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The latest Spirit Airlines experience? You don't want to hear it

Posted by: John Ewoldt under Retail Updated: June 10, 2014 - 10:22 AM

Last weekend I flew to Chicago O'Hare on Spirit Airlines.

Was it a barely-survived-to-tell-the-tale-experience with outrageous baggage fees, long delays without updates, surly flight attendants, back breaking uncomfortable seats and lost luggage?

None of that happened to me, at least this time. My worst fear was a delayed flight, but we left a few minutes EARLY to Chicago and the return flight to MSP left on time. So why might you not want to hear about my experience? Because if you hate Spirit as much as many flyers do, my pleasant experience will contradict your "flyer beware" disasters.

 It was one of those cheap fares advertised for $33 that costs $78 once the taxes are added. I also purchased two Big Seats for $20 each, Spirit's version of a business class seat.

Do I recommend paying extra for one of the Big Seats in the first row, which are almost as big as Delta's business class? Yes, but I only paid an extra $20 one-way. It can run as much as $100 or more on longer flights but you're paying only for the extra room, not free food or drink.

On Spirit's Big Seats, the seat pitch (legroom) is 36-inches (28-inches in Spirit economy). On Delta it's 36-38-inches in business class (30 to 34-inches in economy), according to Seatguru.com.

Spirit's Big Seat is 18.5-inches wide (17.75-inches in economy) compared to Delta's business-class seat at 19 to 21-inches wide. It seemed more than adequate for my 170 lb. frame, but I thought it was even wider  since there are only 4 seats across in the first row compared to six seats across in subsequent rows.

One more plus: the Big Seats also recline, unlike all other seats on Spirit. That's right, Spirit's economy seats do not recline. Since it is in the first row (bulkhead), I was worried that we would get charged for our carryons since we could not put them under the seat in front of us. But no, we were able to put them in the overhead without paying the extra $35 to $45. TIP: you may be able to bring a 2-wheeler to fit in the overhead instead of a fit-under-the-seat piece, but I am verifying this with Spirit. That alone will save you $35 or $45.

Nearly everyone who flies Spirit the first time complains about the bag fees for carryons placed in the overhead as well as those checked ($30 to $40). And those who check luggage at the airport are outraged to discover the fee is $100. But you learn. We brought only duffle bags to avoid the baggage fees--and for a weekend trip they're fine. Still, I will admit that a heavy duffle bag is not nearly as convenient to tote as luggage on wheels.

My worst fear was that we would be delayed. Spirit has one of the worst on-time records in the business. Sixty-four percent of its flights arrive on time compared to an industry average of 80 percent, according to Flightstats.com. Experts recommend taking the earliest flight of the day to minimize delays. Spirit's 6:05 a.m. flight to O'Hare has a 72 percent on-time arrival rate (flight 612). It's 9:30 a.m. departure from ORD to MSP has a 63 percent on-time arrival rate (flight 761). By the ways, those numbers have improved. Three months ago, the same flights had on-time percentages of 51 and 45 respectively.

We were fortunate to have on-time arrivals both ways. Everything went off without a hitch. Even the flight attendants were amiable, funny even. As we taxied to the gate in Chicago, the attendant said "We'd like to thank you for flying Spirit Airlines. We hope you had a pleasant flight. If you have any complaints, please call 1-800-S-O-U-T-H-W-E-S-T."

My only regret was the 6:05 a.m. departure. It meant setting an alarm for 2:45 a.m. and boarding the first light rail train of the day at 4:06 a.m. Luckily, our hotel room was ready when we arrived there at 8:30 a.m. and we didn't even get charged extra for early check-in.

Thumbs up for Spirit this time around. Thumbs down for catching any flight that leaves before 8 a.m. Too early for me.

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