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I like to travel as inexpensively as possible, but I’ll be one of the first to admit that I prefer to do that travel comfortably whenever possible. I like having a larger seat, or being able to skip a line or two based on status, or have a larger hotel room waiting for me from time to time. However, my preference for comfort and a little pampering can sometimes be traded off for a price.
More People Should Look to Low Cost Carriers:
An example of this can clearly be seen in my preference for flying United Airlines where I have elite status (at least for a while longer), we get extra legroom seats without additional fees, get to skip some lines, have a shot at upgrades, get improved customer service in some situations, etc. However, more and more I have turned to other airlines either because I am burning miles, or because the price differential to fly United on the routes I am interested in just sometimes can’t be justified. Even the low cost carriers have my attention these days because their prices can just be astoundingly low. In fact, I think more people should be looking to low cost carriers.
I highlighted a good example of this here, and then just a couple weeks ago my parents booked a round trip ticket from Houston to Denver on Frontier for about $70 a person – that is truly amazing. Just $70 for a round trip airline ticket on what used to be a 16 hour + drive or several hundred dollars on a competing airline is, again, amazing.
When you can buy airline tickets on low cost carriers to/from many cities for $29 – $49 each way with some regularity I think it becomes harder and harder to ignore and dismiss them as “not being worth it” for you, especially when the major carriers are still often charging many multiples of those prices on the same routes. Yes, you then get to deal with baggage fees, on-board drink fees, etc. but often the price differential is so high to start with that those extra expenses can be easily absorbed (or even avoided) and you are still saving a ton. Of course, that will not always be the case so be sure to do the complete math for your exact situation.
Apples to Apples Low Cost Carriers Aren’t That Much Different:
Last week I told Gary Leff from View From the Wing that he should fly what he dubbed the “Worst, Most Uncomfortable Flight in America“, a new Spirit Airlines route from Baltimore – Los Angeles. That is 2,300 miles flown in Spirit Airline’s finest. A very quick peek at prices on that route showed $93 one-way, or 7,500 Spirit miles if you have the co-branded Spirit credit card. That’s not a “door buster” $39 price, but I’m sure the route will go on discount from time to time just like many of them do. For the record, he gave a resounding no to my suggestion.
Now Gary is far from the typical Spirit customer, so my recommendation for him flying the route wasn’t because I think Spirit is the best airline to meet his needs, but rather so he would have first-hand info of how bad it was, or wasn’t. I think it would make for great reading material, and there is real value in being able to speak with first-hand information, albeit it would be information from a small sample size of one flight. My bet is that unless he had a run of bad luck (which would make for even better reading), that the flight wouldn’t be all that different than trans-cons in regular economy on other carriers. If he spent the extra money for the “Big Front Seat” and packed or budgeted for ample on-board water, then I really think the experience wouldn’t be an overwhelmingly negative one.
However, there is the catch. Gary, and most of the rest of the authors of the major miles and points blogs, are coming from a skewed perspective. They are coming from a perspective of flying with top tier elite status on one of the three legacy carriers, often in an upgraded first class seat, and not from the perspective of routinely being in seat 32B with no priority boarding, no free on-board meals, no frequent drink service, etc. The airline twitter teams are more responsive to those high value customers, they are more protected on other flights when things go wrong, etc. To be fair, even I am coming from a position of having elite status, at least for now, but I fly economy on other airlines where I don’t have status enough to still do my fair share in seat 32B.
I think when you are making an apples to apples comparison, the number of differences between the back of a Spirit plane and the back of the plane via a legacy carrier is minimal. Yes, you will want to pack in a backpack to avoid a carry-on bag fee instead of bringing your larger roller bag. Yes, your seat size and legroom may be a bit smaller (though the legacy carriers are working on cramming as many people as possible on-board, too). Honestly beyond that and needing to pay for your drinks, the experience isn’t usually that different.
The One Reason to Potentially Not Fly Low Cost Carriers:
My parents fly Spirit with some regularity and they actually like the boarding process better with Spirit than the other airlines as it is much quicker in their experience. They have never paid for Spirit seat assignments, but have always been assigned seats together. They even have anecdotally observed that the Spirit clientele on their flights has changed a bit over the last couple years and includes more and more people who appear to be the same middle class folks you would find on the other carriers.
The one argument against Spirit, Frontier, etc. that I think has real validity is that when things go wrong and flights get cancelled or delayed that you are more up-a-creek-without-a-paddle than with the legacy carriers who may have more frequent flights and a willingness to put you on another carrier. Gary quoted Spirit’s terrible June on-time stats of just 50%, the worst of any US carrier that month, as a good reason to avoid them. That is really bad, but when you look at the 2015 year-to-date stats put out by the Department of Transportation Spirit and Frontier actually have fewer cancellations than airlines like American and JetBlue by a good margin, and their on-time stats are only a little bit worse than most of the other US airlines (Spirit’s year-to-date on-time stats were 69.31%).
Year to Date Cancellations:
- JetBlue 2.92%
- American – 2.79%
- Spirit – 1.73%
- United 1.63%
- Frontier – 0.92%
Delays are annoying, but it is actually cancellations that scare me more, and would be a more important thing to focus on, especially for the leisure traveler who isn’t going to miss a meeting or something crucial due to a 1-2 hour delay.
That said, you are rolling the dice a bit with low cost carriers as you may be “stuck” in the event of a major delay or cancellation for a longer period of time than with the legacy carriers. However, if you don’t have elite status on the legacy carrier you are traveling on, you are not at the top of their priority list either. I think the best way to defend against this with Spirit is simply to have miles and points in other programs you can use if you really need to book a last minute ticket to get your out of wherever you are stuck in case one of the low cost carriers isn’t offering you a solution that will work. My parents have never had to do that in all of their low-cost carrier flights, but it may eventually happen.
So, should you fly a low cost carrier? Not necessarily. Probably not if you are a business traveler earning/using elite status and someone else is footing the bill for flights. Probably not if you have the miles to fly someone else. However with deals like 2,500 miles to the Caribbean, I think there is a growing segment of the population, even within the miles and points community, that should be looking at the low cost carriers at least as a supplement to their primary programs. I know that these carriers are increasingly on my mind, and as a result on this site.