How to fly without bag fees on Spirit Airlines using the free personal item
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It's no secret that airlines make money on fees. Ultra low-cost carriers make a sizable amount of their revenue on bag fees, seat assignment fees, change fees and the like. But as revenue from these "extras" has grown, the allowed maximum size of free carry-on personal items (like a backpack or purse) on these low-cost carriers has shrunk.
A few years ago, Spirit Airlines further reduced the maximum allowed size of the free personal item carry-on bag to 18 x 14 x 8 inches, including handles, wheels, etc. So, just how small is the Spirit Airlines personal item allowance in practice and is it big enough to use instead of paying to check or carry-on a bag? Let's find out.
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Save money by maximizing the free personal item
Spirit Airlines charges up to $65 per direction of travel for a full-sized carry-on bag if you wait to pay for it until you get to the gate (or get busted with an oversized personal item at the gate). You can get that price as low as $37 per carry-on if you pay for it during the initial online booking process (less still for $9 Fare Club members), but that's still a lot of money -- potentially more than you paid for your actual ticket.
However, if you can strategically pack your stuff into a free personal item, then that saves the $74+ per round-trip cost on a carry-on bag.
Just how big is a free Spirit Airlines personal item?
To put the allowed free personal item dimensions into practical terms, a traditional JanSport Right Pack backpack that's been used by countless high school students measures in at 18 x 13 x 8.5 inches, according to the company's website.
While that is technically a half-inch over Spirit's free personal item rules in one direction, I've never witnessed Spirit Airlines be that specific with the size of a free personal item. My money would be on that size of backpack being just fine as a free carry-on.
Related: Best travel backpacks
A purse, laptop bag, etc. of similar dimensions would also work just fine as a free personal item carry-on.
If that sounds too small to use for a trip, it really isn't. My parents have taken all of their Spirit Airlines trips (even to go skiing) by packing using only a free personal item. They wear their larger and bulkier items and pack only the essentials.
I've done the same for long weekend trips -- here are some tips if you want to successfully pack in your free Spirit personal item.
For comparison purposes, United Airlines also only permits one free personal item (no full-sized carry-on) with many of its Basic Economy fares. United's maximum allowed free personal item sizing is actually smaller than Spirit's at 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches. Low-cost competitor Frontier Airlines' free personal item maximum size is the same as Spirit's.
When deciding if that is enough space, factor in that medical devices (including formula and breast pumps), an infant diaper bag, a car seat and a stroller all don't count against your free item allowance.
Related: How to pack like a frequent flyer
If you need a larger bag
If packing in a free personal item just isn't enough, and you find yourself needing to pay for bags on Spirit Airlines, keep in mind that checking a bag is often cheaper than paying for a carry-on by a few dollars.
It also makes sense to pack for the whole family in one or two full-sized checked or carry-on bags and have each traveler maximize their free personal item, as opposed to paying for a checked bag for everyone. You'll also want to make that bag purchase as early as possible (such as at the time of booking) as the price goes up the longer you wait.
If you have a credit card that comes with an annual travel credit or incidental airline fee credit, those could potentially be used to offset the Spirit Airlines bag fees. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® has an annual $300 travel credit you can use however you wish on travel.
The size of Spirit Airlines' free carry-on personal item isn't huge, but it's big enough to do some basic packing for a short trip. If Spirit Airlines is on your upcoming travel schedule, here's a guide to everything you need to know when flying Spirit Airlines and tips when flying Spirit Airlines with a family.