Size Matters: Flying Spirit's Big Front Seat Across the Country
Like many frequent flyers, I try to avoid Spirit Airlines whenever possible. The crammed economy seats, lack of recline, pitiful legroom and fees for more than you even thought possible aren't worth mild savings over a non-budget carrier. But I recently found myself booking a last-minute trip, and Spirit was less than half the cost of any other option. I decided to take it, intent on finding a way to make the flight a bit more tolerable. That's how I found myself in Spirit's (cue monster truck rally announcer voice) Big Front Seat.
The task was to book a flight from Chicago to the Bay Area five days in advance. As expected during spring break, there were no cheap options, with one exception: Chicago O'Hare (ORD) to Los Angeles International (LAX) to Oakland International (OAK) on Spirit for $93.
What followed was a barrage of add-ons, starting with this "thrilling" combo:
Most of this I didn't need, so I wasn't tempted, though under certain circumstances it could've made sense. I was then given the option for individual add-ons.
I disregarded the second row of upgrades all together, since I wouldn't need to switch my flight, already have TSA PreCheck, had priority boarding included with my seat and checked in for free using the airline's app. The most relevant option here for most passengers is baggage, as Spirit charges for both checked baggage and carry-on — and it's not cheap. Also, the price for baggage increases after booking and increases again at the airport. From my confirmation email, here's a comparison of the fees:
I'm not sure how one manages to get two checked bags through security, but if you do, you now know what you'd have to pay at the gate. In my case, if I'd had baggage, I would have had to pay $10 more for them without having purchased the option at booking. Luckily, I was traveling with just a personal item, so I avoided all of this.
The add-on I decided to investigate was seats. I've flown Spirit twice recently, and while I normally have no issues in economy, I find the airline's 28-inch pitch to be insufferable. To choose any seat, you'd have to pay at least $9, even for a middle seat at the back of the plane (which makes no sense to ever pay for as a solo traveler). But, the fee for the Big Front Seat was actually quite reasonable:
For $36, I'd get a 20-inch wide seat with only one person next to me, plus 36 inches of pitch (according to SeatGuru) for my 1,745-mile, four-hour-and-38-minute journey from ORD to LAX. This seemed like a pretty good deal, especially considering that American Airlines was charging at least $61 for a Main Cabin Extra seat, and United was asking for at least $109 for an Economy Plus seat.
The deal got a little less sweet, however, on the 337-mile journey from LAX to OAK. Compared to my first flight, the Big Front Seat would be 86% of the price for a flight that was 19% of the distance and 32% of the flight time. I decided to save the $31 and risk a crammed middle seat for the hour and 29 minutes. In the end, I was pretty pleased with my purchase, which was still half the price of any other flight option for that day. I got 3x points on my purchase thanks to my Citi Prestige card, which I used mainly for its trip-delay coverage.
I checked in on Spirit's app to avoid the $10 fee at the airport. I could have also avoided this by checking in online and printing out a boarding pass, which also would have allowed me to use the baggage drop kiosks instead of waiting in a line like this one:
When flying Spirit, you should always check-in before coming to the airport. If you didn't know this already, welcome to The Points Guy. You'll find lots of useful information on this site.
There are no Priority Pass lounges in O'Hare terminals 1, 2 or 3, and American Express continues to overlook one of the world's busiest airports as it expands its Global Lounge Collection.
I didn't have a view of the aircraft from the terminal in ORD or LAX, but I did snap this picture of an A320 with the same paint job.
Last year, Spirit tightened restrictions on the size of personal items, presumably to force more passengers to pay for carry-on or checked baggage. An agent stood at the entrance to the boarding line next to one of those unforgiving baggage-measurement bins, but she wasn't enforcing size too strictly. My personal item would not have fit.
Boarding was done in zones. Purchasing the shortcut-boarding option for $6.50 would have gotten me Zone 2, but I already got that with a Big Front Seat purchase.
Cabin and Seat
The cabin of this “brand-new A321” (as the captain called it) consisted of eight Big Front Seats in two rows of a 2-2 configuration. The rest of the plane was standard economy seats in a 3-3 configuration. There was no partition between the front two rows and the rest of the aircraft. All seats were treated as being in the same cabin. All passengers were free to use the front bathroom or the two in the rear.
The configuration gave me hopes that my seat, 2A, would compare to other domestic first-class seats. And upon first impression, it did.
I'm 5 feet, 10 inches, and the 34-inch pitch was plenty — enough to even cross my legs. The 20-inch seat width was also roomy and comfy. Even the appearance of the chairs, which widened toward the top, resembled other first domestic first-class seats. The middle armrest was plenty big for both me and the aisle passenger.
Row 1 actually had more legroom than Row 2. The window-seat passenger could easily get out of that row without disturbing the aisle passenger, which wasn't the case in Row 2. If you want that freedom and don't mind giving up under-seat storage (you'll still have easy overhead access), take the bulkhead row.
The only major drawback to these seats was they were completely stationary. Spirit says all of their seats are “pre-reclined,” which is marketing speak for no recline. Even the headrest was completely immobile. I always like to be able to fold up the sides of the headrest to lean to one side to sleep, but these wouldn't budge.
I should mention that on my next flight, which was an older A319, the Big Front Seat headrests were adjustable (still no recline), which means Spirit decided to get rid of this feature.
None of this made sense to me. While I'm not a fan of the lack of recline in regular economy, I understand they do this to cram as many seats into the aircraft as possible. But the couple inches total it would take to add recline to these front seats could be taken from Row 1's legroom, and an adjustable headrest takes no extra room. Perhaps it's to save money on the cost of the seat itself, but there are so few Big Front Seats across the entire airline that the repeat comfort benefit from a one-time expense seems worth it to me.
In the booking section, I compared the Big Front Seat to UA Economy Plus or AA MCE, but really the seat itself should be compared to the domestic first-class seats. The full product, however, didn't compare to domestic first, as my experience in a Big Front Seat was just as bare-bones as the rest of Spirit economy.
The economy seats, which I rode from LAX-OAK, had an insufferably small 28 inches of legroom. Also, the tray tables were minuscule.
With the diminutive tray table and lack of space in between me and the seat in front of me, there wasn't even enough space to open my laptop and work comfortably.
For a 90-minute flight, I could deal with it, but I don't think I would be able to for anything longer.
Spirit still didn't offer in-flight entertainment or Wi-Fi on any of its aircraft when I flew, but it just announced this will change starting this fall. For now, though, be sure to have a book, laptop, tablet or phone with work or entertainment downloaded before you take off.
Food and Beverage
As expected with the most budget of US domestic airlines, nothing was included. Not even water. The normally free soft drink, coffee and water cost $2 to $3. There was also a menu of snacks and alcoholic beverages, with prices that matched other airlines.
I could've saved a few bucks on a combo.
There were no fresh or hot-food items. I could have bought everything they sold at a CVS on the way to the airport for a fraction of the price — which is exactly what I did, along with filling up my own water bottle at the airport.
It turns out that when a Coke costs $3, you have a lot fewer people drinking them; I didn't see the flight attendants pour too many. This route on other airlines features two drink services and water handouts, which keep the flight attendants busy. But here they almost looked bored. They were friendly, however, and after all they were here primarily for safety, not service. So in the end, a boring flight for a flight attendant is a good one.
It's an interesting business model — make economy so miserable that passengers feel compelled to pay for an upgrade. It worked on me this time, and for $36, the upgrade was well worth it. I'll continue to avoid Spirit's economy seats, but if the cost of fare plus baggage plus Big Front Seat is comparable to economy on any other airline, I'd happily pack my own refreshments and entertainment and fly Spirit again.