Delta vs. Spirit [On Greg’s Mind]

55

After many, many years of avoiding flying Spirit, I finally gave them a try last month.  I was happily surprised by how pleasant the experience was.  I had paid for a Big Front Seat and yet the flight was still cheaper than a Delta economy ticket for the same route.  Plus, I was able to use my Ritz card’s airline incidental fee reimbursement to refund the purchase of the Big Front Seat.  The Big Front Seat was big and plush.  And the flight attendants were super nice and attentive.  The Big Front Seat is missing a number of things that you’ll find on most other regional first class products: Spirit’s seats don’t recline and do not have video screens.  Plus, unless you have Spirit Gold status, there are no complementary snacks or drinks.  Still, the basic experience of getting from point A to point B was excellent.

I’m shown in Delta First on the left, and on Spirit’s Big Front Seat on the right.  When I flew Spirit in October I was impressed with how nice the experience was.  If anything, Spirit’s seat may have been a bit more comfortable than Delta’s, except that Spirit’s seat doesn’t recline.  The flight attendants were very nice and attentive on both airlines.

Rethinking Spirit

My recent experience flying Spirit made me wonder if I need to change my approach to domestic flights.  Previously I avoided Spirit like the plague even if Spirit offered better flight times and better prices.  And it wasn’t unusual for both to be true.  Spirit has a pretty good route network from my home airport (Detroit – DTW):

Spirit’s direct flights from Detroit (DTW) are shown above.  Image courtesy of FlightConnections (I love that tool).

Spirit covers more routes from Detroit than AA and United, combined:

Shown above are all American Airlines AND United Airlines direct flights from Detroit (DTW). Image courtesy of FlightConnections.

Of course, since Detroit is a Delta hub, we have far more nonstop options on Delta:

Delta’s regional direct flights from Detroit are shown above. Image courtesy of FlightConnections.

A real world side-by-side comparison

I recently flew to Denver with my son.  I had originally booked the entire trip on Delta, but I decided that it would be great to do a little experiment: We would fly Delta one-way and Spirit the other in order to compare them nearly side-by-side. Based on my experience a month ago, I thought that the experiences would be close.  I knew Delta would be better for its in-flight entertainment, food, and drinks, but I expected the rest of the experience to be similar.

With Delta, I booked a cheap flight with miles and was able to apply regional upgrade certificates (a Platinum elite status benefit) in order to secure first class.  With Spirit, I was able to buy a very cheap flight and pay for the Big Front Seat.  I was all set for this experiment!

Outbound booking:

  • Delta: 5,000 miles + $5.60 + Regional Upgrade Certificate

Return:

  • Spirit: $30.49 + $56 (for Big Front Seat) = $86.49

The information above makes it look like the two airlines were fairly close in price, but that’s not really true.  Delta charged more for the return flight. I had originally booked the return on Delta, in economy, for 13,500 miles + $5.60.  If we value Delta miles at only a penny each, that’s like paying $140.60 for economy.  That’s not bad, but nowhere near as good as Spirit’s $86.49 for the Big Front Seat.  Note that I booked my son’s Spirit flight later than my own and his cost $112.59 with the Big Front Seat (still very cheap!).

Note that I didn’t have to worry about paying for bags on this trip because I have Spirit Gold status and get a free checked bag and a free carry-on bag.  Our plan was to check one of our bags and carry on the other.  This is one of the perks of being a blogger: Spirit gave me this status when they were doing a big marketing push for their overhauled rewards program: Spirit goes revenue-based, makes elite status easier with new Free Spirit program.  If we had to pay for bags it would have cost us $42 for a checked bag or $52 for a carry-on if we pre-purchased the bags online.

Result

Outbound Flight

Delta regional first class meal.

Our outbound Delta flight was great.  I was pleasantly surprised that they served a boxed lunch on a sub 3-hour flight.  I didn’t use the in-flight entertainment, but it was there and my son enjoyed it.  And, of course, there was plenty of legroom:

Delta regional first class.

Return Flight

Our return flight was scheduled for 2:43pm on Friday.  I first new something was wrong when an email from Spirit arrived at 7:20am:

Hello Gregory,

We sincerely apologize for what happened on your recent trip. We care about your satisfaction and want to make this right. Please accept our apologies along with this voucher for future travel to any of our destinations.

Whaaat?  We hadn’t yet flown, but they were already giving us $50 vouchers towards future travel bookings (as long as that future happens within 3 months).  What was that all about?  I logged into Spirit to check on our flight and saw that it was still listed as on time.  I then checked on the plane itself which was scheduled to come from Detroit.  That flight was already listed at more than 2 hours late.  They knew that the plane wouldn’t arrive in Denver until after the outbound flight was scheduled to leave.  So, some apologetic algorithm at Spirit knew that the outbound flight was going to be late and therefore sent the apology and vouchers, but it was many hours before they updated our flight info to show that it would be late.

