Why More People Should Look to Low Cost Carriers

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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.


Splurge on the Big Front Seat

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.

Spirit Airlines economy seats

Spirit Airlines economy seats

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.

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  1. Woo hoo! A down-to-earth perspective for average Joes! Thank you!

    PS: Just one space between sentences please. This isn’t a medical paper.

    • Ben, down to earth and average are hopefully usually my middle names so, glad you liked it. As for the two spaces – hadn’t really thought about that. “Grew up” writing APA style and it stuck. Have to give that one some thought.

      • Down to earth? This is coming from the blogger who stays at Hyatt hotels only and get comped all her Starwood stays?

        • Ben, far from accurate on either account. I do like nice hotels, but can trade that off when the price is right.

          • If this is far from accurate. Can you tell us the proportion of your stays that were Hyatt and Starwood compared to others? All your trip reports are Hyatt or Starwood comped.

          • Ben, last two trip reports were club Carlson and SPG hotels using my points. Next one up is SPG using my points. 3 stays a year are provided via SPG Stars program. That represents a small fraction of our travel. This fall I have SPG on points. Hyatt on points. Ihg on points all scheduled.

  2. You might want to take the cancellation stats with a grain of salt. If United has a flight that is going to go out 4 or 5 or 8 hours late, they may very well cancel it and move people to other flights. If Spirit has a flight that is going to go out 4 or 5 or 8 hours late, it will go out as a delay, not a cancellation, because there are no other flights, so they pretty much have to fly it. Perhaps a telling statistic to go along with the cancellation and delay percentages would be the average length of delay, as I think that it might show that the cancellation percentages do not show what they appear to. A better stat, although I don’t think it exists, would be average delay for passengers to their destination, rather than flight delays and cancellations, as this would take into account passengers that are moved from a cancelled/delayed flight to a different flight.

    • All of those would be interesting to note. I don’t actually think Spirit is more reliable than the others, I just don’t think it is that much less reliable. That was the real point I was trying to make since I thought the 50% on-time June stat was an outlier as being unusually bad.

  3. Question on Spirit – (Assuming one has the Spirit credit card) Can one book on miles and then upgrade during checkout process (pay) to get a big front seat?

  4. Here’s my real-world calculus. One of my regular runs is DFW-LGA at peak weekend times. Spirit is regularly around $200; AA can often be twice that. Multiply the savings times all my family members and, really, there’s not much of a choice at all.

    So I risk it.

    And, Ben, the rule is to double space after periods. There used to be a thing called a “typewriter” where you actually had to do just that. Of courses today’s software often spaces for you automatically. Maybe that’s what you meant?

    • Tom, totally agree with your math. As far as the spacing, I hadn’t really thought of it until today. All through college, grad school, and beyond I was writing APA format which wanted two. Never switched, though I suppose on a miles and points blog one would be sufficient. Not sure if it is worth re-training my brain or not though…we’ll see.

  5. nope, nope, nope

    No RyanAir for me, no Spirit for me. “Gotcha” carriers end up more expensive.

    You forget to mention that except for the very few who can drive to the airport to buy their ticket, Spirit charges $17 each way to buy your ticket online. Add to that the $26 for the one carry-on that’s free on others and Spirit tickets are already $42 each way more than advertised.

    First timers usually get stuck with additional fees like paper boarding passes so Spirit’s advertised prices are misleading. They make their money on the first-time suckers.

    I realize the prices can be lower if you know how to jump through all the hoops and only carry a small backpack or briefcase and don’t change clothes. I do not encourage people who don’t change clothes to fly. I don’t like sitting next to them on the return flight.

    As you mention, if the usually daily flight doesn’t take off you usually have to return the next day or pay a huge walk-up price at another carrier. Potentially hundreds more than other airlines.

    I will give Spirit credit for lowering prices at other airlines on competing routes. I mostly fly BWI and Southwest’s prices have plummeted because of Spirit there.

    But as a rule of thumb I add $50 each way to Spirit’s advertised prices just for basics.

    • I don’t know what you mean about adding $17 per tiket for booking online. That has never happened to me. And I use a rolling “underseat carryon” that fits an air mattress for my son which counts as a personal item. Not for everyone, sure, but their personal item size is fairly generous.

      • Audrey, agree. It isn’t for everyone, but the personal item is large enough for a few days worth of stuff or apparently even an air mattress – ha!

  6. I scored tickets for our family of 5 from BWI to Iceland on WOW. We depart in 2 weeks. At $99 each, it is hard to argue it won’t be worth it.

