A Low-Cost Surprise: Flying Sun Country's 737-800 From Minneapolis to Newark
[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="60" ground-experience="8" cabin-seat="11" amens-ife="3" food-bev="18" service="20" pros="Solid ground experience despite a system outage. Free sodas, coffee and tea with affordable food and alcohol. Service better than many legacy airlines." cons="Tight pitch -- unless you pay for a better seat. Virtually no inflight entertainment or amenities. No A/C power outlets." /]
Needing to get from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota (MSP), to the New York City area on a Wednesday morning, I checked Google Flights for my options. While American, Delta and United also offered nonstop flights, I was curious to try out Sun Country for the first time. The airline has had a tumultuous history since its founding in 1982, with multiple bankruptcies and ceasing operations multiple times.
In 2017, Sun Country's new owners abandoned the airline's attempt at being a full-service carrier and transitioned to an ultra low-cost carrier. Since then, it's added new baggage fees, revamped its loyalty program and expanded to new destinations. The airline has also gotten bad press for forgetting to load an entire flight's checked bags and indefinitely stranding an entire flight's worth of passengers in Mexico.
While I'd heard about these horror stories, I still hadn't heard much about what the Sun Country experience was like. So my wife, Katie, and I decided to check out the ultra low-cost carrier for ourselves. Just in case, I made sure to book the flight using a credit card with solid travel protections.
Related: The Best Credit Cards for Travel Protections
After pricing out the options on Google Flights, I clicked through to book the flight directly on Sun Country. We found that we just happened to need a flight on the cheapest date of the week, with the cost starting at $123 total including taxes and fees.
Of course, that was before you factored in the cost of bags. The base fare only included transportation for you and a small personal item. The cost to add either a checked bag or a carry-on bag was $30:
Before continuing, Sun Country confirmed exactly what the fare and our bag selection included.
At booking, Sun Country charged between $30 and $39 for a Best Seat, getting preferred boarding, one complimentary alcoholic beverage, extra legroom, extra recline, adjustable headrest, in-seat power and USB port. Extra-legroom Better Seats cost between $16 and $25 each, and Standard Seats ranged from $12 to $19 each.
I passed on paying for a seat in advance, which Sun Country confirmed with a pop-up that noted that I wouldn't be able to check in online:
The total cost for the flight and a checked bag was $153.31. I put the charge on my Citi Prestige to get 5x points per dollar, as well as solid travel protection (as we booked before the card's benefit devaluation on Sept. 22, 2019).
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Ground Experience" tpg-rating="8" tpg-rating-max="10" tail="N804SY" age="17.9" late="6.25" avg="2" avg-2="14" departure="7" departure-2="00" duration="2" duration-2="08" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Sun Country notes on its website and in emails to passengers that ticket counters open two hours prior to departure. That's the shortest I've heard of an airline opening the check-in counter. And that was compounded, as we were flying on an early-morning flight after an all-day system outage that kept any passengers from being able to check in online.
Sure enough, when we arrived at the terminal a little more than an hour and a half before departure, we were met with a long line that stretched beyond the eight columns of ropes.
To make things a little better, airline representatives were at the entrance to the line handing out coffee and donuts.
The airline seemed determined to not make this an issue, fully staffing all check-in counters and adding staff to direct traffic. Though long, the line moved quickly, and we were in front of an agent in 15 minutes.
The bag drop was quick, and we were issued new boarding passes with a Group 5 (of 6) boarding stamp. I asked about priority boarding and was told it'd be an additional $45 to move to a Best Seat, which came with Group 1 boarding.
Sun Country is one of the 67 airlines that participate in TSA PreCheck. Although the standard security line looked long, we were able to clear security in seven minutes.
Although there's a Priority Pass lounge and an Escape Lounge at MSP, neither is accessible from the low-cost Terminal 2. Wandering up and down the fresh, new 14-gate terminal, we didn't see any lounges. But there were plenty of restaurants, shops and vending machines.
The crisp seating area at the gate was plenty large enough for all of the passengers on the flight who had arrived at the gate by the scheduled boarding time.
