Spirit Airlines is the airline that seems to invite everyone to hate it, partly because of doublespeak press releases that accompany every customer-unfriendly move. Here’s the one they put up at the beginning of the decade when first announcing new bag fees.
“In order to continue reducing fares even further and offering customers the option of paying only for the services they want and use rather than subsidizing the choices of others, the low fare industry innovator is also progressing to the next phase of unbundling with the introduction of a charge to carry on a bag and be boarded first onto the airplane.”
Interpretation: “We will now charge every single passenger who brings any kind of luggage a hefty fee. You will pay us this on top of the price of your ticket whether you check a bag or carry it on.”
They even call it “Bare Fare.” They’re proud of the fact you get nothing for your ticket except a cramped luck-of-the-draw seat. You will pay dearly for anything beyond that, from a drink of water to a seat assignment. And yes, Spirit Airlines makes it extremely difficult to fly somewhere and spend the night without adding on more charges each way for baggage fees. That’s part of the reason Consumer Reports ranked them as the worst airline in America and why they show up at the bottom of the heap in most traveler surveys too when it comes to fees, cabin comfort, and customer satisfaction.
Spirit Airlines Carry-on Size
There’s only a knee’s worth of room between seats on Spirit flights, but if you can fit what you have under the seat in front of you (short people rejoice!), then you can still bring the bag on without a fee. It has to be a tiny bag that fits under the seat though, which they define in very strict terms. Here’s the official Spirit Airlines personal item size:
That drawing is a good illustration of how small those dimensions actually are for a Spirit Airlines personal item. A messenger bag for a 15-inch laptop is about all that will squeeze into that space. The under-seat bags sold by Delsey and others will easily fit, but most are technically too large by an inch or two if the gate agent wants to get snippy with you.
Spirit Airlines Bag Fees
If you’re actually going to go somewhere for business or pleasure instead of just turning around and coming back, you may actually need luggage. If so, you’ll need to consult a complicated fee chart to figure out the Spirit checked bag price. You have to actually do a flight search on their website to get the prices—that’s how much they don’t want you to see them.
Let’s ignore the $9 fare club that you have to pay $60 to join: only a true masochist (and someone who is bad at math) would regularly fly on Spirit enough to get loyalty club benefits that require an extra charge. For a regular passenger, you’ll pay anywhere from $30 for the first bag booked in advance on a short-haul flight (see the chart here) to $47 for a carry-on for a long-haul flight.
Ironically, it can cost you more to bring a bag that no Spirit employee touches than one they check for you—a sure irritant for people trying to save time on arrival or just not lose their luggage. The airline also shaves 10 pounds off the maximum compared to what you get for free (with two bags) on Southwest or what you pay for on the legacy airlines—the maximum luggage weight allowance on Spirit is just 40 pounds.
After that you pay overweight charges that almost double the price. Pretty soon that advertised $69 one-way flight turns into $169.
If you learn at the gate you need to check your bag, don’t expect any sympathy: it’s a stinging $65 charge at that point, even if it’s a carry-on! The way the Spirit Air baggage policy works, your one-way bag fee could cost more than the actual suitcase did when you bought it.
How to Fly on Spirit with No Baggage Fees
It’s going to take some work to get around Spirit’s baggage fees, but it can be done if you’re determined to actually get one of those advertised teaser fares that are just the base price.
1) Don’t pack a bag at all.
This might get you screened on the way in and out by the TSA, and will add a few extra hours when leaving Colombia, but it could be done. You’ve got no change of clothes and just a toothbrush in your pocket. But hey, you can always buy a new outfit locally for less than all those Spirit baggage fees.
2) Pack one change of clothes in a tiny bag with your laptop.
If you pack well, a small laptop/netbook, a change of clothes, and something to read should fit under the seat and comply with the Spirit Airlines personal item size. You might even be able to fit in some flip-flops or flats. I would suggest good travel apparel from the likes of ExOfficio so you can sink wash one set at night and it’ll be dry by morning. (Here’s a more detailed take on that brand from me.)
Companies like Osprey, North Face, and Sea to Summit make duffle bags that fit in a tiny pouch, so you can carry something larger after uncompressing your clothes. In theory you could even use something like Space Bags to cram in more by sucking out all the air.
3) Layers, layers, layers.
So far there’s no extra charge for being a large human—too hard to “unbundle” that—so expand your width with lots of extra clothing. You can strip some of those layers off after take-off.
4) Wear your belongings.
There’s a company called ScotteVest that makes vests with 26 pockets to hold all your gear and gadgets. Then there are those photography vests the French are so fond of wearing that hold all kinds of stuff in multiple pockets. Some ExOfficio Storm Logic jackets have six or eight pockets, as do Clothing Arts’ Pickpocket Proof Pants. (See the travel gear brands that haven’t let me down.)
5) Ship your belongings.
On a long domestic flight, you would likely come out ahead by shipping your belongings in a Priority Mail flat rate box or by UPS.
6) Fly on Southwest instead.
I’ve met some nice, well-meaning people from Spirit Air and the company flies to some underserved routes in places like Colombia and Nicaragua. Sooner or later though we’re like frogs in a heating-up pot that’s about to boil. Jump!
I get that they’re trying to be like RyanAir, whose CEO admits the airline is just “a flying bus,” but few buses make you pay for baggage and often they come with a movie, a snack, a drink, and Wi-Fi. So can “We’re worse than a bus” be a successful strategy?
I’m not convinced. Legacy airlines have earned a bundle of pure profit from passenger baggage fees, but Southwest keeps thrashing these airlines in every market where it competes, with lower fares and no fees for bags. They win hands down in customer satisfaction surveys. RyanAir and EasyJet succeed because their fares are clearly half the price or less of competitors, especially across Europe when purchased in advance’, where in Spirit’s case that’s only sometimes obvious (with a calculator in hand).
What do you think? Are you willing to fly on Spirit if it’s cheaper? Or will it need to be almost free before you go on their planes?
Related post: Flying on Allegiant Air without baggage fees.