Free seat assignments and checked bags: Spirit Airlines has an all-new frequent flyer program

Oct 22, 2020

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I bet you never expected Spirit Airlines to make news with free checked bags and seat assignments, but it’s true. Or rather, it will be true for some travelers when the airline rolls out its new frequent flyer program early next year.

Spirit Airlines has known for quite some time that its current frequent flyer program is, as the airline puts it, “dated.”

With miles that expired as soon as 90 days after earning them and award booking fees that could cost almost as much as some flights paid with cash, the old program didn’t always do much to reward loyal flyers.

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But that was then. Spirit Airlines, which has long been aggressive with its pricing and ambitious with new routes, is ready to get competitive with its new Free Spirit program.

You’ll notice many changes when Spirit launches its new revenue-based loyalty program, which comprises actual elite status tiers that come with tangible benefits; the ability to pool points if you have elite status or a Spirit credit card; no blackout dates for redemptions; points that don’t expire for at least a year (and longer with qualifying activity); redemptions that start at 2,500 points for all members; and the ability to earn points at a rate of up to 20 points per dollar spent.

So, is Spirit’s new frequent flyer program enough to lure you to the ultra-low-cost carrier? Let’s dig in.

The origins of Free Spirit

Spirit biometrics
Photo courtesy of Spirit Airlines.

When Spirit launched its Free Spirit program in March of 2006, the airline was young, small and had an uncertain future. At the time, Spirit only had 35 aircraft serving 29 cities and was largely operating as a traditional airline.

Free Spirit, a program with award charts and mileage-based earnings, was born from a very different airline that didn’t unbundle fares until 2007. As Spirit Airlines expanded to 150 aircraft flying 650 daily flights to 77 destinations in 2020, however, its loyalty program remained stuck in 2006 — and it wasn’t even a groundbreaking program then.

And as it grew, Spirit had bigger problems than its loyalty program. A few years ago, customer complaints and on-time arrival percentages were, well, not good. But by 2018, Spirit had turned the tide and, at times, even led the country with on-time arrivals. After that, it was time to transform Free Spirit into a program that could really move the needle for customers and, in turn, the company.

While value could be found in the old program (especially the 2,500-mile redemptions for cobranded Spirit credit cardholders), the program “underperformed,” according to Spirit. It certainly didn’t win any awards around these parts, either.

Spirit wanted to create a loyalty program that not only engaged its flyers at higher rates, but also was appealing enough to attract new customers to the airline —while offering enough standout features to “surpass other programs,” the airline told TPG.

Related: Frequent flyer perks that travelers like the most

Earning points based on spending

In Spirit’s new program, miles are out and points are in.

When the revamped Free Spirit program launches on Jan. 21, 2021, award charts, distance-based zones and miles earned by distance flown will go the way of the dinosaur. Following the precedent set by many other U.S. airline frequent flyer programs that have also undergone revenue-based changes in recent years, Spirit will award redeemable and elite-qualifying points, known as Status Qualifying Points (SQPs), based on how much you spend with the airline. Award redemption prices will also be tied to ticket fares, though Spirit was light on details.

But there’s a very Spirit twist to all of this.

Spirit makes a significantly larger percentage of its revenue on ancillary fares than the major U.S. airlines. As such, its new program will reward the dollars spent on those seat assignment charges, bag fees and more at double the rate you spend on the base airfare. That’s actually good news for many Spirit travelers, since bag and seat assignment fees can easily cost more than your actual ticket — especially for those of us who like to upgrade to the Big Front Seats.

Free Spirit elite level Points earned per dollar on airfare Points earned per dollar on ‘extras’
Free Spirit member 6x 12x
Free Spirit Silver 8x 16x
Free Spirit Gold 10x 20x

 

Related: Everything to know about flying Spirit Airlines

There are actual elite status tiers

For the first time, Spirit Airlines will have actual elite status tiers with real benefits, such as free seat assignments and bag fee waivers.

The airline made the entry threshold for Silver status attainable to travelers who spend at least $2,000 with the airline each year (2,000 SQPs). Gold status requires 5,000 SQPs, which could be earned with $5,000 in eligible spending with the airline in a year.

Unfortunately, the earning rate of SQPs is flat at 1 SQP per eligible dollar spent — unlike with redeemable points, those “extras” don’t add up faster than airfare when it comes to the status qualifying points.

Flyers with the cobranded Spirit Airlines credit card, however, can use it to earn SQPs at a rate of 1 SQP per $10 charged to the card.

That would mean Silver status could be achieved with $20,000 in annual charges on the Spirit credit card and Gold with $50,000 in charges, assuming no other Spirit spending. (That’s the exact same amount of spending it takes to unlock competitor Frontier Airlines’ first and second tiers of elite status with its cobranded credit card. Coincidence?)

While there are certainly some real money-saving perks at the Free Spirit Silver level, Gold is where things get good.