An announcement was made about nine minutes after scheduled boarding, which was scheduled for 6:15am, saying that the preboarding process would begin in five minutes. Preboarding ended up starting at 6:35am with limited-mobility passengers, then military and then credit cardholders. General boarding began at 6:36am. Group 2 seemed to consist of passengers who'd paid for a carry-on bag.
Speaking of bags, I was a bit concerned that my carry-on backpack was technically larger than the personal-item measurements. Thankfully, the bag sizer was only being utilized as a coat hanger.
Katie and I boarded at the start of Group 5 at 6:39am. Despite the delay in boarding, we pushed back right at the 7am departure time.
A note about the operating performance: Since launching Flight 233 from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Newark (EWR) on April 11, the airline has been on time 60 of 64 times, and two of those delays were just a few minutes from being considered on time. However, the airline's average delay was ruined by a single delay of more than eight hours.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Cabin and Seat" tpg-rating="11" tpg-rating-max="25" configuration="3" configuration-2="3" width="17.5" pitch="30" tray="16" tray-2="9" lavs="3" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Sun Country operates 26 Boeing 737-800s and four Boeing 737-700s, and your experience is going to depend on what specific aircraft your flight is assigned to, from pitch to the number of lavatories on board. The shorter 737-700s are going to be generally better, with 31-to-32-inch pitch throughout the cabin, but two of these aircraft have only two bathrooms instead of three.
For this flight, we flew on one of Sun Country's densified Boeing 737-800 aircraft. Although the carrier is all-economy, there were three different types of seats:
- Best: 34 inches of pitch, A/C and USB power outlets, extra recline, free premium beverage, preferred boarding (seemingly Group 1)
- Better: 32 inches of pitch, USB power outlets
- Standard: 29 to 30 inches of pitch, USB power outlets
On board, I measured 34 to 35 inches of pitch for the Best Seat and 32 inches of pitch for each Better row I checked. The pitch for the Standard Seat measured 30 inches for most rows I checked, but there were a few that measured 29 inches or 29.5 inches. Exit rows had the most pitch, with 39 inches.
We should have only been assigned a Standard Seat, but we were assigned seats in the Better section at check-in -- which my knees certainly appreciated.
There was not much seat padding. For better or worse, there was a lack of hardshell to the seat. That meant that each time the passenger behind you pulled something out of the seatback pocket, it felt like they were burrowing into your back.
Seats measured 17 inches between the armrests for window seats and approximately 17.5 inches between armrests in the middle seat. The middle armrests rose fully, which was nice if you had an empty seat next to you and you wanted to stretch out a bit.
Speaking of window seats, there are two seats to watch out if you're hoping to pick a window seat. 10A has a missing window right next to the seat.
Seat 11F is also missing a window, but it's not quite as bad.
Our flight wasn't quite full. I snuck a peek at the Sun Country boarding system and found that that 146 passengers were checked in for the 183-seat aircraft. On board, the flight attendant confirmed that there were 37 empty seats. We hoped to have an empty seat in our row, but the check-in agents fully filled in the Better section, leaving all of the empty seats in the back.
The Standard and Better seats reclined only around 2.5 inches, but there was no headrest to help cradle your neck to sleep. Only the Best seats had adjustable headrests.
The tray tables were full-size -- even in Standard seats -- measuring 16 inches wide by 9 inches deep. This sets Sun Country apart from ultra low-cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier, which only have partial tray tables. Above the tray table, there was a literature pocket measuring 12 inches wide by 10 inches deep.
Overhead bins were a standard size, meaning roller bags needed to fit horizontally instead of vertically. Bins mostly filled up for our flight despite the empty seats and Sun Country's requirement to pay for a carry-on bag.
There were three lavatories on the plane we flew. Despite the airplane's nearly 18 years, the bathroom looked well-maintained.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="3" tpg-rating-max="15" screen="0" movies="0" tv-shows="0" live-tv="No" tailcam="No" wifi="0" wifi-2="0" headphones="No" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Sun Country's ultra low-cost carrier model was evident in its amenities -- or lack thereof. There was no Wi-Fi, inflight-entertainment screen, A/C power outlets (besides in Best), pillows, blankets, headphones, live TV, tail cam, etc.
