increasing to $8. The pricing was comparable to what I've seen on other airlines.
But for this short flight, I decided to wait and have a proper breakfast once we landed in Las Vegas. I wasn't alone as not many of my fellow passengers placed orders.
So far, I was holding to my initial fare of $34.57 and no more. We began our descent into Las Vegas shortly after flight attendants finished taking orders.
Seeing the Mandalay Bay marked the end of my Spirit journey's first leg. Next came a layover of one hour and four minutes before the flight time to Newark.
Deplaning occurred as normal with no change to that procedure. Flying Spirit felt like flying during pre-pandemic times, as more and more airlines are getting back to the normal swing of things.
McCarran International Airport didn't have too much to offer for breakfast in the Spirit terminal. Moe's Southwest Grill, Siegel's Bagelmania, and Starbucks Coffee provided the only real breakfast options so I bought two bagels since I still had a long way to go until Newark.
The flight time to Newark was scheduled for five hours and two minutes. And as luck would have it, I was going to be flying on the same exact plane that brought me to Las Vegas.
This flight was markedly more crowded, however, with nearly every seat filling up. Boarding once again began around 30 minutes prior to departure and one gate agent was tasked with scanning boarding passes and checking passengers' bags.
Multiple people were taken off the line for having bags that were too large. This gate agent wasn't playing around.
I was able to board with no issues thanks to my overnight bag, saving what would have been a $60 fee had my bag been larger in size.
The familiar yellow and black A320neo greeted me once more and I got ready for the longest flight of my life on an ultra-low-cost carrier.
This time I was in the second to last row with a seat assignment of 30A. I was way in the back but still had a window seat so I couldn't complain.
And this seat actually had a window. Row 31, the last row, does not have any windows.
Boarding went smoothly and those that were forced to check their bags, or pay the carry-on fee, soon filed onto the plane.
Once again, we pushed back from the gate and departed on time. I rested easy knowing I wouldn't be stranded in Las Vegas and that I might even get home early if the tailwinds were strong enough.
I was also happy that I didn't spring for the $13 seat assignment fee as I had scored a window seat in a row with no middle seat. I couldn't have asked for a better assignment, compliments of Spirit.
Flight attendants started the in-flight service and brought around a trolley this time. I once again declined, having eaten in the airport.
The next few hours would be somewhat challenging. I didn't sleep on the flight to Las Vegas and needed to get some rest. But I've never slept well when flying on ultra-low-cost airlines.
I finally managed to get two hours of sleep, taking off a good chunk of the flight. It wasn't a good sleep, and I really should've brought a pillow.
I knew I was home free once we crossed the mighty Mississippi River, and that there would be no more than around two and a half hours until touchdown in Newark.
Flight attendants came around for the final service and I couldn't help but indulge since I had a long journey home from Newark airport to my house on Long Island, New York.
I purchased the $11 snack box and drink combo that came with almonds, Brownie Brittle, Craisins, crackers, and smoked gouda cheese. It was a typical airline snack box and I enjoyed every bite. The total cost of my $34.57 Spirit ticket was now $45.57.
As there were no forms of in-flight WiFi or entertainment onboard, I had to rely on the old-fashioned method of using landmarks to gauge our location the rest of the way. Chicago's O'Hare International Airport was the first marker, soon followed by Lake Michigan.
Next came Detroit, letting me know that there was no more than an hour and 30 minutes left of flying time. Our descent started around an hour later, marking the final stages of a long cross-country journey.
Overall, it wasn't the most comfortable flight of my life but it was more than bearable, and I couldn't complain given the $35 airfare. For comparison, $35 isn't even enough to fill up my car with gas with current $3 per gallon gas prices in New York.
But as with anything that seems too cheap to be true, I was taking a risk when choosing Spirit. The airline's focus on improving its on-time performance in recent years has mitigated that risk but it still remains.
We actually landed in Newark ahead of schedule. Next came the hardest part of the flight, getting home from Newark airport.
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