Which low-cost carrier should you fly? Comparing Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines
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During the COVID-19 crisis, our team has temporarily ceased taking review trips. However, we have resumed the publication of new flight, hotel and lounge reviews, from trips taken before the lockdown. We have also been publishing a selection of our most popular reviews from the past year. We hope this will help you choose once we’re all ready to start booking trips again.
Bear in mind that for the foreseeable future, the on-board and ground experiences will be very different from before the pandemic.
America’s ultra-low-cost carriers have had a bad reputation for years. Before my first flight with Spirit Airlines several years ago, a friend joked that I’d be flying on a “rubber-band plane.” But that’s not justified by any real numbers when it comes to safety; flying an ultra-low-cost carrier, or ULCC as the industry calls them, is as safe as flying the major airlines.
You will definitely find a different passenger experience, though. And in recent years, these carriers have made huge inroads in the U.S. commercial aviation market by offering passengers extremely low prices and then charging an extra fee for just about everything.
Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines, respectively the largest and second-largest ULCC in the nation by passengers carried, have expanded their route maps significantly and opened up flying to larger swaths of the public in the process. Now, with global travel demand suppressed by the coronavirus pandemic, it’s likely that we’ll see these two airlines — and their peers in the industry — play a large part in restarting the U.S. commercial aviation industry in a meaningful way. Leisure travelers attracted to the low fares that these carriers can offer may return before those who are traveling for business.
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Before the global shutdown of travel began, I gave the two largest ULCCs in the U.S. a go in the same weekend, on flights between New York City and the Miami area. Both flights were operated by new Airbus A320neos, were about the same length and overall felt very similar, though there were some differences that stuck out.
Now, having reviewed both airlines, I’ll compare the two and try to help you determine which one you should choose when the time is right to fly again.
We booked last-minute tickets to south Florida during spring-break season, meaning that I didn’t get the rock-bottom prices that you can often find on both of these carriers. The Spirit flight from New York-LaGuardia (LGA) to Fort Lauderdale (FLL) was cheaper at $258 one-way, which included airfare, seat selection, a checked bag and early boarding, all paid for after booking the ticket. I paid a total of $331 for a one-way ticket on Frontier from Miami (MIA) to Newark (EWR), which included airfare, a checked bag and seat selection.
Both carriers allow you to bundle certain aspects of your flight at the time of booking, which is recommended as it will save you some cash. Trust me, you don’t want to show up at the airport without having prepaid for either your checked or carry-on luggage.
Although the Spirit flight was cheaper, your booking experience will depend on a number of factors — the route, when you book and more. Since your mileage will certainly vary, it’s unfair to declare a winner on this front.
At the airport
Even though airlines don’t have full control over the airport experience, especially at non-hub airports, this is where I noticed the biggest difference.
LaGuardia Airport in New York is one of the most loathed airports in the country, but the parts that Spirit could control were managed well. There was an automated system for checking in and checking bags before passing through security. I was able to find my reservation quickly at the kiosk, print my checked-bag tag and drop it at the automated bag drop and then I was on my way.
At the gate, things were calm and organized — not at all what I was expecting from Spirit. The process started a few minutes behind, but zones were enforced effectively, crucial for a low-cost airline where you can pay quite a bit more to board in an earlier zone.
My expectations were surpassed with Spirit, but they were more or less met with Frontier in Miami, which is to say, things weren’t great.
Nothing was automated, and I was stuck waiting in line for for about 20 minutes before I was able to speak to an agent. Was it the end of the world? Hardly, but I was shocked that there were no kiosks and no opportunities for customers to complete check-in and bag-check steps themselves.
The terminal in Miami — largely out of the airline’s control — was pretty bleak. However, the boarding process began on time and was on par with what you could expect with other U.S. airlines.
Both of my flights were operated by the same aircraft: the Airbus A320neo, which is essentially your standard-issue A320 with newer, quieter and more fuel-efficient engines. Things looked and felt basically the same once I got to my seat.
Both airlines have very slim seats with hardly any padding. They’re 17.75 inches wide with 28 inches of pitch and no recline.
Each seat has a laughably small “tray table” that could hardly fit my iPhone. Things got even more interesting when I tried to arrange my snacks and drinks on the tray. I wouldn’t even try to use the tray to work on my laptop.
However, there were slight differences that resonated with me. Spirit, for example, had a movable armrest which allowed me to get a little bit more comfortable in my window seat. However, it did not even have a true seatback pocket, which forced me to keep all my personal belongings in my pockets, which is less than ideal especially when space is at such a premium.
After each flight, I left with the same impression: that I was comfortable enough in my seats for the sub-three-hour flights, but any longer would become a different situation altogether. Although I could slightly increase my comfort by moving the armrest on my Spirit flight, the seemingly minor presence of a real seatback pocket on Frontier made all the difference to me.
Amenities and IFE
Two words can describe the amenities and inflight entertainment offered on any low-cost carrier within the U.S.: not much. And on both of these airlines, the experience was identical. There were no amenities to speak of. No Wi-Fi, no seatback power, no entertainment. If you’re flying on an ultra-low-cost-carrier, make sure to download your music, podcasts, TV shows, movies and whatever entertainment you want to bring along beforehand, and make sure your devices are charged, and you’ll likely want to bring a fully charged portable power source with you as well.
Food and beverage
True to form with ultra-low-cost carriers, all food and beverages — yes, that includes water — have to be purchased with both Frontier and Spirit. Both carriers had a printed menu at each seat with all the choices for food and drink. Prices on each airline were about the same and each offered combo options for those flying with others, or for very hungry people like myself.
I found the quality of the food and drink to be equal on both airlines and the prices reasonable.
The service I had on both flights was comparable to that which I’ve experienced on numerous domestic short-haul flights on numerous carriers, though the Spirit crew went above and beyond to help a passenger celebrate a birthday on the flight to Florida, which stuck with me and left a very positive impression.
No matter which ultra-low-cost carrier you choose, your experience is likely going to feel about the same. After flying America’s two most popular ULCCs in the same weekend, I left with no qualms about flying either in the future — especially if I can find those legendary cheap fares as we begin to slowly emerge from travel lockdowns. If I had to travel farther than up and down the East Coast, though, I’d likely pay more to stick to my carrier of choice, Delta, when possible.
Most of the difference between these two carriers came on the margins — a seatback pocket here and a check-in kiosk there — but overall Spirit delivers a more polished package and, in my opinion, does flying on the cheap just a little bit better than Frontier.
Photos by the author unless where otherwise noted.
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