When A Bargain Fare Isn’t A Bargain (Or, Why The Flight Deal Does Not Feature Deals from Spirit or Frontier etc)
We banter on Twitter a lot, usually when we are bored and should be working on release 3.0 of The Flight Deal. One of the personalities we go back and forth with is Michael aka @real_jetsetr. He made a bet with us that resulted in him flying with Spirit. More about the bet and his trip report below—and why we don’t feature deals from Spirit or Frontier. Thanks Michael for the writeup.
If you are reading this blog post, then you are either: a) already a huge fan of The Flight Deal (as I am), and appreciative of the team’s efforts to present daily deals to destinations that cost six cents per mile or less, and/or b) you are wondering why The Flight Deal never post fares from ultra-low cost carriers (“ULCCs,” such as Frontier or Spirit), even though they seemingly offer lower total costs of travel than the major air carriers.
Note that the operative words and phrases in that last sentence are “seemingly,” and “total costs of travel” (as opposed to just simply “lower fares’).
To truly understand and appreciate this post, you need to know a little more about both me and The Flight Deal in terms of our travel patterns and habits.
I am a United MileagePlus Lifetime Premier 1K member, and also an American Airlines Executive Platinum member. For the last several years, I have flown about 250,000 miles a year, with many of those miles and flights
ENABLED FACILITATED by airfares The Flight Deal has posted.
The Flight Deal team is a huge fan of Cathay Pacific and their premium cabin service from NYC (TFD note: specifically CX841 seat 11A in biz or 1A in First) to HKG. Earning AAdvantage miles on American Airlines, Cathay’s Oneworld partner, is a great way to parlay premium cabin trips on Cathay.
Through a series of lighthearted Twitter exchanges that I had with Team TFD this past summer, I playfully initiated and accepted a bet (a.k.a. ”stupid human challenge”) that would inadvertently and unintentionally answer the question as to why TFD doesn’t promote LCC/ULCC fares. Specifically, I challenged The Flight Deal to fly American Airlines from NYC to HKG in Main Cabin Extra. They responded that they would do so if the fare dropped below $700…but only if I accepted a challenge to fly Spirit Airlines in a non-“Big Front Seat” on a flight that was four hours or longer. CHALLENGE. ACCEPTED.
Fares on AA between NYC and HKG would get teasingly close to sub-$700 (TFD note: $700ish to Hong Kong from New York on AA/DL/UA is pretty common. Under $700 not so much), but they never would quite cross the threshold…until one day, they actually did, and TFD made sure to let me know!
So, GAME ON. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, but was scheduled to be in NYC for a week. For my return to the Bay Area, I routed myself on American Airlines from LaGuardia (LGA) to Chicago O’Hare (ORD), and then from ORD, I booked a one way Spirit flight to Oakland (OAK) that clocked in at 4 hours and 32 minutes. There was a method to this madness, and another reason that I chose to fly American from LGA to ORD to catch my Spirit ORD-OAK flight: While Spirit doesn’t participate in the TSA PreCheck program, American does, and indeed, I did have PreCheck for my LGA-ORD flight. In addition, American and Spirit both operate out of ORD’s Terminal 3, so I could be assured that upon landing at ORD, that I could stay airside and not have to pass through security again.
I scheduled my American flight so that I would arrive at ORD nearly 4 hours before my Spirit flight, in case there were any delays on American or at LGA such that I would still have enough of a buffer to make my ORD-OAK flight.
Tail number N604NK, my ride from Chicago to Oakland…or at least it was supposed to be
Now, this being Spirit Airlines, I was fully aware of the fact that extra charges and ancillary fees are very much a part of their (profitable) business model. For example, while a single, personal item can be brought on board at no extra charge, a standard-sized carryon bag that can be brought on board other major airlines at no extra charge, would incur a fee on Spirit. Moreover, if I didn’t prepay $35 for the privilege of bringing a bag that would fit in the overhead bin, I would be hit with an exorbitant $100 fee at the airport.
Spirit Airlines bag sizer – GULP, watch out for strict size limitations & fees!
The Flight, er, Maybe Not.
