Testing out Spirit Airlines Gold status: Some wins, some free perks just too 'expensive' to use
I am happy to admit that I like Spirit Airlines for what it is -- an affordable way to get from Point A to B. When Spirit Airlines introduced a new elite status program with actual elite status tiers and benefits earlier this year, I was thrilled. Don't get me wrong; I love lie-flat seats and all the luxury my airline miles or money can afford. But a lot of the time, an affordable, basic two-to-three-hour domestic flight is all I need.
A recent short flight home with my kids from Orlando to Houston post-Disney World looked to be the perfect time to test the Spirit Airlines Gold status that I was gifted by the airline to try out its new program. (You can also now do a status match challenge to Spirit.) The allure of a cheap Spirit fare that could be combined with Gold status perks such as a free carry-on bag, free checked bag, free seat assignment, onboard snack and more seemed too good to be true.
While several components of Spirit elite status worked exactly as advertised and saved me some money, in other cases, free was simply too expensive of a price.
Let me explain.
For more TPG news delivered each morning to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.
Basics of Spirit Gold status
Normally, Free Spirit Gold status requires 5,000 status-qualifying points per year to earn. Since Spirit uses a revenue-based program, that is essentially the same as spending $5,000 on base fares and extras such as seat assignments and bag fees on Spirit in a calendar year. You can also earn progress towards status via spending on an eligible Spirit credit card.
Once you have Gold status, you'll earn redeemable points faster than non-elites (10x on fares and 20x on "extras" such as bag fees).
But perhaps more importantly, you also get the following perks:
- Free seat selection at booking (except for the Big Front Seats)
- One complimentary, full-sized carry-on bag
- One complimentary checked bag
- A free snack and drink on board
- The ability to pool points with others
- A redemption fee waiver when booking awards
- Early boarding
- A dedicated elite service phone number
- "Flight Flex" allows you to modify an itinerary once, online, for no fees up to 24 hours before departure.
This is a lengthy list, especially compared to the prior iteration (which I wouldn't even describe as "elite"). As a result, I was thrilled to take the status out for a test flight.
The good part of Spirit Gold status
On paper, the Free Spirit program has some exciting elements worth paying attention to, especially if you frequently utilize a no-frills air carrier.
We paid just $42 per ticket for flights from Orlando to Houston. Thanks to the previously mentioned gifted Gold status, I also booked a free seat assignment in row 5 (otherwise $21), took a free carry-on bag onto the plane (otherwise about $36 at booking) and enjoyed a snack and drink onboard (otherwise around $7). I could have also checked a bag (otherwise $40), but we'll circle back to that in a minute.
If you are flying solo and with your Gold status, you can lock in a super-affordable airfare that can start around $20 each way with cash or a few thousand Spirit points. You'll then also get a drink, snack, bag and seat assignment (including exit row) — which is a stellar deal.
And for me, the free advance seat assignment for one, one free carry-on bag and early boarding worked as advertised. And honestly, the legroom in row 5 was better than expected.
Related: Everything you should know before flying Spirit Airlines
The bad part of Spirit Gold status
This next part wasn't a surprise, but it felt worse in practice than just reading about it on a printed screen.
In addition to having my newly minted Spirit Gold status, I also have elite status with United and Spirit's low-cost competitor, Frontier.
With most frequent flyer programs, including Frontier, many elite status perks apply to at least one other person on the reservation. This is often true for complimentary upgrades and checked bags on full-service carriers. Even Frontier provides free advance seating assignments for up to eight travelers in the party — starting at its mid-tier status level, equivalent to Spirit Gold status.
However, Spirit's tangible perks only apply to the traveler with status. No one else on the reservation gets a free (nor a discounted) bag or seat assignment. When traveling with family, as I often do, that functionally means that to use my free seat assignment, I have to pay to have my kids sit with me. In this case, that came to an additional $21 each, or $42 total.
No doubt that getting one for free is better than none, but following the norm of status perks conferring to at least one other on the reservation would have felt a little more rewarding for those who got through the effort of actually earning status.
Related: Best elite status programs for families
The ugly part of Spirit Gold status
Here's where my Free Spirit perks became too 'expensive' to use.
On the aforementioned trip home from Orlando with my two daughters, we had two carry-on-sized roller bags between the three of us. I'd get to bring one for free with my status, and since we were flying Spirit to keep this part of the trip as cheap as possible (and to test out the status), we decided we'd check the other bag. This would fully use my Gold perks and save the cash it would cost for one of my (non-status) kids to carry on the second bag.
Having been to Orlando and flown Spirit more than once, I knew enough to expect a line to check bags.