Spirit Big Front Seats (Photo by Javier Rodriguez / The Points Guy)

Free Spirit Silver status

Earned at the rate of 2,000 SQPs per year, these are the top perks with Free Spirit Silver status:

  • Earn points at an increased rate of 8x on fares and 16x on extras
  • Ability to host a points pool
  • Redemption fee waiver when redeeming points
  • Free seat selection at check-in, excluding exit rows and the Big Front Seats
  • Free exit row seat selection available three hours before departure
  • Free same-day standby
  • Shortcut boarding
  • Dedicated guest care phone number

Free Spirit Gold status

Unlocked with 5,000 SQPs earned each year, Free Spirit Gold status has all of the Silver-level perks, plus:

  • Earn points at an increased rate of 10x on fares and 20x on extras
  • Free seat selection at booking including the exit row, but excluding the Big Front Seats
  • Free full-sized carry-on bag
  • First checked bag is free
  • Free snack and drink on board
  • Free Spirit Airlines Flight Flex (the ability to modify your itinerary once online, up to 24 hours before departure with no fees)

Unfortunately, it seems the majority of benefits will only be relevant to the traveler holding elite status, and not any other travelers on the reservation, with the exception of shortcut boarding.

Related: Credit cards that allow you to short-cut to airline elite status

Changes to Spirit credit card perks

(Photo courtesy of Spirit)

Spirit Airlines has cobranded credit cards issued by Bank of America. Historically, the card’s best perk has been the ability to unlock 2,500-mile discounted awards. While Spirit hasn’t released many details yet about the exact redemption rates, it sounds like a discounted cardholder award booking perk is likely being retired, which is a very real loss for those who used that perk.

New cardholder perks are coming though, along with a new look and feel to the cards. These Spirit credit card perks include:

  • Spirit points will not expire for cardholders, even without activity
  • Redemption fee waiver for eligible cardholders
  • Cardholders can create points pooling for themselves and up to eight others
  • 25% rebate on inflight food and beverage purchases when charged to the card
  • Shortcut Zone 2 boarding
  • Earn 1 SQP toward status for every $10 charged to eligible Spirit credit cards
  • Earn a $100 companion voucher flight each year with eligible Spirit credit cards

Related: Save money by booking Spirit flights at the airport

Changes to the Spirit $9 Fare Club

(Photo by Edward Russell/TPG)

Along with the frequent flyer program and cobranded credit card changes, Spirit’s $9 Fare Club will also be reinvented.

Beginning on Jan. 21, 2021, the $9 Fare Club (currently priced at $59.99 per year) will become the Spirit Saver$ Club. Existing members will automatically be transferred to the new program.

Spirit Saver$ Club members — and up to eight others on the reservation — will have access to:

  • Discounted fares
  • Up to 50% off checked and carry-on bags
  • Discounts on seat assignments, including the Big Front Seats
  • Discounts on additional perks, such as Shortcut boarding and Flight Flex

The savings on seat assignments will be an all-new perk for members of Spirit’s discount club. Note that, unlike the majority of the frequent flyer program benefits, these perks can be used for friends and family members who travel with you. This makes the utility of the Spirit Saver$ Club similar to Frontier’s Discount Den (and both can be great uses for annual credit card airline and travel credits).

While Spirit did not confirm whether a trial membership will be available as it is now for the $9 Fare Club, there will be 18- and 24-month options to go along with the annual membership.

Related: Why having the Spirit credit card isn’t crazy

Unanswered questions

A few elements of the forthcoming new Free Spirit program are still up in the air — or at least not yet publicly available.

Spirit has not yet released information about specific award redemption costs, other than to say the rates will be tied to the selling price of the ticket and start at 2,500 points each way. There will also be a new Points and Cash option, with the points portion starting at just 1,000 points on the cheapest awards.

The redeemable points earning rate with the cobranded credit cards was also not revealed, though it’s also possible it isn’t changing. Currently, the Spirit Airlines Mastercard earns 2 miles per dollar spent, meaning award flights can be earned with as little as $1,250 spent on the card.

We know that Spirit will be converting current Free Spirit miles into points when the new program is launched, but we don’t yet know the ratio.

Bottom line

(Photo courtesy of Spirit)

I can say with certainty that Spirit Airlines saw my 2019 wish list of what I’d like to see in a new loyalty program with the ultra-low-cost carrier.

Of course, the new program was based on research and data — not the result isn’t far off. I would have loved to see a free pathway to the Big Front Seats, the ability to pool elite status credits or maybe even just a fun surprise like a complimentary snack or free seat assignment when you redeem points. I would also like to see more elite benefits, such as the advance seat assignments, to apply to more members on the reservation, as we see with many programs.

But on the whole, this new Free Spirit program largely hits the mark. At a minimum, it will now be worth it for me to open Free Spirit accounts for my kids to pool into one main account. Before, it wasn’t even worth my time to earn those miles, as they expired too quickly.

It will make sense for regular Spirit flyers who travel (or spend) enough to approach the $2,000 and $5,000 thresholds to travel more with Spirit to surpass those elite status thresholds. What I’m less sure about is how many travelers truly spend $5,000 every year with Spirit Airlines. I may fly Spirit two or three times some years, but because fares are so low (and I avoid as many fees as I can — other than those Big Front Seats), I doubt those trips amount to more than $1,000 in annual spending on tickets and fees.

What may actually be even more rewarding to Spirit travelers is the increased list of benefits for the Spirit Saver$ Club. This has the potential to become as necessary to a Spirit traveler as the Discount Den is to a Frontier flyer.

While some key details remain to be revealed, all-in-all, today’s announcements from Spirit largely represent good news for those who regularly fly the ultra low-cost skies.

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