Editor's note: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect fees, seating, and pricing on U.S. budget carriers.
If you love following the flight deals we find each day and post to ThriftyTraveler.com, you may have noticed one thing: We don't post flight deals on budget airlines like Frontier, Spirit, Allegiant, or Sun Country.
There's no question these low-cost carriers can work well for many travelers, and you can even come out ahead over flying a major airline like American, Alaskan, or Delta. But the way budget carriers operate and sell fares, bags, and other extras makes it harder to give prospective traveler's a full picture of what they're in for.
The Costs Add Up Fast
You've probably gotten an email from a budget airline touting dirt-cheap fares. But if those low costs start to tempt you, remember that it's often not the full story.
First up: One-way pricing. While many airlines occasionally tease promotional prices for a one-way flight, it's a frequent strategy for budget carriers. So while the promise of a $49.99 ticket hooks you, you'll often only find more expensive flights for the way home.
And be wary not to select a “Spirit $9 Fare Club” (or the similar “Discount Den” with Frontier) unless you want to tack on a pricey subscription fee to your total cost. Worse yet, airlines like Frontier often show the cheap price for “Discount Den members” while searching to lure you in, then hit you with the much higher, standard price.
Want to take more than a purse or a backpack? On budget carriers, that'll cost you. Of course, the same is true of United basic economy fares. But baggage fees are a huge money-maker for budget airlines – it's the trade-off of those cheaper, upfront fares.
Here's a look at what four of the major budget airlines charge for carry-ons and a checked bag. And keep in mind that some of the costs can vary based on the route you're flying and time of year. And you can generally expect to pay more if you don't purchase your bags when you book.
- Spirit Airlines: Carry-on bags typically range from $26 to $55 each way; one checked bag ranges from $21 to $50 each way
- Frontier Airlines: Carry-on bags start at $35 each way; one checked bag starts at $30 each way
- Allegiant: Carry-on bags range from $18 to $35; one checked bag ranges from $25 to $35 each way
- Sun Country: Carry-on bags start at $30 each way; one checked bag starts at $20 each way.
Whether you're flying Spirit or Sun Country or Frontier, the baggage fees on these budget airlines can add up fast.
Thrifty Tip #1: Use the Google Flights' overhead bin access filter to only see flights that include a free carry-on. We never post flight deals that do not include at least a carry-on.
Oh, and then there are the seat fees. While paying to pick a seat isn't unique to budget airlines, it's particularly egregious. Don't want to get stuck in a middle seat with just 28 inches of legroom on Spirit. That will probably cost you $18 each way for a halfway decent seat.
Seat selection fees can vary widely by airline, route, time of year, and more. It just makes it even harder to give readers a sense of what their all-in travel costs might be.
As you click through the numerous up-sell pages on budget airlines' sites like Spirit, you'll get a “Special Offer” to get a checked bag, carry-on, and select your seat for $72 each way. Prices will vary by flight, but that's another $150 to your flight price.
And finally: the infamous Spirit check-in charge. I'm sure many of you check in online or use the terminal kiosks anyway, but $20 to have an agent check you in for your flights?
That cheap fare may not be looking nearly as cheap anymore.
Squeezing into Seats
We'd all probably endure some things to save a few bucks. But boarding a budget flight to spend hours in a cramped seat may not be worth it for everyone.
There's an easy way to see how much leg room you'll get in your flight searches. Use the Legroom Chrome Extension for Google Flights to see the seat pitch for every flight you search on Google Flights.
You'll see that it runs the gamut from a blissful 32 inches on some major carriers' planes, to the 31 inches on most domestic flights to the typical 30 inches you'll get with Sun Country or Allegiant. Then there are the worst offenders of all: Spirit and Frontier, which drop as low as 28 inches. Those extra 2 or more inches can make a big difference.
Customer Service Isn't, Well, Service
When everything goes smoothly, a budget carrier can be a great experience. And there's no denying budget airlines like Spirit and Frontier are getting better at running well and on-time. They've steadily climbed the ranks of airline on-time performance.
But then there are the horror stories: bags lost for months, canceled flights with no hope of getting rescheduled for days, stranding passengers in Mexico. The list goes on and on.
One of the ways that budget carriers cut down on costs is through customer service … or lack thereof. And while traditional airlines may not be perfect, you can call customer service or shoot them a message on social media and usually get the situation handled.
With budget carriers, you pay for what you get in that department.
If you swear by flying Spirit or Frontier or similar airlines, that's great! These carriers can work for many travelers. But at Thrifty Traveler, we're committed to posting flight deals that are easy to understand and access for every traveler.