I hoped that the rollout of the new elite status program a few months ago would bring a shorter line for Spirit elites to check a bag. Or perhaps there was a self-service, bag tag-and-drop option that would be shorter — which we see at some other Spirit stations.
Spoiler alert: As highlighted yesterday, there was a very substantial line and no way around it if you wanted to check a bag.
I have no clue how long the line to check a bag with Spirit was because I quickly did the math and determined the free-checked-bag benefit wasn't remotely worth the price. While I don't know precisely how long it would have taken to process what appeared to be at 75 - 100 people in line, it was unquestionably beyond my mental preparations of a 10 - 20 minute wait.
It was also well above my personal capacity threshold. We'd just finished a trip to Disney, so we aren't inherently afraid of lines, but at Disney, lines are distanced and separated by plexiglass. Here, it was like 2019 all over again, other than the masks.
While you can't self-check a bag with Spirit in Orlando, there are kiosks you can access without a wait. There's even an agent there to assist. I verified with him there was no Gold status line or other options beyond waiting in the very long line or paying the last-minute fee to carry on the second bag.
With Spirit, the cost to check or carry on a bag goes up the closer you get to departure, and the carry-on price was now $55 -- about $20 more than if we'd locked the price in at the time of booking.
The Spirit employee I was chatting with at the kiosk seemed to understand the humor of the whole situation and said that, on the plus side, as a Gold member I'd earn 20x Free Spirit points per dollar on the $55 I was paying instead of having a reasonable way to use the free Gold checked bag benefit. Um, thanks?!
Close, but not there yet
There were other quirks to Spirit status beyond the long line.
Once onboard ($55 poorer due to the bag fee), I figured it was smooth sailing from there. As the flight attendants came through with drinks and snacks for purchase, I hoped their system would have my seat flagged as a Gold member, and they would proactively offer the included goodies.
Unfortunately, that didn't happen.
When they got to my row, I had to ask if I had access to any included snacks with Gold status. After a puzzled look, I was told they needed to see my boarding pass, which sadly sat crumpled at that money under my sleeping five-year-old.
Luckily, I also had mobile boarding passes in my inbox on my phone. Unfortunately, when displayed, I was told it was the wrong color, and it needed to be Gold to get the free goodies.
I pointed to where it said the word "Gold" on the black-and-white mobile pass, but that was met with skepticism. I was ultimately given my choice of a drink and snack worth up to $7. Not really knowing what was on the menu — since it isn't printed, and there's no onboard WiFi to look it up — I pointed to two things I could see in the cart: a bottle of water and a Cheez-It mix.
As the snacks were passed over to me, the flight attendant said that next time, I needed to be sure the boarding pass was the color gold to get the free snacks. When I asked how I could fix that, she told me that I couldn't. Who knows what actually went wrong or how to fix it. (For what it's worth, once I found it, the printed boarding pass wasn't gold either.)
The other interesting observation I had was when I decided to open Spirit accounts for my daughters. Since Spirit miles used to expire after just 90 days with no activity, I never bothered to do that before. But now, miles don't expire for at least a year and can be extended with account activity. With my Gold status, I can pool all of our points together — which made it worth the effort to sign them up.
I signed them up for new Free Spirit accounts online while sitting at the gate, but I couldn't get the online system to register the upcoming flight with their new frequent flyer numbers. I went up to the gate to ask the agents if they could add my daughters' Free Spirit numbers to the reservation — the way I've done with other carriers a number of times — and was told that could only be done over the phone.
Remembering my dedicated Gold elite phone number, I thought this might be a good time to try out that perk. After looking all over the website and in my inbox for that special number, I came up empty-handed. I tried the text number it listed and didn't get a response from that either.
After 15 minutes of trying to get through over the phone to the regular customer service number, I gave up.
Related: How to open frequent flyer accounts for kids
In several ways, I love Spirit Airlines. Yes, really. And I'll 100% fly with the airline again.
I want to see Spirit succeed, and I smile anytime I hear of someone that has given the airline a shot and had a good experience. Being able to move about the country (and beyond) for a ridiculously low price opens travel up to more people and allows families to add one extra trip to their schedules. And outside of a modest flight delay, our flight itself was completely adequate and really no better or worse than it would have been on any other carrier.
I wanted to love Spirit's new program on this first test run, but unfortunately, there are still kinks in the system that get in the way of it being as rewarding of an experience as it could be. I still saved a few bucks by having Gold status (gifted to me by Spirit), and am grateful for that. However, if I had to evaluate the carrier's status through the lens of someone who had truly gone out of her way to earn the status, the program still has a few miles to go in its journey.