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We have a healthy seven-figure balance of frequent flyer miles, but in my mind, there is a time to use those miles and a time to pounce on cheap airfare so you can save your airline miles for more valuable redemptions. As frequently as we travel, if we burned 100,000 miles on four domestic airline saver award tickets every single time our family of four took a flight, our frequent flyer balance would be diminished in a hurry. Our family’s approach to award travel is to balance the occasional fancy award redemption in lie-flat seats with some more spartan rides on ultra low-cost carriers, such as Spirit Airlines — when the fares and flight times point to that being the best decision. Wait — Spirit, you say? Yes, Spirit. Even TPG himself has survived it a time or two. Kinda liked it, actually.

A specific example of when Spirit Airlines recently made sense for our family was when we were planning a trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando. Orlando is an easy two-hour flight from our home airport in Houston, so that flight time is short enough that almost anything is tolerable for a couple of hours. Even when factoring in all the fees that we decided to pay (including the Big Front Seats on the outbound), our tickets on Spirit rang in at about half of what United wanted for the same route and same peak summer travel dates. As an added bonus, the flight times on Spirit were significantly better than the least expensive United flights offered — those were very early in the morning or very late at night.

Not surprisingly, our family’s flights on Spirit were not luxurious, but they also not horrible by any stretch. We saved about $600 versus flying United and didn’t burn any of our miles in the process. If your family might one day consider saving a few dollars and sitting in smaller seats, here are six tips for families flying Spirit Airlines.

Don’t Be Afraid of Fees, Plan for Them

Spirit Airlines and all of the ultra low-cost carriers make a sizable chunk of their revenue off of fees. Your base airfare may only be a few dollars, but the fees to bring a full-sized carry-on, check a bag, get advanced seat assignments or even order an on-board juice will add up. My advice to families flying Spirit is to not necessarily to try and avoid all of the fees, but rather to research them, plan for them and include them in your budget.

Image courtesy of Tim Boyle of Getty Images.
Don’t pack like this when flying Spirit. Image by Tim Boyle / Getty Images.

If your family’s needs are met by bringing a backpack and leaving the seat assignments to the luck of the computer when you check in at 24 hours before departure, that is great (and I’ve done that when flying solo). However, if you need seat assignments and want to pack for your family in more than just a backpack per person, my advice is to factor in those expenses when pricing out your flights. If you are satisfied with that overall price, then don’t stress out about the cost of each little thing: Just consider it a part of your airfare. In fact, your bag fees on Spirit are lowest if you pay while booking your tickets, so plan ahead.

On the flip side, if factoring in the fees eliminates the majority of the cost savings compared to the full-service air carriers, then perhaps this isn’t the right trip to book with Spirit.

Have a Back-Up Plan

A couple of years ago Spirit Airlines’ on-time arrival and cancellation statistics weren’t great. Not getting where you need to be is a really big deal for families, probably worse than most other types of travelers.

However, in the last few years, Spirit Airlines has made an effort to improve customer service and operational reliability. Spirit’s most recent on-time arrival rate was 80.8%, ahead of United, American, Southwest, Frontier and JetBlue. The story that is not fully told by those statistics is what happens to Spirit passengers when things go really wrong. If I’m flying United Airlines and my flight faces a severe delay or cancellation, they will likely have multiple other options to get me home either on their flights or another carrier within a reasonable timeframe.

When irregular operations hit the ultra low-cost carriers the recovery options to get where you need to be are much more limited than on the full-service airlines. You will find that the people who truly hate airlines like Spirit often feel that way because they have ended up stuck somewhere during irregular operations.

Thankfully, there are solutions. First, be sure and purchase your Spirit Airlines tickets with a credit card that has good built-in trip protections. While that won’t cover the expense of brand new tickets on a different airline if Spirit leaves you stranded, the card protection will at least pick up your hotel, meal and ground transportation expenses after a set number of delay hours.