At 11:43 am, they finally acknowledged that the flight would be a couple of hours late and issued us each a $7 meal voucher.  Anyone know a meal available at an airport for only $7?

Throughout the day, the scheduled departure got pushed back again and again.  It finally took off at 9:18pm, almost 7 hours later than scheduled:

Fortunately for us, though, we weren’t on that Spirit flight.  When I saw how things were going, I booked an afternoon Delta flight for 24,500 miles plus $5.60, each.  That wasn’t cheap, but it was worth it.  We were both upgraded to first class (I have Delta Diamond status) and enjoyed the return trip.  The Delta flight took off a minute early and arrived in Detroit 11 minutes early:

Spirit Refund

While waiting at the gate for our Delta return flight, I texted Spirit to ask if we could cancel our flights and get our money back.  Initially we were told that we would get $10 credit each because our bookings were non-refundable.  I replied with a question “is that true even if the flight is extremely late?”  The reply was great:

I am so sorry about that, I have just checked that for you, I will go ahead and cancel the flight for you and initiate a refund.

Score!  My flight was booked with credits that I had left over from last month (long story), and so they refunded my flight in the form of credits.  That’s fair.  My son’s flight was paid with a credit card, though, and they refunded his ticket to the credit card!

I might book Spirit in the future, but…

I don’t blame Spirit for the long delay on our booked flight.  All airlines face issues that sometimes cause long delays.  In fact, Spirit’s on-time performance is better than most other U.S. airlines (but not as good as Delta’s).  And I was impressed that they offered both proactive compensation and full refunds.

The problem is that Spirit doesn’t have the ability to get you where you need to go when things go wrong.  When things go wrong with a Delta flight, Delta can usually put you on another Delta flight (but maybe with connections) or can even put you on an AA or United flight.  Spirit doesn’t have the route network or interline agreements for doing either.

Also, unlike most other carriers within the U.S., Spirit still charges for flight changes and cancellations.  I love the flexibility of changing or cancelling flights when needed.  With Spirit, those with Gold status get one free change per booking, but that’s it.

Despite all of the above, there are times I might book Spirit in the future.  Sometimes they simply have the best price by a large margin.  More importantly to me, though, is that they sometimes have the best flight times for my needs.  When that happens, I could imagine booking Spirit if I was confident that I wouldn’t need to cancel the flight.  But, even if that happens, I’ll book a refundable flight on a competing airline as back-up.  That way, if the Spirit flight gets cancelled or delayed, I’ll have another good option.  And if the Spirit flight flies as scheduled, I’ll cancel or reschedule the back-up flight.

Conclusion

It’s unfortunate that my Spirit flight got so massively delayed that I didn’t even fly it.  I was looking forward to doing a side-by-side review comparing Delta’s regional first class to Spirit’s Big Front Seat.  The experience, though, reminded me that there are more reasons to avoid Spirit than my previous (and wrong) expectations that the in-flight experience would be bad.  Unlike most other carriers in the U.S., Spirit still charges for changes and cancellations.  And, when things go wrong, there’s little they can do to reaccommodate fliers.  That said, if price is your main driver, Spirit is usually significantly cheaper than others, even after accounting for baggage fees.  And, I was impressed with some aspects of how they handled our delay.  They proactively sent $50 vouchers towards future flights and gave us $7 meal vouchers.  Considering that many fliers probably spent less than $50 for the flight anyway, that’s pretty good!  And the fact that they fully refunded our flight was great.

What about you?  What are your thoughts about flying Spirit?  Comment below.

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Nick

My flight yesterday was cancelled through Spirit due to weather. Yet my friend at NOAA said that weather was not a factor. So…Spirit lied, and took the easy route by claiming “weather” which gives them the option to not correct anything and leave me high and dry at the airport for…wait for it..6 days till my next flight. For weather that wasn’t a concern to the whole East Coast of the United States. So why lie to me?

Sheldon

Your interaction with Spirit is very interesting. When I am not in a hurry to get somewhere, or don’t care how I get there, I fly spirit. The ONLY reason I fly Spirit is because it gets me from point A to B, the cheapest- no bells and whistles, comfort, food, or entertainment. I have missed a connecting international flight, had to stay overnight @ the airport (luckily I had a a friend in that city) and was only given a $10 hotel voucher. My flights have been delayed numerous times before, once over 2hrs. I have NEVER gotten a refund, meal voucher or travel credit. Speaking from my own experience, I can say that is not normal Spirit behavior.

Last edited 10 days ago by Sheldon
Donna

If you are able to buy your ticket at the ticket counter rather than on line, it is even cheaper!

