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How to pack only in a Spirit Airlines free carry-on bag

July 17, 2020
8 min read
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Editor's Note

As the travel industry reopens following COVID-19 shutdowns, TPG suggests that you talk to your doctor, follow health officials' guidance and research local travel restrictions before booking that next trip. We will be here to help you prepare, whether it is next month or next year.

Ultra low-cost airline carriers, such as Spirit Airlines, hook you in with really cheap fares -- like $19 one-way flights. It's not a scam, you really can fly miles above the earth's surface from around just $19 each way per person (or perhaps even cheaper with a kids fly free deal tacked on if you're flying Frontier).

Related: The best credit cards to use on low-cost carriers

But, as you likely know, the total price to fly can also easily go up dramatically from there with ancillary fees. One way the true total cost to fly can jump up quickly is if you start paying for checked or carry-on bags. The fees to bring your own full-sized carry-on bag on the plane vary, but if you are listing your bag(s) during the initial trip booking, expect to pay about $30 for each checked bag and $35 for one carry-on bag both ways. If bags are overweight or oversized, they will incur additional charges from $30-$150.

But -- you don't have to pay those fees. If you can pack just the essentials using a backpack or similar, you can enjoy the heck out of your inexpensive airline ticket and leave the fee-paying to other passengers.

Related: Everything you should know before flying Spirit Airlines

Now to be fair, I love stuffing my Rimowa carry-on and personal-sized purse or backpack to the brim when bags are included in my airline ticket. However, I've also learned to forgo my regular full-sized carry-on in favor of a free Spirit Airlines-approved carry-on when necessary.

When you fly Spirit Airlines, you can bring on a personal item up to 18 x 14 x 8 inches on board for free while a full-sized carry-on will cost you $35 and up, depending on when and where you purchase the right to bring the bag on board. (Prices slightly less for $9 Fare Club members.)

If it’s just me for a short trip and I’m flying Spirit Airlines, I’m not paying for a bag if I can help it. Instead, I’m going to pack for a Spirit Airlines free personal carry-on. Here's how.

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(Photo by Javier Rodriguez/The Points Guy)

Related: Avoid bag fees with these credit cards

Choose the right bag

First things first, you need the right bag to avoid Spirit Airlines bag fees. I have used my much-loved Sole Society Tote with regularity, but a regular backpack can work, too, as long as it is within the set parameters.

I’ve found that small traditional backpacks, such as the one an average middle schooler might take to school, are pretty good about staying within those size guidelines. Many of the fancier and larger backpacks are technically too large. However, Spirit Airlines doesn’t have a reputation for being overly strict with requiring passengers to stay exactly within the size guidelines.

Wearing my trusty Samsonite Modern Utility Double Shot Backpack (sized at 12" x 8" x 18" with a laptop compartment) has worked wonders when avoiding carry-on bag fees. I've even been known to use a Mickey backpack from time to time -- which works especially great if you are heading on a quick trip to Disney World.

Related: Just how small is the free Spirit Airlines carry-on

(Photo courtesy of Melissa Ann Photography)

Going over the stated measurements an inch here or there with a bag you are wearing or carrying probably won't be a big deal with Spirit. However, straying too far from the stated maximum sizes for a free personal carry-on item may cost you, so we don't recommend that approach. If you aren't sure where to start, here's a look at some of our favorite carry-on backpacks.

Essentials only

Now that you have your Spirit Airlines-approved personal carry-on bag identified, you get to stuff it full with your absolute essentials. And I mean, the absolute essentials.

Related: 14 packing hacks for traveling with just a carry-on

For me, this often means a laptop, wallet, a tightly rolled change of clothes and then several smaller bags that will each hold specific items. I have one bag for my computer cords, one for my smaller clothing items like pajama shorts, underwear, etc., a bag for make-up and a final bag for toiletries.

I don’t want any of those items loose in my small personal carry-on item, nor do I want them mingling with each other. If you don't need special toiletries or make-up, then you'll have more space for clothes than I usually do.

Related: Everything you should know before flying Spirit Airlines

How to pack for a free Spirit Carry-on. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

When you are packing for a free Spirit Airlines personal carry-on, you probably are only going to bring one pair of shoes -- the ones on your feet. Occasionally I can also sneak a pair of extra flats into my bag, but that's about it. You'll also want to carry your coat on board, if needed, even if it's warm where you're starting from.

Diaper bags fly free

It's OK to skimp on how many shoes or hair products you travel with, but you don't want to skimp on supplies for your young kids. Fortunately, an infant diaper bag can also come aboard for free -- assuming you are flying with a baby.

You never want to run out of formula, kid-friendly snacks, diapers, wipes and a change of clothes for a little one on a flight. Kiddos can also bring a car seat and stroller along for free.

Related: How to open frequent flyer accounts for your kids with the major U.S. airlines

Consider paying for one bag for the family

Only you know your budget but if you are flying Spirit without little kids for a short weekend trip, it can be realistic to avoid Spirit bag fees and pack everything in a free Spirit carry-on -- especially if you're going somewhere warm. If you're flying with little kids or are heading on a longer trip, I think it's worth it to pay to check or carry-on at least one bag for the family.

Everyone can still have their free personal item, but then pack additional items in the shared larger bag that you pay to bring. Just book the bag in advance online to pay the lowest rate. If you have a credit card with an annual travel credit, this could be a good way to use some of that credit. In fact, I'm switching my Amex airline fee credit selection to an ultra low-cost carrier for this very reason.

Related: A look at the affordable Amazon Basics luggage line

Overall recommendations

The one downside to be aware of when loading up a free Spirit personal item to the max is that it might get really heavy. I was able to bring most everything I would have brought along if I packed in my regular roller carry-on on a recent two-night trip, but the difference was I was carrying all of that weight on my arm instead of rolling it behind me.

I would guess my bag ended up weighing close to 20 pounds, and after a while of carrying that on your arm, it starts to get uncomfortable. It would have been easier if I had gone the backpack route on that trip, rather than the tote.

Just be sure and factor in the weight you will be carrying to the equation, especially if you have any physical limitations, are managing young children or simply have to walk a very long distance before you get somewhere where you can unpack.

In many cases you don't need to pay to bring bags on board a Spirit Airlines flight, you just need to know how to pack for the free Spirit Airlines carry-on bag.

Related: What’s all the fuss about packing cubes — and are they right for you?

With additional reporting by Mimi Wright.

Featured image by Spirit Airlines' first Airbus A320neo. (Photo courtesy of Airbus)

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  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
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  • Intro Offer
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    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    740-850
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Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,400+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and our Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023