Absolutely No Frills: Flying Spirit's A321 From Baltimore to Fort Lauderdale
[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="57" ground-experience="5" cabin-seat="15" amens-ife="2" food-bev="15" service="20" pros="Clean and new Airbus plane; cheaper fares than the competition." cons="No amenities to speak of." /]
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Love them or hate them, ultra low-cost carriers have revolutionized the airline industry by slashing fares and pioneering the build-your-own-experience approach when it comes to booking flights. They've made air travel an attainable reality for a much larger portion of the general public, and have even pressured legacy airline giants to introduce discounted basic economy fares in order to remain competitive.
Spirit is the poster child of ultra low-cost carriers in the US. People typically dread the prospect of flying with the carrier, largely due to the expectation that the experience will be the ultimate example of "cattle class." Despite having the youngest fleet of any US airline, Spirit's earned the distinction of being America's most hated airline.
Naturally, then, on my low-cost swing throughout the Eastern Seaboard of the US, Spirit was a must. I hopped on a flight between Baltimore and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to get me to my home in Miami in order to see what this airline is all about.
As an ultra low-cost carrier, Spirit gives customers the flexibility to pay for the amenities they want and to pass on the ones they don’t. At the time of booking, Spirit was charging $37 and $32 for carry-on and checked baggage, respectively. I wasn't exactly traveling light, so I knew I'd likely need to purchase one of each for a total of $69.
Before I even got to the baggage page, though, I was offered the chance to purchase Spirit's Thrills combo for $72. Not only did it include both bags I was already planning on purchasing (a $69 value), it also included free seat selection, shortcut boarding and no change fees, among other amenities. So for only $3 more, it was an obvious choice.
The checked baggage included with the Thrills combo had a higher weight limit of 50 pounds rather than their standard 40 pounds. This saved me from a $30 overweight fee when my bag weighed in at 43 pounds on the check-in scale. In all, the Thrills combo offered $59 in savings when compared to the original list prices of all included amenities.
I paid a total $302.28 for the one-way ticket from Baltimore (BWI) to Fort Lauderdale (FLL). While this doesn’t exactly sound like a bargain, I was booking the day before departure, so this was actually about $300 cheaper than the next cheapest alternative. We were specifically targeting low-cost-carrier reviews that week, so it presented an attractive option to review one of the major players in the market.
I paid for the ticket using my Chase Sapphire Preferred Card — my go-to for airfare purchases — in order to take advantage of the 2x bonus on the travel spending category.
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I arrived at Baltimore-Washington Airport just before 5:30am for my 7am departure to Fort Lauderdale. The Spirit Airlines check-in area was among the most crowded, due to a concentration of early-morning departures.
There were 16 self-service kiosks available for passengers to use, which offered the standard check-in functionality, including seat changes, bag tags and printing boarding passes. Spirit ridiculously charges $10 to print your boarding pass at the counter with an agent, which is easily avoidable by printing at home or at the kiosk before getting in line.
Overall, the process was fairly quick, and after tagging my own bag and printing my boarding pass, I headed over to the bag drop. This is where an otherwise efficient check-in process hit a snag. Only four counter agents were working through a queue likely exceeding 75 people and extending out into the busy walkway. And it kept growing.
To make matters worse, the agents kept pausing their duties to announce final call for any flight approaching the 30-minute check-in cutoff time, giving any remaining passengers booked on those flights the opportunity to jump to the front of the line. While I probably would've appreciated the same courtesy if I'd been running late, it just seemed like an inefficient way to handle the situation.
After over 30 minutes of waiting, I reached the front of the line, checked my bag with the agent and headed towards the TSA checkpoint. I cleared security in under five minutes and entered BWI’s elegant D Concourse.
I arrived at my gate, D14, which was staffed by the two agents who would be boarding the flight. The gate’s flight information display was not working, but the agents made periodic announcements indicating the flight's correct destination and scheduled boarding time of 6:15am.
Spirit’s boarding procedure is a bit different from other airlines. All passengers with prepaid carry-on bags are invited to board in Zone 1. Since my carry-on was included in the Thrills combo, I was assigned Zone 1 and was among the first passengers to board. We were followed by Zone 2 -- passengers who paid extra for shortcut boarding -- and finally zones 3 and 4, strictly for passengers without carry-ons.