I also decided that I would prepay $25 for an exit row aisle seat assignment. Though I was not allowed to sit in a Big Front Seat per the terms of my agreement with The Flight Deal, nothing precluded sitting in an Exit Row seat, which in reality, actually has more legroom than a Big Front Seat (but the exit row is still a “3-3” seating configuration, while the Big Front Seat is a “2-2” configuration). Also, the Exit Row seat (as with all of Spirit’s economy seats) are “pre-reclined,” which is to say, they don’t recline. And the seat “cushion” was as thin and hard as I had ever sat on on a commercial flight.
This man was kind enough to let me take a picture of his 28” seat pitch, “So that others will learn a lesson not to fly this airline again.”
By comparison, I had seemingly limitless legroom in the exit row, but the seat “cushion” was thin, sank about two inches when I sat down, and my seat did not recline
The one way Spirit ticket cost (with taxes, but without ancillary fees) was $213.09. To be certain, this was a much lower price than any of the major (and minor) carriers were offering on nonstop, midweek flights between ORD and the three major Bay Area airports (SFO/SJC/OAK). However, on top of the $213.09, I already paid an additional $60, and if I had neglected to remember to preprint my boarding pass before arriving at the airport (NO, Spirit does not have an app, nor does it offer mobile boarding passes), I would have to pay up to an additional $10 to have a physical boarding pass printed at the airport. Even if I had forgotten to print my boarding pass, my total costs would have been $283.09, and this would still have been cheaper than any other carrier’s fare on my date of travel.
But assume for the moment that I was an infrequent traveler who was not aware of all of the landmines, pitfalls, and quicksand that Spirit transparently advertises because I hadn’t paid attention (and for the moment, I am assuming that many Spirit flyers fail to pay attention to all of the critical details – such as bag size limitations). The “bargain airfare” that Spirit sells doesn’t really begin to feel like a bargain when hit with a $100 carry-on (or checked bag) fee, a $10 boarding pass fee at the airport, and given a seat that doesn’t recline AND has only 28 inches of seat pitch.
The day of the flight I had feelings of nervousness, yet I was also a bit masochistically excited at the challenge (for who knows what reason). I have done my fair share of flights in “economy minus,” so what was one more 4+ hour flight in the name of “experimentation”? But I knew what I was getting into; others who clearly did not fly very often, and may not have flown in a very long time, were not in such good Spirits (pun intended) upon boarding the plane.
We hadn’t even finished boarding the plane, and this exasperated woman at the window put her head against the seat in front of her and said out loud, “I am never flying this airline again! This is my first AND my last. You pay for everything on this plane! This is ridiculous!”
I, on the other hand, had a game plan to make my Spirit flight experience go a bit smoother
All seemed well, the flight attendants actually seemed reasonably happy, and even the Captain sounded quite chipper when making his pre-flight announcement over the PA system. We pushed back from our gate to taxi and get in line to takeoff, but shortly after taxiing, a storm system that was west of Chicago had made its way to O’Hare.
And then, the rains came…and that’s when all plans went down the drain
Things Go Sideways
Initially, the Captain said that, “All westbound aircraft are delayed because of weather systems.” Shortly thereafter, the Captain announces, “There is congestion in the alleyway. We’re ‘most likely’ moving in 10 minutes…” This was soon followed by an announcement that, “There is an Air Traffic Control ‘ground stop’ at ORD until the system passes,” but that “if you want to take your phones out, you can call folks and tell them that we’ll probably at most be delayed one hour into Oakland.” And then, about 20 minutes after that last announcement:
“We have been instructed by headquarters to head back to the gate. At this point, the flight is CANCELLED because of weather.”
Annnnnd…so much for that experiment
As if a cancellation wasn’t bad enough, the Captain then said that passengers would have to go to luggage claim to retrieve their bags, and then they would have to go to the ticket counter to be rebooked on another Spirit flight TOMORROW. I’m not kidding when I say that the entire planeful of passengers groaned/shrieked/screamed/gasped. [N.B. This is but one reason to avoid checking luggage on any airline, if at all possible.]
Always Have a Backup Plan
This is when I went into “frequent traveler ‘BEAST’ mode.” The first thing I did was call the Hyatt Gold Passport Diamond Elite line, and asked if they could book a hotel room for me at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare, BUT I also asked that if I needed to cancel because I could somehow get on another flight, if they would waive the cancel policy. Thankfully, they said that they would be able to do that for me.