    As for the double spaces, PLEASE don’t change that, and I bet you can’t even if you wanted to. My kids are learning typing with only a single space and it drives me crazy. I have tried to do it when helping them edit papers, but 25 years of typing and my brain just automatically does it. It is a good way for teachers to know if a parent wrote a kid’s paper, though, I suppose 🙂

  7. Frontier, Spirit, Ryanair, EasyJet, Norwegian, WOW are airlines I have flown frequently in past few years. I don’t have elite status with any airline, so I am looking at total price only for my trips.

    Spirit is the only airline that I had a bad experience with. I went to Denver and my luggage went to Miami.

    I flew WOW for my current trip to Copenhagen. The flight was fine. The cost turned out not to be a good deal for me due to the high cost of bag fees and the overall low prices major carriers have published for 2015 travel to Europe, probably as a response to the low cost carriers.

    There has been a big reduction in fares from Los Angeles and San Francisco due to the impact of low cost carriers like Norwegian grabbing passenger share to Europe.

  8. Tassojunior, your facts are just wrong, threefold wrong.

    The “advertised” price ALREADY includes the $36 facility fee that you don’t pay if you buy at the airport. Put differently, airport ticket buyers have to SUBTRACT what they see on the website to get to what they’ll actually pay.

    And that small “free” carry-on? At 12 x 14 x 16 it’s plenty big enough for a couple of changes of clothes, a sweater and an extra shirt or whatever besides, which is more than enough for a two or three day getaway.

    Last, who the heck prints out a boarding pass at the airport these days anyway? Nonetheless, if you forget you can still get a BP at the Spirit kiosks for free. They don’t charge.

  9. I don’t need to try it… My knees touch the seat in front of me with 31″ pitch, 28″ or 29″ will just be too uncomfortable to bother. Maybe if I’m ever sending the family somewhere and not going myself…

  10. Spirit just started a non stop flight from Cleveland to Myrtle Beach this June. We were planning on driving, but after seeing the fares and knowing we didn’t have to make the 12 hour drive with our four year old, we gave Spirit a try. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. We were fifteen minutes early in each direction. I realize if we were delayed, it would have been awful and a much different experience. We each took a backpack carry on as our personal item so there was no fee. We also were able to pack one suitcase as we were just going to the beach and had a condo with a washer and dryer. I would do it again.

  11. As a Spirit CC holder I fly Spirit about 4 times a year. This is by choice as I also have points on other carriers. Many times we have gotten in early. I often let my seat be assigned but have also had the Big Front Seats several times. Since I can manage for a week with a personal item my fare can be as little as $11 for a weeks trip. Yes Spirit is crowded and doesn’t give out free things but I get on the plane and a few hours I am at my destination. To me that sure beats a car ride any day.

  12. I would definitely consider them if they served my home airport, but without that I don’t find the credit card a priority, and without it redemptions aren’t so impressive, so this post really is a reminder to me to go ahead and sign up for some magazines before the rapid miles expiration happens.

  13. This is a great post.

    Spirit (when >$100 cheaper than the big airlines and when you don’t ABSOLUTELY have to get there) is much better than DL, UA, AA unless you have status.

    Flew to LAS on Spirit.

    Return redeye was cancelled 40 min before flight! Told to go to ticket counter.

    Had to race to ticket counter outside security for rebooking and hotel.

    Tried to do the call in and rebook before running. Can’t do that on Spirit, you must go to counter.

    Basically toward end of line.

    One of us had to be home for childcare reasons.

    Booked wife on redeye on Delta leaving within 90 min for 25k (old days…) on a Open Jaw stopover to Florida later in the year…. Fat value on that one.

    I still had my hotel room and flew home on rebooked flight the next afternoon.

    The hotel they were offering was Hampton Inn, not on strip lol

    So your post is 100% right on.

    How much money is it worth to have all the frills?

    To me, safety comes first and nonnegotiable. Also their planes are not always older. Not sure of the stats, but a few years ago they had the youngest Airbusses

    Everything else has a negotiable price to me (reliability, tight seats, drinks, usable miles)

    Also, the flight attendants are often fun like the old Southwest.

    And the points ARE redeemable with some effort. Not worth keeping the cc but for 10000 points even without the card you can sometimes get value.

  14. We love to fly first or business class long haul flights just as much as the next travel hacker. With that being said, I also love to save money and extend my points. So, unless it is a stellar deal or we are in Asia (which somehow has MUCH cheaper business class redemptions on long hauls) then I am going to spread out those points for as many flights (aka more travel!) as possible.
    Which is when budget airlines come in. Living in Europe right now, we have a big advantage w/ how many are here. Honestly, I don’t mind the SLIGHTLY smaller seats and since we get lounge access via travel hacking, I don’t mind not getting fed on planes either.
    Honestly, travel is what you make it and if you want to see and do more for less, you have to make a sacrifice to not have filet minion and scotch on your flights once in awhile

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