Spirit, Frontier and Sun Country, are the Days Inns of airlines. I check the Spirit site for a laugh now and then. I’m loyal to Southwest which is far and away pretty much in a class by itself.
This article is very misleading and unfair on so many levels, I do not know where to even start! This is a perfect example of why you can’t trust everything you read online these days. This does your readers and clients a HUGE disservice. It is more than o.k. if you do not like Spirit Airlines or the ULCC business model. But get your facts straight. And the fact that you did not include Sun Country in this grouping is absurd. Sun Country, along with American Airlines, are by far the worst run and worst performing airlines in the United States today. Yet you’re website is pitching AA miles as they best thing going yet American is probably the worst airline flying the sky’s today, their operations is hanging on by a thread most days. Sun County does not even have kiosks or an app to check-in. Spirit has both.
Spirit’s operations and on-time performance have improved significantly in the past year, they are operating way better than American or United and even Southwest on most days recently.
Now the blatant false facts in your post. One way pricing. What airline doesn’t have at times a cheap one way fare but the return is higher or much higher. THEY ALL DO.
Spirit published fares, found on spirit.com or any aggregate site INCLUDE the “GOVERNMENT’S CUT” No idea what you’re talking about when you say Spirit will advertise a fare that does not include that amount. It is simply not true. As a matter of fact you have to purposefully expand that section to see that price breakdown. Do you know what you’re even talking about? Take more than a purse? Again, not accurate or fair. I have flown with my nice sized backpack on Spirit with no charge. Again, what airline today (except Delta) does not charge for a carry-on bag on a basic economy ticket. Pricing is unpredictable on ALL AIRLINES. ULCC are not different. You do not have to pay to check-in at the airport with Spirit. Only if you ask an agent to print your boarding pass for you. You can print your boarding pass at the Spirit Kiosk for free or use their app on your phone or have your boarding pass emailed to your email. I have found Spirit customer service to be more than professional and improving. Post a blog on here sometime about the horrid conditions at O’Hare or DFW for AA passengers after a weather event. I’ll say it again, AA’s operation is barely hanging on by a thread, same goes for Sun Country.
Can you tell this post made my blood boil. Jared, this is not a good reflection of the brand I think you want TT to have. It is a perfect example of why I have yet to buy a membership to your site. This is by far the worst post I have ever read on your site.
All airlines are difficult to fly these days. Delta, by far is the best out there. But this slam on Spirit is below the belt, Mikhala. I flew Spirit this past winter season 6 (six) round trips on their MSP-FLL non-stop. All but 2 of the 12 segments arrived EARLY. Easy check-in, I purchased an exit row seat or big front seat on all flights for more leg room and I purchased my tickets at the ticket counter saving myself $40 per round trip (this is what I expect a blog like this to inform us about, but no I learned that from another blog).
I’m a smart traveler and a thrifty traveler. I fly Spirit smart and have learned how to fly them and I travel on them extensively many times in a big front seat for a fraction of what it would cost to fly a mainline airline. Their planes are new and they are running a very good operation these days.
You do not have to fly Spirit but you are not allowed to post falsehoods like this without being called on it. Awful writing, I have lost some faith in TT after this post. Let’s see if you post my comment.
Lots to unpack here, but I’ll keep it brief:
-This article is titled “Why we don’t post flight deals from budget carriers,” not “Why you shouldn’t fly budget carriers”
-You’re right that Sun Country should be grouped in with these budget airlines – that’s why we mention them several times throughout the article.
-Delta, AA, Alaska, and (soon) JetBlue basic economy fares all include a carry-on. Only United doesn’t.
-It’s great that you’ve had great experiences with Spirit. And as we note, there’s no denying that it has improved operationally lately. But our experience and many of our readers has been poor. And along with other budget airlines, when things go awry, the problems with customer service are far more apparent.
-Fare deal advertisements from many of these ULCCs tend to obscure the total, all-in cost, especially after factoring in any seat assignment or baggage.
-We post about AA miles almost exclusively because of how valuable they are to use on partner airlines.
-You’re right that the description of “just a purse” is not quite accurate. We’ve updated the post to reflect that.
Again, this is not a post about why no one should fly these airlines. It’s explaining to readers why we don’t post their fares. You have clearly come ahead and enjoy your experience with Spirit – and that’s great. But it is not for everyone, particularly when it’s so hard to communicate the true cost of a flight with these budget carriers.
Cute, Kyle and unpack away. And , yeah, keep it brief. …I am sure you have a lot of credit offers to peddle instead of replying to post.
Have you flown American Airlines recently? Read some of the recent blog posts of their regular meltdowns and inability to provide base levels of customer service. Spirit is actually today a better run and operating airline than American. Did Mikhala review fight cancellation statistics? Spirit is approaching Delta in the number of completed flights each day and their cancellation rate (minus weather related) has dropped significantly.