Since zone number correlates to carry-on allowance, the gate agents meticulously checked each boarding pass to ensure no one was sneaking by with bags they hadn't paid for. And I don’t recommend trying it -- they’ll charge you a whopping $65 on the spot, as opposed to $37 at the time of booking (which is no real bargain either).
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Cabin and Seat" tpg-rating="15" tpg-rating-max="25" width="17.75" pitch="28" lavs="3" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
I stepped on board the 2-year-old A321 and made my way towards my window seat in Row 7. Spirit operates one of the densest A321 configurations of any airline, with an astonishing 228 seats (220 standard and eight of Spirit's Big Front Seats). The slimline seats have very little padding and no recline whatsoever — not even the ones up front. Spirit’s regular economy seat offers a tight 28-inch pitch and a relatively standard width of 17.75 inches.
Contrary to my expectations, legroom wasn't really an issue for me. While I wouldn't call it roomy, at 5 feet, 10 inches I was able to fit perfectly fine without my knees hitting the seat in front -- something that, at least anecdotally, is all too common with Spirit.
The tray table was about half the size of one you'd find on another airline. It definitely couldn't fit a laptop, but you could likely stand up your phone or tablet if you wanted to bring your own downloaded entertainment.
The seat "pocket" was made up of three elastic straps fastening the inflight menu and safety card to the back of the seat in front. While this would probably have been an inconvenience to many, I don’t tend to use the seat pocket when I fly, so I wasn’t particularly bothered by it.
The footwell was just large enough to fit my backpack, although this combined with a tight seat pitch to restrict me from extending my legs into any position than other than 90 degrees upright.
I got up to check out the bathroom nearest to my seat, adjacent to the flight deck at the front of the aircraft. I found it plenty spacious — certainly larger than what you’d find on some legacy carriers nowadays. It was fairly clean, although we hadn’t even left the gate yet.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="2" tpg-rating-max="15" live-tv="No" tailcam="No" headphones="No" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Spirit offers virtually nothing in the way of onboard amenities. None of the airline's 135 Airbus jets have inflight entertainment, Wi-Fi, or in-seat power. In 2018, however, the airline announced plans to introduce Wi-Fi across its entire fleet with an estimated completion of mid-2019. They have since adjusted this timeline to begin installation this November, with an updated completion target of 2020. While the airline hasn't disclosed too many details, its website hints at streaming capabilities and reasonable prices.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="15" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-meal="0" meals-purchase="Yes" comp-alcohol="No" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
About 15 minutes after takeoff, the lead flight attendant made an announcement detailing the inflight service. She directed passengers to take a look at the menu in the seatback pockets.
The menu offered a solid variety of snacks and beverages. In general the prices were high but relatively in line for inflight purchases. Several combos offered a slightly better value for those with more of an appetite.
Because it was just after 7am, I went for a coffee and muffin combo. The coffee was good, while the Otis Spunkmeyer muffin was OK but very sugary.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="20" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
The no-frills nature of Spirit seemingly leaves few areas for the crew to really shine in their service. But the few interactions I had with the flight attendants were all pleasant. My beverage and snack were delivered graciously and with a smile.
The crew made passes through the cabin roughly every 20 minutes, collecting any trash that people wished to discard. In a sense, it may seem like they did the bare minimum, but the bare minimum was enough for my expectations when flying Spirit.
I went into this flight expecting Spirit to disappoint me, just as they have many travelers before me. While it wasn’t the most comfortable way to get from Washington, DC, to South Florida, with Spirit you certainly get what you pay for — and it would be unreasonable to expect them to provide anything above the low-cost experience that so many resent.
It seems like the main source of tension in passengers flying budget carriers is the expectation of being gouged with extra fees at every step of the journey. If you plan ahead, purchase your add-ons at the time of booking, and, most importantly, go in with the satisfaction that you likely snagged a bargain fare, you can let your guard down and actually enjoy the flight.
With an on-time departure, early arrival and friendly service along the way, Spirit definitely exceeded my expectations. While I probably wouldn’t choose them over a similarly priced ticket on a legacy carrier, if the savings were significant I wouldn’t hesitate to fly with them again.
All photos by the author.