The second half of having a back-up plan is truly having a back-up plan. If Spirit Airlines had cancelled our flight to Orlando and they didn’t have a way to get us there at some point that day, we would have used United miles to book same-day award tickets and gone anyway. If the same-day flights were sold out, we would have likely been able to get out on an early flight the next day using miles on some carrier (here are some ways to avoid close-in booking fees). We would have ultimately gotten our Spirit Airlines tickets refunded and not been in a significantly worse position than if we had used our United miles to start with. The reality is you won’t face this severe delay/cancellation situation frequently, but if you have miles with our air carriers at the ready, then you have your own built-in insurance policy.

Pack Wisely

I think our packing strategy when flying Spirit Airlines is more efficient than when we are on a full-service airline and our elite status or co-branded credit cards basically eliminate the problem of bag fees. Paying $35+ each direction for a full-sized carry-on bag on Spirit isn’t fun, but I promise you that you will not pack extra junk when every bag counts. My parents fly Spirit without ever paying bag fees, even for short ski trips. They will wear their ski jackets on the plane, but they make it work in backpacks.

We decided to spend the money for a couple of full-sized carry-on bags on our Spirit flight because we didn’t want the stress of packing for everyone in backpacks. However, we were able to pack in significantly fewer bags than we normally use by being strategic in deciding what to bring well in advance of the travel date. It helped that our youngest outgrew the need for diapers immediately before the trip, but we still made room for multiple princess dresses, Those were not optional.

Don’t pack so light you skip the princess dresses.

Consider the Big Front Seat

If you book a very inexpensive ticket and then pay the extra to fly in a Spirit Airlines Big Front Seat, then you have my kind of budget airline strategy. Spirit Airlines Big Front Seats are basically the same size as most domestic first class seats you will find on airlines such as Delta, American, United, etc. You aren’t going to get free booze or a mediocre airplane lasagna dish included with your ticket the way you might in true domestic first class, but you will be just as comfortable as on most other airlines at a fraction of the price.

Spirit Airlines Big Front Seat

If you can book a one-way ticket from Houston to Orlando on Spirit for about $30 and then spend another $30 or $35 to upgrade to the Big Front Seats, then you are essentially flying in domestic first class for under $65. I have never regretted spending the money to sit in Spirit’s Big Front Seats, and assuming our budget can support the decision, I would purchase that upgrade 90%+ of the time when it is available going forward.

Happy kids in Spirit
Happy kids in Spirit’s Big Front Seats

Of course, when flying with a whole family, even $30 additional each way can add up, so I can understand passing on pricier seats in order to direct that money to more memorable on-the-ground experiences. However, if you can afford it, consider Spirit’s Big Front Seats.

Book Your Spirit Tickets at the Airport

It may seem counter-intuitive, but booking your Spirit Airlines tickets at the airport can save your family a whole bunch of money — almost enough to cover the Big Front Seat upgrades. When you book online, Spirit charges a $19.99 Passenger Usage Fee on each direction of travel. For a family of four flying Spirit, that is an astonishing $159.52 in avoidable fees per round trip. However, if you book your tickets at an airport, as we did in the video below, you can avoid paying that fee altogether!

Only you can do the calculations for your specific situation to determine if it is worth going to the airport to purchase Spirit tickets. If getting to the airport isn’t a huge extra hassle, and you are booking for multiple people, then you can easily save a sizable amount of money on your airfare by just purchasing at the ticket counter.

It’s All About Attitude

Last but far from least in preparing for your Spirit Airlines flight with a family is packing a good, patient attitude. Flying Spirit Airlines isn’t all that different than traveling by bus — other than you will be flying over highways instead of driving them. You will encounter virtually all walks of life on a Spirit Airlines flight, and you will be very close to these strangers. Throw in some delays or abnormal issues and tensions can get high, so pack a good attitude and don’t plan to get much done on a laptop.

If you are focused on the destination and why you are flying in the first place, you may not get as flustered by being a bit squished. If you are a high-strung flyer who is easily flustered, factor that into the equation when deciding if Spirit Airlines or any similar low-cost carrier is the right match for you.

My family has saved thousands of dollars over the years flying on Spirit Airlines when the price differential is large enough to justify the decision. We may need to do a little post-flight yoga to recover from the tiny seats, but otherwise, Spirit gets us where we need to be virtually the same as everyone else.

Featured image of a Spirit Airlines Airbus A321 landing at LaGuardia Airport in New York by Robert Alexander/Getty Images

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