Skip to content

Why I no longer avoid flying with Spirit, Frontier and other budget carriers

Sept. 12, 2021
6 min read
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Before the pandemic, the first thing I used to do when browsing Google Flights was filter out all the ultra-low-cost carriers, including Spirit, Frontier, Allegiant and Sun Country.

I wasn't particularly excited about being nickel-and-dimed throughout the end-to-end travel experience, from bags to seats to snacks and more. Plus, I didn't want to forgo the miles or elite perks that I'd enjoy on one of my preferred network airlines.

Yet over the past year, my thinking has changed. I'm no longer avoiding budget airlines; in fact, I've flown multiple domestic flights with Spirit and Frontier, and even traveled on Wizz Air in Europe — and I'd happily do it again.

It starts with timing

Throughout the pandemic, every U.S. airline has cut routes and slashed frequencies to better match supply with the reduced demand. Though budget carriers aren't immune to the pandemic, they've already restored much of their domestic network — and are even growing steadily.

In October, Frontier and Spirit will fly 5% and 1% more domestic flights than they did two years prior, respectively, well before the pandemic even started. As for the Big 3 network airlines — American, Delta and United — they're down an average of nearly 15% flights in October 2021 compared to two years prior, according to Cirium schedules.

Frontier check-in counter (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Now more than ever, I'm finding better-timed flights with the budget airlines than I am with the legacies. Case in point: I recently flew from Fort Lauderdale (FLL) to New York on a Wednesday night. I was visiting my parents in South Florida and wanted to spend the entire day with them.

The last United flight of the day left at 4:55 p.m., American at 6:30 p.m. and Delta at 7:57 p.m. All of those options meant that I'd need to skip dinner to head to the airport.

Fortunately, Spirit had the last flight of the night, a 9:22 p.m. departure to Newark (EWR). I could relax with my family during the day and leave for the airport after an early dinner.

In the past, I might've filtered out this flight and skipped some family time, but the pandemic has made me rethink my priorities — and nowadays I'm booking on schedule more than anything else.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Easier than ever to be a free agent

Of course, flying with Spirit meant that I missed out on earning some United, American or Delta miles, and I wouldn't get credit towards requalifying for Premier 1K or Executive Platinum status.

But because of the pandemic, that didn't matter much. For one, I wasn't forgoing that many miles. (A $79 United fare would've netted me 660 MileagePlus miles as a 1K member, worth about $9 according to TPG valuations.)

Perhaps more importantly, it's now much easier than ever to requalify for status thanks to all the limited-time promotions and reduced thresholds. I no longer feel locked on the "elite-status hamster wheel" because the airlines have made it dramatically easier to keep my status.

As a free agent, I now feel empowered to book away from my preferred airline if the timing works better.

You get what you pay for

One of my favorite elite benefits is free upgrades. Buy a coach ticket and have a chance at scoring an upgrade to first class.

With Spirit Airlines, you can outright purchase the equivalent of a domestic first-class recliner for a fraction of the price. On my recent Spirit flight, the Big Front Seat was going for $46, a modest upcharge for a much more comfortable experience.

Spirit's Big Front Seat offers both extra legroom and a surprising amount of comfort (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

With a 2-2 arrangement, 36 inches of pitch and 18.5 inches of width, Spirit's Big Front Seat is like locking in the first-class upgrade at the time of booking — for the price of a coach ticket.

While it would've been tight in the back, purchasing an upgraded seat made for a much more comfortable and enjoyable experience. On other budget airlines, I usually purchase an exit row seat for the added legroom.

The pandemic has leveled the playing field

Though there's still a notable difference between flying with Spirit or Frontier and say, Delta, it's not nearly as stark as it would've been before the pandemic.

It's a no-frills experience flying with a budget airline. You won't be served any snacks or drinks in the air, nor is there an airport lounge to enjoy before boarding.

Flying Spirit's Big Front Seat (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Nowadays, flying with one of the major network airlines is a limited-frills experience. While inflight service has been resuming, it's still a far cry from pre-pandemic levels, especially on American and Southwest which continue to ban alcohol sales in the coach cabin.

True, most domestic airline lounges have reopened, but they've pared back their offerings — in some cases, you could find a more relaxing environment outside of the lounge than inside of it.

Reliability has improved… generally

One of the biggest reasons why I've long avoided ultra-low-cost carriers is their reliability. If a flight is canceled or significantly delayed, the next flight might not be for a few days, and you couldn't be reaccomodated on another airline.

While that still holds, Spirit and Frontier have made great strides in improving their operation. For one, they've both invested in a new fleet of Airbus aircraft.

According to Department of Transportation data, Spirit Airlines canceled the fewest number of flights between April 2020 and March 2021 compared to the ten largest U.S. airlines — just 1.57% of its more than 116,000 flights did not take off. Excluding canceled flights, both Spirit and Frontier operated nearly 90% of their scheduled flights on time during the same period.

Of course, Spirit just suffered from a massive operational failure that left thousands stranded for over a week. It took the airline nearly two weeks to get back on its feet. I certainly would've regretted choosing Spirit if I was scheduled to fly during this meltdown, and hope it doesn't happen again soon.

Bottom line

I used to avoid flying ultra-low-cost carriers. If I chose Spirit or Frontier, I almost always regretted it.

But nowadays, I've done more budget airline flying than ever before thanks to convenient schedules, improved reliability and the option to purchase a comfortable seat.

All things equal, I still unequivocally prefer a major network airline, but I'm no longer filtering out the budget carriers like I was doing before the pandemic.

Featured image by (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Top offers from our partners

How we chose these cards

Our points-obsessed staff uses a plethora of credit cards on a daily basis. If anyone on our team wouldn’t recommend it to a friend or a family member, we wouldn’t recommend it on The Points Guy either. Our opinions are our own, and have not been reviewed, approved, or endorsed by our advertising partners.
See all best card offers

TPG featured card

Best card for premium perks while traveling
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

2 - 10X points
10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
2X2 Miles per dollar on every purchase, every day

Intro offer

75,000 bonus miles
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

Annual Fee

$395

Recommended Credit

740-850
Excellent
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.

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
Best card for premium perks while traveling
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
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
2X2 Miles per dollar on every purchase, every day
  • Intro Offer
    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

    75,000 bonus miles
  • Annual Fee

    $395
  • Recommended Credit
    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
    Excellent

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