The match: one passenger vs. Spirit Airlines.
The arena: a round-trip flight from Reagan National to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The challenge: to dodge those pesky airline fees and claim the prize, the lowest of the low airfares.
The results: Well, read on.
Among travel-related grievances, extra airline charges sit pretty high on the throne. The surfeit of fees is like a swarm of mosquitoes sneaking up and biting you. And unfortunately, they’re multiplying. According to the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, airlines pocketed a whopping $1.5 billion in major ancillary fees (baggage and reservation changes) in the second quarter of 2011. That amount isn’t all-inclusive. The carriers squirreled away even more for such wallet-pinching expenses as food, drinks, pillows and blankets.
One of the biggest culprits is Spirit, the self-crowned “ultra” low-cost carrier that’s also the airline we both love and love to hate. We swoon over its cheap tickets, such as its oft-touted $9 fares, yet we choke on the fees that it piles on like toppings on a pizza. The company, which was established in 1964 as Clippert Trucking, reconstituted as a charter tour operator in 1983 and renamed and reimagined as a budget airline in 1992, copies the Dublin-based Ryanair model: Offer customers subterranean rates, then pump those rates up with fees for incidentals.
“They have a lot of fees that other airlines don’t,” confirms George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, which focuses on airline issues and flight prices.
At the heart of the matter is the definition of “incidental.” Fortunately, Spirit considers the aircraft it flies you in a necessity — and thankfully we don’t have to chip in for cleaning and maintenance — but not much of anything else. It charges fees for reservations booked by phone and online, for checked and carry-on bags, for boarding passes issued by ticket agents and, come June, airport kiosks. There’s even a new $2 charge, the “unintended consequences” fee, which covers costs related to the Department of Transportation’s requirement that passengers be allowed to hold reservations for up to 24 hours and cancel them without penalty.
“The more you do at home, the more you save us,” said Spirit spokeswoman Misty Pinson, explaining the rationale behind the charges, “and then we can pass along the savings to the customer.”
Spirit’s fares are admittedly among the lowest, as I learned during a practice test. When I searched Kayak for a midweek flight from Washington to Fort Lauderdale, the Florida-based airline offered the least expensive ticket, at $122, including government taxes. US Airways followed with $148. But wait, the price hadn’t finished falling. If you go to Spirit’s Web site, you avoid the charge for booking with a third party; there, I found a fare of $104.58. Additionally, score a coupon (they’ve typically offered $24 or $50 off) or a sale (the recent Get Out of Town Deals!), and watch the numbers nosedive.
“People love to dump” on Spirit, said Hobica, “but for a lot of people this is the only way they can fly. This is what they can afford.”
Although Spirit trumps all others in the base-rate category, is the fare fleeting? Or could I, an educated traveler, chase away the extra fees lurking in the shadows, poised to pounce? And what discomforts — hunger, thirst, cold — would I have to endure to succeed?
To warm up, I printed out the multiple pages of “our optional fees” found on Spirit’s Web site. First lesson in success: Know your opponent and his weaknesses.
(The fine print: This challenge did not involve government fees and taxes, a battle left for another day and another warrior.)
Spirit, which flies domestically and to Latin America and the Caribbean, is candid about its optional fees. It encourages people to “empower” themselves with this information and to make informed choices. However, reading about a “passenger usage fee” of $8.99 to $16.99 each way is one thing; comprehending what I as a passenger am actually using that prompts a fee is another.
I needed a cryptanalyst, or a Spirit employee with some spare time. I rang up Misty, who willingly demystified many of the charges for me. For example, she explained that the usage fee pertains to online and phone bookings, similar to Ticketmaster’s service charge. For my Fort Lauderdale ticket, I’d have to pay $26 on top of the base rate; if I reserved over the phone, I’d have to surrender another $10 on top of that.
To avoid all booking fees, I decided to trek over to Reagan National. In-person airport purchases are exempt from the passenger usage fee, plus — bonus — the Department of Transportation Unintended Consequences zinger of $2 each way. (For some reason, the DOTUC appears only on tickets bought on the Web or over the phone.) On a drizzly Saturday afternoon, I walked from the outskirts of Old Town to the airport, a hearty five-miler. (If you prefer, Metro’s Yellow and Blue lines are suitable alternatives.)
