Spirit Airlines – Not a Great Choice for Large Families

empty airport

Pictured here: all of the passengers who are delighted to pay for a boarding pass and a cup of water.

When I booked a trip recently, I was wooed by Spirit Airlines’ very low fares. The airline is new to Kansas City, so I didn’t have the benefit of previous experience or word of mouth reviews. I liked the flight times, the price was right, so I booked it. Frankly, I should have done more homework. However, what I learned about flying Spirit might save other people the trouble. Large families are often looking for cheap airfare, so I’m writing this post to let you know that those low fares are just the tip of the iceberg. When you book via Expedia or another aggregator, the extra fees are NOT mentioned. If you’re booking for a family, you’ll probably end up paying quite a bit more than that ticket fee you see on your computer screen.

Spirit’s extra fees and terrible customer service are so bad they’ve even been parodied on The Onion and mocked on Buzzfeed. According to the Washington Post, Spirit has the highest rate of customer complaints in the industry.

First, you’re getting a seat on a plane for that ticket price. That is it. Period. You are not getting to choose your seat. That’s another charge per seat, per flight. You need to sit by your kids on the flight? That costs money. According to the airline website, the seat fee ranges from $1 to $50. On my flights it was $18 per seat. For my family, it would have cost an additional $216 just to make sure my kids were seated in the same part of the plane as one parent.

Even on an empty flight, you won’t be allowed to switch seats until the plane has reached cruising altitude. So if your kids are seated elsewhere, you likely will not be able to re-arrange until the flight is well underway. I paid for a window seat on my flights because I get airsick otherwise. For that $36, I was rewarded by having all of the other passengers with random seat assignments packed around me on a mostly empty flight.

The man sitting next to me on my departing flight apparently did not believe the flight attendants about not switching until we were in the air. He was still un-buckled with his carry-on bag on his lap through the whole taxi time. When the plane started to pick up speed for take-off, he finally decided he needed to buckle up and did the T-Rex contortion dance to shove his bag under the seat. The flight attendants saw him like that during all of the pre-flight checks and said nothing! Not reassuring in terms of safety, eh?

spirit twitter

People are talking about Spirit on Twitter. Not nicely. But they’re talking.

The seats are much closer together than other airlines. You get 28 inches of legroom, which is the smallest available on U.S. airlines. I’m barely 5’6″ and my knees were touching the seat in front of me. There was absolutely no way to get comfortable. The tall man behind me had to apologize non-stop for 2.5 hours because if he dared move his leg he accidentally kicked my seat. Imagine that setup with young kids. It’s hard enough to keep children from wiggling and bumping the seat in front of them on a regular airplane. Move the seats even closer together and I guarantee you’ll spend the whole flight holding your toddler’s legs in place to prevent seat-kicking.

The distance between seats also makes it very difficult to get anything out of your carry-on bag during the flight. This isn’t so bad if you’re seated by someone in your own family and can practically lay on them in order to scoot your bag out from under the seat in front of you. It’s likely that you’ll end up with your face pressed against the seatback as you try to get your arm down to that bag, though. It’s like you’re the T-Rex from Meet the Robinsons, trying to reach your prey in the corner. It’s not pleasant.

Speaking of carry-on bags, you will need small ones. Taking a regulation-size carry-on with you will cost $35 if you pay ahead of time. At the gate, that’ll cost you $100. You’re allowed to carry your book or Kindle or a snack onto the plane, or a briefcase/purse type bag for free. It has to fit in their 16″x14″x12″ bag sizing box, so double check that it meets their size requirements or you could be out more money. Most large families I know travel with big backpacks as carry-ons because everyone can tote their own stuff that way. A big backpack would not fit in that sizing box. Again, for my family, taking the backpacks on the plane would cost $245 each way if we paid when we booked the tickets. At the ticket counter it jumps to $350 for a family of 7. At the gate – $700.

Other checked bags cost money, which is pretty standard for airlines these days. I expect to pay extra for checked luggage. Spirit’s fees for the first and second checked bag run from $30-$50. It’s cheaper to book one bag for several travelers in your family than to put all of the bags under one passenger’s name. Paying for the checked bags when you book the tickets is the best deal. It’s $15 more per bag if you pay at the ticket counter. On a recent trip with my family, we needed to check 4 suitcases. On Spirit, that would be an extra $240-$360.

Customer service is free as long as the customer is doing the service. Basically, if you can’t fix it yourself via the website, you need to pay their customer service agent to handle it for you. I called Spirit Airlines customer service because I wanted to add a carry-on bag for my return flight and couldn’t do that from the website once I had checked in for my departing flight. I was told that there is an additional $15 fee to have the lady on the phone add a bag to my account.