I still take umbrage with your fare advertisement content in this article and a correction in the original post is needed. Spirit DOES NOT advertise fares that do not include the Government Taxes and Fees. It is against the law. And what airline today does not obscure the total, all-in cost? Spirit is not alone in that.
re: seats on Spirit. The money you save buying your tickets at the airport counter more than pays for an exit row or Big Front seat and having just flown home on a Delta SFO-MSP red eye on a new 737-900, the pitch keeps getting tighter and tighter on Delta.
We’ve all flown American recently. And we’re all familiar with Spirit’s improving on-time performance. The fact of the matter is that it’s much harder for us to promote Spirit/Frontier/Sun Country fares because of the unpredictable fares and fees. That’s what this story is about.
Just use Southwest. Nor baggage fees, No carry on fees, all seats same size. No upsell unless you want “Early Bird Checkin”. Also no change ticket fees although you may have to pay a different amount for the same route but you retain the full value of the first ticket
Southwest is by far the best airline. I do not consider them a low cost airline though. Many times their fares are more than Delta but for the flexibility and no fee structure they offer, sometimes it is well worth it. I’ve read the thread and I don’t quite understand what you mean Kyle when you state the story is about Spirit’s ‘unpredictable fares and fees’. I actually think the Spirit model is as transparent and clear a fare and fee structure you will find. They are completely unbundled. You know exactly what you’re paying for and what it is for. So, I don’t follow you there. When I re-read the original post it did kind of strike me as an elitist/white upper middle class slam on a low cost carrier and insulting those who choose to fly them or can only travel because of lower fares many times offered by airlines like Spirit. I have noticed writers for TT becoming increasingly sarcastic and snarky. Not sure that is what your audience wants? Why not just state facts and stick to letting us all make our own educated and informed decision.
I too have actually flown Spirit this past winter (three times) and been surprised how far they have come on the reliability of their operation. I always check Spirit flight options and fares when booking travel. I will say I tend to stick to only non-stop options on Spirit tho. Eric clearly is passionate about it and I have to agree with a few points he makes. I learned something from Eric I did not know as far as saving significant money when booking spirit flights at the ticket counter, $42 per round trip. Back to the point of Spirit being completely unbundled and transparent, when you click to open the flight price breakdown it is called the ‘passenger usage charge’. Who knew??! TT this is actually something I would expect your website to inform us all about! I actually discovered there are lots of blog posts out there about how to fly Spirit ‘smart’ and in a way, beat them at their own game. I tested this out last night as I needed to purchase summer family trip tickets to Detroit from MSP. Six of us going for a long weekend June 15-18. Took the light rail to MSP and the agent at counter was super friendly, no line to get help. I asked her about it and she said oh sure. I gave her the flights we wanted and had the names and DOB ready to go and I was in and out in 15 mins and back on the light rail. $118 roundtrip became $76 from the savings, time a family of 6 that is $250 in saving just buy going to buy my tickets at the ticket counter. Unreal. Came home and logged into my Spirit account and there was the record, purchased seats near the front with our savings and we’ll take free backpacks for our belongings! Amazing price on a nonstop over a weekend in the summer. Until Spirit entered the MSP-DTW market, rarely could we fly to DTW for under $400. In a few weeks we’re going for $76.
And finally before I go, I could not agree more about American Airlines. My sister had a HORRIBLE experience back in April with what appeared to be a near fatal meltdown of their operations all across the country. She has been a loyal flyer of American for years and I could not believe her story from her trip from ORD to SEA, that airline has some serious issues going on. After her story and a few I read from just a google search, I would not fly them if they were the only airline flying.
Kyle, I think your/Mikhala’s story was about slamming Spirit. What is ‘unpredictable’ about Spirits unbundled fare and fee structure? You make no sense. You can unbundle every penny of what you pay spirit for. It is full transparency.
Here is a link to a story just today on Spirit…they are gaining more customer each day and their operation is approaching the excellence of Delta.
It just dawned on me…TT is all about pitching and peddling credit card offers for ff miles. That must be how you all make money. Spirit is not in that game, so you need to slam them to ensure your readers sign up for your credit cards you’re pitching. Makes sense.
To all of you ‘real thrifty travelers’ out there…research and educate yourself and read lots of blogs and you’ll learn how to save lots of money traveling.
One thing you failed to mention in the Article was Military discount. Allegiant’s Military Honors allows you to fly their planes with NO seat fees nor luggage fees for any number of bags by showing proof of service (usually a DD214 form. Not even the big airlines offer this discount.
Great point Mary, thanks for sharing!