At the check-in counter, the kindly agent sold me a ticket for $119.60, a significant savings over the $147.50 fare I’d found online that morning and the $167.48 phone quote.
I gazed at my receipt as if it were a winning lottery ticket.
The passengers in rows 18 and 19 on Flight 827 were debating Spirit’s baggage fees and seat assignments, an animated conversation for such an early hour.
“I think the only way to fly cheap is if you don’t take any bags,” said Todd Morrill, a frequent traveler to Colombia and my seatmate.
Morrill had paid about $240 for a one-way ticket to Medellin, before fees. He’d also ponied up about $100 for two checked bags, plus $18 to reserve an aisle seat. “Sitting is considered an extra service,” he said. “They’re pushing it as far as they can.”
Spirit, like other airlines, invites travelers to purchase their seat assignments in advance. But unlike other carriers, it puts a price tag on every seat, even the undesirable ones. For instance, I had the option of plunking down $40 for one of the Big Front Seats near the nose of the plane or $18 for a regular window, center or aisle seat. Yes, I could have paid for the thrill of being squeezed between two strangers. Instead, I earned that honor for free by allowing the airline to play hostess and select my seat.
Seated behind Morrill, Maximillian Ashwill had thrown down $38 for his checked bag, which held a gift of Maker’s Mark for his friend in Colombia. “I could’ve flown on a cheaper flight with American or Copa,” he grumbled. “The bags are included, and I could’ve gotten a drink. You don’t know if Spirit’s a rip-off until you check in.”
Yes, fellow travelers, by the time you check in at the airport, it may be too late. But you can easily outsmart the Grim Rip-Off.
First, check in for your flight online and print out your boarding pass at home. On Jan. 24, airport counter agents started charging $5 for issuing the passes; on June 30, it’ll cost you two bucks at the airport kiosk. At your pad: gratis. (If you are coming from a hotel, ask the front desk if they can print out your boarding pass or whether they have a free business center.)
I also paid zip for my bag. My secret: I brought on board only a personal item, the one form of baggage free of charge. I crammed as much as I could into a canvas tote, then squished it into the dark space occupied by my feet. A family of four shared the strategy: Each member carried a backpack, even the little ones who nearly toppled over from the shifting weight.
Granted, travelers with extended trips and involved wardrobes will have to excel at the art of origami if they hope to fit all their belongings into a 16-by-14-by-12-inch sack. But you can reduce the sting of baggage fees if, repeat the refrain, you pay for them before you arrive at the airport. During online booking, you’ll pay $30 for a carry-on and $28 for the first checked bag on a domestic flight, compared with $35 and $33 if you wait until you check in online, or $40 and $38 if you wait to pay at the airport counter or kiosk. The greatest gouging occurs at the gate, where you’ll be clocked with a $45 punch.
“It would have been cheaper to check my bag,” lamented Patricia Russo, who was waiting for the return flight to Washington with her wheeled suitcase and a backpack.
After a series of reservation woes, the Northern Virginia resident was in a state of Spirit remorse. Her sister had booked her flight for $87, but in the wrong direction, round trip from Fort Lauderdale. Russo had had to eat that fare and rebook at $165 round trip. She then learned that she had to depart Washington two days earlier than planned. The new one-way fare was $225 on Spirit and $165 on JetBlue. She switched loyalties. “JetBlue, Southwest, AirTran — I’m thinking they’re the way to go,” she said. (Those low-fare carriers do not charge for carry-ons, and JetBlue and Southwest check the first bag for free.)
On the trip back to Washington, I ran through all the items that other airlines provide gratis: online reservations, carry-on bags, airport-issued boarding passes. Mid-calculation, a flight attendant walked through the aisle selling food and drinks. I adjusted my list, adding soda, juice and water ($3) and tea and coffee ($2).
Safely on the ground, a flight attendant announced the customary farewell, recognizing that we have a choice in airlines and thanking us for choosing Spirit.
“We look forward to offering you the lowest fares on your future travels,” she said with spunk.
I waited for her to add an aside or a caveat, but it never came.
Oh, so you want to know how I did?
Due to my vigilance, I never paid a penny beyond the original fare. A week later, the price to Fort Lauderdale dropped even further.