It's easier to list what Sun Country did have: USB power outlets. For each row of three seats, there were four USB power outlets. There were not many amps in these outlets, either. My phone noted that it was "charging slowly" when plugged in.
When a passenger in front of me asked if there were Wi-Fi, we were both optimistic when the flight attendant noted that there was "AirFi." Turns out that Sun Country stumbled into offering a couple of entertainment options when it installed a payment-collection and transmission system.
In exchange for your age, ZIP code, name and email address, you got access to 15 magazines, 22 games and 31 individual songs.
In case you're wondering about that videos link at the top, clicking that loaded a blank page.
Update: Sun Country contacted me after this review was published to note that the AirFi system should have included 20 movies and TV show options.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="18" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-meal="0" meals-purchase="Snack boxes" comp-alcohol="No" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
About 30 minutes after takeoff, flight attendants announced -- waking up passengers who were trying to sleep -- and then began food and drink service. Despite transitioning into a low-cost-carrier business plan, Sun Country still offers 12 drink choices for free.
And you don't have just one shot at a free drink. Flight attendants swung back through the cabin after the initial drink service to offer coffee and water.
Like on legacy carriers, you needed to pay for beer ($7 to $8), wine ($8) and spirits ($8). Staying true to its Minnesota roots, the airline offered -- and indicated on the menu -- two Minnesota-brewed beers and two Minnesota-distilled spirits. Instead of a standard beer can, the Minnesota beers were a full 16-ounce pint. At $8, that wasn't a bad deal at all, so Katie and I split a blonde ale.
In addition to a la carte snacks ($4 each), there were three types of snack packages: kids ($5), regular "Flitebites" ($7) and "hearty" ($9). Although tempted by the Kids Flitebites, as it included a Sun Country wings pin, we ordered one of each of the larger boxes.
"Hearty" certainly described them. The boxes were packed with enough snacks that we both made breakfast out of them and had leftovers to snack on later. The $7 Flitebites box came with pretzel crisps, cheese spread, a Nature Valley granola bar, Welch's fruit snacks and chocolate-covered almonds.
The $9 Flitebites Hearty box included beef jerky, Wheat Thins, cheese spread, almonds, a Clif Bar, Welch's fruit snacks and Milano cookies.
Between free sodas and coffee and reasonable prices for snack boxes, Sun Country certainly exceeded expectations for what a low-cost carrier would provide. However, the lack of complimentary snacks and the lack of hot food for purchase weighed down the score.
[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" blurb="The flight attendants seem to be holdovers from Sun Country's time as a legacy carrier, offering not overly friendly but professional levels of service." /]
It was explained to me that Sun Country's onboard service was as good as its legacy-airline flight attendants who are asked to work the low-cost model. Sure enough, the flight attendants on our flight fit this mold. Service was as you might expect on a domestic American, Delta or United flight -- not Southwest levels of friendly, but knowledgeable, curious and well-trained.
About 50 minutes after departure -- just as many passengers were settling in to sleep for the early-morning flight -- a load announcement was made heralding the start of the food-and-beverage sales. Making that announcement surely helped sales, but it wasn't a particularly passenger-friendly announcement.
After the justifiably bad press that Sun Country received after stranding passengers in Mexico in April 2018, I was especially curious to try out the former legacy, somewhat-newly low-cost airline. And I think that Sun Country has settled into its niche.
The dense aircraft and lack of amenities allow the airline to offer bargain-basement fares. Yet the airline seems to be focused on not making it a miserable experience. When its systems were down for a day, it staffed check-in lines with extra agents and handed out donuts and coffee -- both additional costs for the sake of making it a better experience for passengers. While there are no complimentary snacks, the airline offers free sodas, juices, coffee and water on board.
If you want to avoid the ultratight pitch or add on a snack or alcoholic drink, Sun Country doesn't charge punitive rates for doing so. While not up to par with Spirit's Big Front Seat, the extra-legroom seats are competitive with the pitch in extra-legroom economy on legacy airlines.
Would I fly Sun Country again? You betcha. For the right price, schedule and as long as I could be disconnected during the flight, I'd take the low-cost carrier. That said, thanks to my elite status on American and on United's Star Alliance, I'd pay a bit more to fly on a mainline carrier if it offered a similar schedule.
All photos by the author.