Next, I looked at the United and American apps on my phone and searched for one way saver award seats to SFO (fortunately, I was prescient enough to take BART – the Bay Area Rapid Transit system – to OAK for my outbound flight to NYC, and I had parked my car at a BART station, so flying into SFO instead of OAK would not leave me with a “car problem”).
American had no saver awards to SFO/SJC (they no longer fly to OAK); United did have one saver option to SFO, but it would require me to first fly to Pittsburgh on a regional jet, and then wait six hours overnight for a flight to SFO. Um, no thank you, I’m better off staying at the ORD hub. Both carriers had plenty of saver space available the following day. Under non-urgent circumstances, I would have opted to overnight at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare, but I really needed to be back in San Francisco the following day to pick up my young children who were coming back from a trip to Peru, and if the only difference in making that happen was a standard award at 25,000 miles vs. a saver award at 12,500 miles, in this case, I would absolutely opt for the standard award.
Just as I was about to book the United standard award, I decided to see how much the one way ticket price was for the flight on which I was going to make an award booking. As it turns out, it was “only” about $500 – not bad for a last-minute purchase. And considering that I fully expected to get a ~$280 refund from Spirit (which I did, but which I had to call in to request), I looked at the $500 purchase as really an incremental $220 to ensure that I would be back in time for my kids.
I booked the United flight for ~$500, and it ticketed immediately. All was going to be work out, albeit with delays…except when I received the notification that the flight I had just booked cancelled as well. You cannot make this stuff up.
I headed straight for the nearest United Club while simultaneously looking at the United app to search for alternate flights on which to be protected and which I could “feed” to the agent at the Club. As a Premier 1K member, I was protected on two different flights, both of which, due to the airport delays, were scheduled to depart around the same time but from gates that were not near each other. Long story short, I went back and forth between two United gates to gauge from the gate agents as to whether or not the flights would have any crew timeout issues (meaning they would not be legal to fly) and also to get a better sense of realistic departure times. Satisfied that at least one of the flights was going to take off, I (politely) hung around the gate until the agent started clearing standbys as fast as possible, in order to get the flight pushed back from the gate. As a Premier 1K, I was leapfrogged to the top of the list and was given a confirmed boarding pass.
Not until my United flight was wheels up from ORD did I breathe a sigh of relief. But what of my fellow Spirit passengers who most likely were still at ORD dealing with reclaiming luggage and waiting to speak to an agent to get rebooked the following day? I don’t even want to imagine the looks on those passengers’ faces when they were inevitably told that Spirit does not provide for overnight hotel accommodations when they cancel flights. As grateful as I was for having multiple top-tier airline elite statuses that helped give me options to get to where I needed to go, I felt badly for the passengers on my Spirit flight who did not have the options and resources available to them that I had.
While I now can look back and (sort of) laugh at the absurdity of the situation from which I was able to rescue myself, it highlights an important lesson: When things go sideways with an airline reservation, it helps to have a variety of alternative solutions.
While not everyone will be able to have (nor will want to fly as much to earn) top tier status with an airline (let alone achieve two top tier statuses), generally speaking, the Americans/Deltas/Uniteds of the aviation world will be able to come up with options that will not leave you stranded in the way the LCCs and ULCCs, like Spirit, will. While AA/DL/UA might not have been able to get me home that same night had I not been an elite frequent flyer, the fact that Spirit operates relatively few flights means that re-accommodating all of the displaced passengers from the cancelled ORD-OAK flight was not trivial task; with planes as full as they are today, it wouldn’t surprise me if some Spirit passengers were re-routed on multiple flights and/or waited more than a day to get confirmed on a flight to OAK. And given those ugly alternatives, some may have indeed decided to just purchase a last-minute walk-up fare on another airline in order to get home. When factoring in those costs, LCCs and ULCCs are not nearly the bargain that they first appear to be.
Bottom line: Low airfares are not the sole determining factor that goes into calculating if something is a good deal.
- Michael made a bet with us. We fly AA in Main Cabin Extra to Hong Kong if it’s under $700 from NY while he flies on Spirit for more than 4 hours
- Spirit has a lot of fees. Be mindful of them since they will add up.
- When things go sideways — and inevitably they will, Spirit will take a lot longer to catch up. Because they don’t have a big network to route you, you might find yourself stuck.
- Always have a backup plan — this is true regardless of who you fly.
Thanks again, Michael for the guest post.
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