I fly a lot.
In the past seven months I’ve flown Qantas to Australia, Icelandair to Iceland, JetBlue to Florida and … drum roll, please …Spirit to Denver.
In case you’ve missed the news recently, Spirit isn’t exactly a luxury airliner — nor are they No. 1 in customer service. In fact, they’re dead last — drawing complaint rates that were more than three times higher than the second-place airlines from 2009 to 2013.
Here’s the thing though: The price was right. The available times worked out … and I had yet to read all the awful reviews the company consistently racks up. (And, for the record, has chalked up to simple misunderstandings.)
So, was it worth it? In my own personal opinion — yes, and here’s why.
You Get What You Pay For
A couple of years ago now my husband and I took what we now lovingly refer to as a “Toilet of the Sea Cruise”. Why toilet of the sea, you ask? Well because it stank, naturally. Everything about this cruise was terrible, from the teeny, tiny single beds that were bolted to the floor and the showers that barely gave you enough room to turn around in on down to the crappy food and the barely bathtub-size pool.
And you know what — we loved it.
The reason is because we knew what we were getting into ahead of time. We had read the reviews on our ridiculously cheap cruise ahead of time ($99 per night, if I’m remembering correctly), and knew all about the bad smells and even worse food, so we were prepared.
You might think that all sounds awful (and you wouldn’t be wrong), but when you’re 24, all you care about is snorkeling with your boyfriend in the Bahamas on Valentine’s Day … not how you got there.
All of this is to say; my travel motto is that if you go in prepared, you can handle most anything. Not that I would ever take this cruise again — nor would I have booked it in the first place if I had, say, a family with me, or if it was for a special occasion — but at the time it was a means to an end, which flying a crappy airline can be in some cases, as well.
Know Before You Go
Back to Spirit.
When you book a flight from New York to Denver during Spring Break for less than $250 round-trip, you should wonder why the flight was so cheap. We did, so we did some research, and that’s when we discovered all the controversy surrounding them. In terms of the main complaints people throw their way, here are my general takeaways from my own experience flying with them:
Terrible Customer Service: Spirit certainly isn’t winning awards any time soon for their customer service — but I also didn’t find them atrocious. When I called ahead of time to inquire about baggage prices (more on this later), I was told via voice recording that some phone calls come with fees (this is not singular to Spirit, though. I’ve been told from other airlines that I’ll be charged for making changes to flights by phone, as well), but the man I spoke to on the other end was polite and helpful, more than satisfactory for a simple customer service call.
The same cannot be said for the stewards and stewardesses, unfortunately. The ones we dealt with could have used a refresher course on hospitality. Then again, this is their job, and maybe they’re just sick of the complaining.
Baggage Fees: I honestly think Spirit does itself a disservice in its advertising here. Yes, it’s true that customers will pay for carry-ons and checked luggage, but as far as the carry-on goes, I brought my huge computer bag with me, stuffed to the gills with my purse and a whole bunch of other things, and didn’t pay a cent. Plus paying for your checked luggage online when booking only costs you $21, as opposed to $31 during online check-in or $45 at the airport. Assuming you can carry-on a computer bag for free and you’ll be checking only one bag during your booking, it’s probably safe to assume you’ve saved must more than $21 by booking through Spirit in the first place.
You’re Not Guaranteed a Seat With Your Travel Mate: Again, I think people get confused here. According to the customer service rep I spoke to, Spirit airlines will do the best they can to seat people who booked together in seats that are next to each other, but there are no guarantees. For a guarantee, you’ll have to pay $12. It’s a gamble, but I assumed that most people would not pay this extra fee (especially since it can take a little digging to find out what the fee gets you — namely a seat next to your travel mate), so we waited until 24 hours before our flight when we could check-in online from home. During the at-home check- in process a screen popped up: Would we like to pay to guarantee seats together before checking in … or take the gamble? (I added that last part about the gamble, but that’s basically what they were asking.) We gambled both on the way to Denver and home — as did my sister and her boyfriend who were traveling with us — and we were all seated with our travel partners on both legs of our flight. If you’re going the gamble route I’d suggest checking in as soon as humanly possible from home for the best shot at getting seats together.
Seats are tiny, and uncomfortable: What can I say kids; this part is pretty much true. Lucky for me, I’m small and fit fine. Unluckily for my 6-foot husband — well let’s just say he was in a bit of pain. Thanks goodness we got those seats together after all so he could steal some of my legroom.
Nothing’s free onboard: Again, all true. You’ll pay for water, soda, snacks and anything else on a Spirit flight, folks, so I’d suggest stocking up before boarding.
The Bottom Line
I don’t mean to belittle anyone’s horror stories of dealing with Spirit airlines — having an awful flight experience can be the worst. All I’m saying is that I believe there’s a time and a place for flying a budget airline with Spirit (that time is probably not to your wedding destination, or any other place that’s got a big and important time and date stamped to it), and that with a little forward thinking and prep you can have both a decent flight and a cheap one.
Because that is what you want most of all, right — something that’s cheap? After all, the barrage of complaints hasn’t done anything to damage Spirits bottom line. On the contrary, the most hated airline is also the most profitable U.S. airline right now.
Guess that means more than a few people must not find them so deplorable.
Cheryl Lock is a personal finance writer at and former editor at LearnVest and Parents magazine. When she’s not writing, she enjoys travel, which she blogs about at wearywanderer.wordpress.com.