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Flight Review: Experiencing Spirit’s “Bare Fare” Model Firsthand

Spirit's first flight out of Kansas City receives a dual water cannon salute. Photo credit Aaron Wright, KC Aviation Dept.

Spirit’s first flight out of Kansas City receives a dual water cannon salute – Photo: Aaron Wright, KC Aviation Dept.

It’s true, people vehemently despise Spirit Airlines. Just the mention of the company elicits emotion-filled horror stories. Indeed they have a solid 1 out of 5 star rating on TripAdvisor, and they are frequently found at, or near, the top of various “worst airline” rankings. In direct contrast to these ratings and frequent “I’ll never fly Spirit again” claims, the airline continues to grow and increase market share. This begs the question – is the experience really THAT bad? Or, is there something else at play here?

BONUS: The Five Stages of Flying an Ultra Low Cost Carrier (Epic Comic Style) 

In their own defense, Spirit argues that the mass dissatisfaction with them is in large part due to consumers not understanding their progressive, totally unbundled Ultra Low Cost Carrier (ULCC) business model. That assertion seems to hold water. The vast majority of complaints I hear and see are indeed related to “unexpected fees” and being “nickel and dimed” to death. As the well-known cliche goes: “The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.” Thankfully, Spirit recognizes there is a problem. To that end they recently hired Barkley, a KC-based marketing firm to assist with better educating consumers and promoting what they refer to as a “bare fare.”

"Bare Fare" crop circle spotted in a soy field just north of the KC airport. Photo: Victor Lazo.

“Bare Fare” crop circle spotted in a soy field just north of the KC airport – Photo: Victor Lazo

A few months ago, Kansas City International airport announced that ours would be a new market served by Spirit. Shortly after an unexplained crop circle appeared prompting a lot of curiosity. It turned out the image seen above is the logo for Spirit’s Bare Fare.

I was excited to finally have the opportunity to give them a shot, contrary to the advice of everyone who I’d informed of my intentions. I booked a seat on the first flight out, and this is my honest, unbiased review…

A Spirit A319 pushing back from the gate in KC as another approaches. Photo: KC Aviation Dept.

A Spirit A319 at the gate in KC. as another approaches – Photo: KC Aviation Dept.

First and foremost, I have to admit I was surprised, and the experience overall was positive. In fact, those I interacted with were pleasant, cheerful, and in the case of the flight attendant, even funny – to a level I’ve only experienced on Southwest. Perhaps everyone was on their best behavior due to this being an inaugural flight, but as a pro-airline sort of guy, I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Spirit taking flight - Photo: Bob Garrard

Spirit taking flight – Photo: Bob Garrard

So, what’s a bare fare?
According to a Spirit video entitled “Ode to Hate” which speaks to their business model, “it’s a cheap seat, for a cheap ass.” That’s it; a seat, and a personal item not to exceed 12x14x16. No seat assignment, carry-on, checked bag or in-flight snack.

That said, those are all available for a fee. Speaking of fees, I have often heard that Spirit isn’t transparent about them. I haven’t seen any evidence of this; in fact, what I witnessed was quite the contrary. While booking on Spirit.com it was very clear what fees I would be facing, including an incredible line-by-line breakdown of the price, which details what they refer to as the “government’s cut” containing various government-imposed taxes and fees. I intentionally didn’t pay for a carry-on bag, hoping they would send a reminder ahead of time. To my satisfaction, they did.

Baggage fee reminder email screenshot.

Screenshot of my baggage fee reminder email, which also includes a link to their “optional services” / fee breakdown

Having done my research ahead of time, I wasn’t caught off guard by any fees. When I booked, I forked over a mere $63.99 for my one-way MCI-ORD “bare fare”. Knowing that Spirit’s seating offers a knee-crushing (dollar saving?) 28-inch pitch (the least of all US carriers) I later chickened out and paid $50 for an assigned “big front” seat; 1A, to be specific.  Spirit’s big front seats occupy the first few rows of their planes in a comfy 2×2 configuration with ample legroom, even for this 6’1 guy.

Spirit's $5.00 mixed nut and soft drink combo. Photo: JL Johnson

Spirit’s $5.00 mixed nut and soft drink combo – Photo: JL Johnson | AirlineReporter

Optional Services/”Frill Control”:
“Frill Control” is Spirit’s trademarked verbiage for placing the consumer in control of buying the optional services they want and/or need. For my “frill” I bought a carry on bag for $35 and an inflight snack & drink combo for $5.