It was also extremely hard to hear what the customer service agent was saying. Several other passengers on my return flight said they had the same problem. Oh, yes, everyone on the flight was comparing notes on the ways Spirit had charged them for every little thing. My customer service lady kept trying to confirm that I was adding a carry-on bag for both flights for the grand sum of $100. For carry-ons. I finally gave up on trying to correct her because there was no way I was paying a dime for customer service. Sorry, but that’s one step too far, Spirit. Good customer service should not require a fee.

There’s no free drink or snack service on the flight. You can purchase drinks or snacks for $5-$10 each. Families traveling with children will want to make sure you get through security in time to purchase drinks and such for the kids before you board the plane. The most economical option is to bring some disposable cups with you and split up a bottled drink for the kids. The one thing Spirit doesn’t charge for (yet) is collecting trash in the cabin before landing, so you can serve the drinks yourself and be rid of the mess before you reach your destination.

Print your boarding passes before you head to the airport. Checking in with an agent at the counter costs $10. Each. That would add another $70 each way for my family. You’ll still have to go to the counter if you’re checking any bags. It doesn’t matter that you just paid $160 (or more) to check your bags. If they have to hand you a piece of paper while you’re at that counter, you will be charged for it. Speaking of waiting at the counter, one travel reviewer suggests that the only way to get the ticket counter agents to help you is to literally cut in line in front of all of the people waiting and ask the ticket agent for help. What?

There were a few positives on my flights. First, the flight attendants had great attitudes. Aside from allowing one guy to be unbuckled with a huge bag on his lap as we hurtled down the runway, I thought the crew was as good as any other airline. Second, boarding was fast and efficient. Of course, no one can move once they’re sardined into those seats, which probably helped, but the gate agents and plane crew handled the boarding process quickly and pleasantly. Last, the pilots made up time if we left the gate later than expected. My flights landed pretty close to on time, every time.

Much of this information is available on the Spirit Airlines website. Even the customer service fees. Some of it is easy to find, some not so much. I was surprised, though, that very few people knew ahead of time that there were so many other fees on top of the airfare. When I’ve asked other travelers about Spirit, they either tell me it’s awful and will never fly that airline again, or they give a laugh of disbelief when I tell them about the $10 boarding pass fee or that Spirit makes you pay for customer service.

For short trips where you don’t need to carry much with you, Spirit might be a decent choice if cost is your primary consideration. If you’re willing to spend more to be able to move your legs, you’ll probably be happier on another airline. For large families, particularly those traveling with small children or on longer trips that require lots of luggage, I think you’ll find that the extra fees add up fast on Spirit Airlines. Big families can probably fly cheaper on another airline, and you’ll get free boarding passes and drinks to boot.

2 comments

  1. Pauline says:

    I don’t know how I wound up reading this article, I guess it was retweeted by somebody I follow on Twitter. I respect your opinion, but I found your critique of Spirit very much off the mark and nothing compared with my experiences with them.

    Large families (I have 3 boys, 2 girls) do great on Spirit – and I LOVE THEM. We fly non-stop from Dallas to Orlando once a year (no other airline has a non-stop from Dallas). Last June I priced out the difference in cost on Spirit and Southwest, Southwest’s lowest roundtrip fare was $480 per person with a stop in Houston, New Orleans, or Nashville and change planes. Spirit’s roundtrip fare was $840 – for all 7 of us!!!! That’s $120 a person. Do the math: 7 people fly on Spirit for $840. $3360 on Southwest going to the same place. Yes, we each had a carry-on ($480 roundtrip) and we checked two bags ($100 roundtrip) and we brought our own food and drinks. We saved $1,940 flying Spirit with the extras, than flying Southwest. That’s family friendly. That $1,940 in savings allowed us to enjoy our trip much more on fun stuff in Orlando, than spending on getting to Orlando.

    The key is, as a Mom I think I have to think smarter (differently) than what I’m accustomed to. I’m 5’8 and I have no problem with the seats. I’ve been on United and Delta planes where there is hardly any room. Spirit employees always work to help us sit close to each other, usually my husband and I will split and and take a group of kids with us. It keeps the fighting down when their separated :)

    It’s easy to know Spirit because they do things differently than other airlines. But when you can save a ton of money – I live different.

    • Heather says:

      Wow, with almost $2000 difference, I would reconsider Spirit. The fare difference is not all that big for the flights I’ve been interested in, which is why, once you consider Spirit’s nickle-and-dime-ing of customers, it doesn’t make sense to use them when there are better options. Thank you for taking the time to comment. I disagree, obviously, and I think the fact that Spirit has such a horrible reputation and so many complaints speaks for itself. However, that airline is making money like crazy, so clearly there are people who are willing to fly it.

      Very interesting that the flight attendants you’ve encountered were willing to try to seat your family together. That was not my experience at all. On my last flight with Spirit, they were quite specific about telling people they had to sit in their random assigned seat, no matter what.

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