The selection of items available for purchase during service is pretty diverse, and most include a “combo” allowing one to combine a beverage (soft or adult) with one or more of the various snacks for a discount. I settled on the mixed nuts and soft drink combo. It was more than enough for me to split with a pal one row behind me.  Also of note, the receipt for my combo included the flight number, routing, and tail number. Getting the tail number included was an unexpected AvGeek delight.

John, the forward flight attendant looking dapper in his Spirit suit. Photo: JL Johnson

John, the forward flight attendant, looking dapper in his Spirit suit                                                    Photo: JL Johnson | AirlineReporter

John, the forward cabin flight attendant was attentive, funny, and also quite dapper in his suit. I suspect this will get me a lot of flack, but the service provided by John was equal to what I’ve experienced in first class with full-service carriers. Given the reputation Spirit has for “bad service” it seems prudent to note this highlight.

Conclusion:
Even with all of the various fees tacked onto my “bare fare” all-in I spent less than I would have on any other economy flight to O’Hare out of Kansas City on a late Thursday afternoon. Spirit managed to be cheaper than the other guys, even with the added cost of a super comfortable “big front” seat.  Amazingly at the moment of writing this, the bare fare to Chicago is even lower than what I paid for the inaugural.

Here’s my final breakdown:

$51.87 bare fare
$12.12 “government’s cut”
$50.00 big front upgrade
$35.00 carry-on bag
$5.00 in flight snack combo
$153.99 total.

I like what Spirit has to offer and my experience was positive. While my LUV belongs to another airline, I would definitely consider flying Spirit again for personal, family, or last minute travel.

Oh, and did I mention how much I loved the big front seat?

"Big Front" seat. Photo: JL Johnson | AirlineReporter

“Big Front” seat. Photo: JL Johnson | AirlineReporter

   JL Johnson – Senior Correspondent 

JL is a Business Analysis Advisor at a non-aviation industry Fortune-500. He's a semi-frequent traveler, social media addict and avid planespotter. A proud Midwesterner, he's based in Lee's Summit, MO, a suburb of Kansas City. He attributes his love for all things aviation to his grandfather, a USAF Colonel who had him in "AvGeek training" before he could walk.

 @User47 | Instagram | YouTube | Flickr | AviationGeek.net

19 comments to Flight Review: Experiencing Spirit’s “Bare Fare” Model Firsthand

  • James Burke

    I have to echo your comments JL – I was expecting the worst the first time I took them, and have been impressed with them each time I have flown since. The FA’s are great, the buy-on-board is priced better than in the terminal, a lot of new planes, and they go places that I want to go. I applaud their new ad campaign as I find it cheeky, clever and spot-on

    • Thanks for the comment, James. Agreed. Seems the negative is, like with any other airline, way overhyped. I’m not sure why this industry is so special but the traveling public really does expect first class treatment for dirt cheap fares. Honestly, seems like Spirit has found the right fit. And it’s hard to fault them when they are spending a lot of money on these education campaigns.

  • John G

    A question…how would your trip have been had you been smashed into a 28″ middle seat for that time? Methinks you’d be singing a different tune.

    • JL Johnson

      Hi John, thanks for the comment. How would my trip have been if I’d smashed into a 28 inch seat? Well, it would have been $38 cheaper and there’s a decent chance that after the hour long flight my knees would have ached. Otherwise nothing would have been different. Same service, still on time, same snack options.

      The nice thing about being an educated flyer is I knew ahead of time about the cramped space and chose to upgrade. Spirit is all about choice and like I said in my post, had I flown someone else I would have paid more, for a less comfortable seat.

  • Scott

    Is there a federal rule on the minimum for seat pitch? Could they go to 26″ and add more big chairs?

    • As best I know there is no rule on pitch. That said, the regs are intentionally vague and I bet if any regulating body wanted to, they could launch an inquiry. That said, Spirit’s pitch is less than Ryanair, Easyjet and even a few Asian LCCs I checked on. There’s a point at which folks simply won’t fit. I suspect 28 is near the sweet spot on that bell curve, if not a bit on the wrong side of it. :)

  • susan

    Just got home from a Spirit flight from KC to Houston. Because I can read an follow instructions I was able to travel for $108. I visited a relative so I do not have to bring all the things you would if you were staying in a hotel. I managed to get everything in a tote so I did not have to pay for luggage.. seat with plenty of room for $15 each way. People who complain about this airline are NOT paying attention.

  • mcass777

    Our family has taken Spirit numerous times over the years in and out of Ft Meyers. I have never had an issue with the airline. Once when one bag was slightly overweight, the agent at the desk politely suggested shifting some items to avoid an overage fee. One aspect I have come to use is “graduated” payment. I can go in, but a one way ticket, come back buy a return ticket, come back again and buy the bags or seats. This sound crazy but we have 5 people in the family and it is easier on the debit card. Plus, I have found the fares don’t fluctuate. They are listed low and slowly go up as the travel date approaches. If you are far enough out, it’s a great way to buy.

    • I’m glad you mention the graduated payment. It’s something that likely wasn’t intended but is most definitely a useful strategy, especially when traveling with a large group. Sort of like making 0% interest payments toward an airfare, nothing wrong with that! Thanks for reading, Mcass777!

  • Ryan

    I have only flown NK non-revenue, so I can only comment on the service. Being that most non-rev, especially other airline non-rev passengers such as myself, get just so-so treatment I have to say I most always have a nice experience once I finally get on-board. Now that being said, I usually have a flight delay of 1 one hour average. When we take-off on time, I really enjoy the airline.

    • JL Johnson

      NK non-rev? The way they make it sound, their planes are always sold out! ;) Honestly though, non-rev I think wouldn’t be much fun with them. Does non-rev with Spirit only include the “bare fare?”

  • Cook

    Hilarious – loved the post!
    I’ve flown them only once, blocked at 70 minutes and took 58. I bought no extras; none were pushed. I declared my truly tiny carry-on to be a ‘purse’ and with a look that said, “don’t you dare!” It as passed. I passed the quick service offerings, suffered the dry air until reloading upon landing. It did not kill me.
    It was the tightest seat that I’ve ever ridden and I probably won’t do it again, but maybe. (The only U.S. Airline that I’ve sworn off forever is United, ~three years ago, and no never again. Period.)

    My Spirit flight was not horrible at 55 minutes, but I think I can do better. For a reasonably experienced AvGeek, most flights include a little pleasure. Not so with Spirit: Sit down, shut up. We might offer you a beverage, but expect to pay for anything that you can swallow. We’ll tell you when to get off (and where!). While just slightly more offensive than our ‘friends’ at United, the flight cost slightly less than half of what United wanted. Do your own math. For any flight longer than ~90 minutes, I probably would not use Spirit again. For <90 minutes of blocked time, why not – and just politely say NO to all offers. Just my two cent's worth. TO Spitit's credit, the airplane was a LOT cleaner than ANY that I've seen in United – for many years. (OK, United's basic cleaning and hygiene sucks…) Add another an call it my three cent's worth. -C.

    • JL Johnson

      Thanks for the comment, Cook! Always great to hear from you. You and I share a common distaste for a certain Chicago-based airline. I’d happily fly Spirit or Allegiant over them most days :)

  • Dave

    If all you want is basic, Yugo-style, transportation. Sure–go for it. However, some of us would also like to enjoy the trip. Same concept of why we buy nice cars and Yugos no longer exist. It’s about value, not just cheapest. Everyone’s needs are different.

    • JL Johnson

      I’d happily fly cross country on Spirit if I were to do it in a big front seat. That’s the real selling point for me with Spirit. Large firstclass-like seat for equal to or less than economy with all the others.

  • Andrea

    Amidst all the hate for NK, your article was a breath of fresh air, JL! I’m so glad you enjoyed your experience and look forward to seeing you on a flight sometime!

  • Mich

    I was able to fly on Spirit for a “bare fare” of $0.01 each way! If you have flexible dates and read the fine print, it’s the best US carrier! I gladly paid $1.99 for a coffee and muffin. Also, the seat pitch wasn’t too terrible, but I’m also a lean 5’8″ woman, so I could see where anyone larger than me might not be the most comfortable. The flight crew were very pleasant.

  • Scott

    Nice to see a balanced article on Spirit. I am a fan of getting what you paid for rather than demanding a low price and expecting all the extras. Airline travel has changed forever, is is not the 1960’s. Other regions of the World are at or ahead of this change.

    Seat pitch is not regulated per se. However, in order for the aircraft to receive its’ type certification, the manufacturer has to demonstrate that an emergency evacuation of all pax/crew can be accomplished within 90 seconds – with only half the exits operational. Some videos out there on Youtube of these demos (usually done with the cabin crew of the launch customer of the aircraft using airline and manufacturer volunteers + has to be a mix of people (ages, sex).

    I agree market forces will set, to some degree,the pitch. There comes a point that you can’t get to your own seat.

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