Dan

Really? Ive always heard that it’s cheaper to buy online early?

dan

not worth a drive, esp. a distance to the airport, then find a parking; if u got a good deal / low fare online, keep it

Last edited 10 days ago by dan
Spirit blows

Note… Spirit=LOL

J watkins

I fly Spirit from Detroit to Tampa frequently. Never had any issues or complaints. Flights are on time and dirt cheap. Planes are clean and flight attendants are great. Passengers have been good also.

Lynda

I’ll stick with Delta. The less drama in my life the better

Dick Bupkiss

Your flight did not include a fight between passengers, an assault on gate staff, etc., so you really did not get a complete “Spirit Experience.”

The airline itself might be perfectly adequate, but the clientele that it attracts is a major problem. You are forced to share the trip with a couple hundred people who are chasing tickets that cost less than a meal at Mickey D’s, and don’t know how to behave as adults in a functioning society. I really don’t care how cheap their tickets are or how plush their seats may be, I do not want to spend any time mixing with that crowd. Our time on this orb is way too short to subject yourself to that. I’d rather walk.

Skip Bidigill

You sound like a real winner! Yes, please do us all a favor…walk!!

MaryD

I just traveled to Cancun using spirit for the first time and I can honestly say never again. My flight was changed that would have me with a 12 hour layover. When I was able to change it, I had a 1 hour layover in Chicago which was good. The bad was that the plane ride from LAX to Chicago was terribly uncomfortable. The seats are smaller than usual, don’t recline, and the seats had absolutely little to no padding. My back really hurt after that. Your tray table is about a 10”x7” piece of metal. I felt that I was being nickel- and-dime for everything else from baggage fees to a bottle of water. Nothing was included. Lastly, the plane made so much noise and rattled as we were landing both times. My confidence too was then rattled.

On my return flight, I used Jet Blue which I also never have flown before. I will definitely fly with them again. Seats were comfortable and they provide inflight entertainment, and excellent free snacks.

Kathryn Peel

There is truly no comparison DELTA always wins. I give spirit a chance from time to time. And they always lost. Between chatty loud flight attendants with bad manors, to food on seats to foul smelling planes, and those non reclining seatsyou can buy that 40 dollar tkt then spend another 100 on bags 25 on fees . Just to have your luggage lost. I fly weekly and on Delta you arrive rested , clean and crew is quiet and polite. I highly recoment comfort plus 30 day advance purchase and its a way better deal than spirit every time…. If you add all the hidden costsAnd you are right Spirit will leave you stranded … Delta will do all it takes or get you a room .

Renata Martins

Our JetBlue flight back to the USA from Mexico got canceled (this was last month) and it took us over 24 hours to get on a plane back home. The way they handled things was shady. Bottom line is, it happens to every aircraft.

whocares

every time I look at Frontier it’s more expensive to where I want to go out of SEA.

Every time I look at Spirit I’m reminded why I don’t usually fly them too.

They have smaller carry-on rule (Or personal item only), and only 40 lbs for check-in bag. Otherwise, big upcharge to 50 lbs. Though I see they have this bundle offer for carry-on/50 lb bags.

Their route map doesn’t seem to show non-stop flights properly…just checking. It’s confusing. I don’t like it.

I’ve flown a couple times on Spirit many years ago – 10 years ago or so? No issues…I think one time I sat in exit row too. Planes were new, it was a good experience.

Since I always have a large carry-on and often have a check-in bag these days…the price advantage melts away.

Too much hassle.

Mike

Spirit has a 40 lb bag limit as well.

Michael

No. Unless literally the only option. I had to right after a hurricane with no other options that worked. They canceled my flight the next morning without notice. I only found out the day before when I went to check in.

And they had the gall to refund none of my fare to include the Big Front Seat fee. My only refund was a $29 voucher for a flight I’ll never take. They wouldn’t refund me because they offered me a seat on another flight, which I had to refuse because it was too late.

Frankly I have severe doubts about your impartiality, due to the special treatment you were given.

Evelyn Reyes

We are a great airline that media has tarnished our reputation day in day out and there fore we continue to have that negative stigma.

Sign
A proud Spirit flight attendant

John

Your airline is [censored] terrible, it’s not a stigma is a reality.

dan

“This is one of the perks of being a blogger: Spirit gave me this status when they were doing a big marketing push for their overhauled rewards program”

haha, did they give the FM’s whole team including Nick & Stephen the status or just u, Greg?

Last edited 10 days ago by dan
Matthew

I think if anything, what your experience proves is if you’re time-sensitive, have a backup. That’s one big perk with miles and points. The only downside is you’re potentially taking a seat from someone else, but the airlines will tend to overbook for that reason. My only experience with Spirit IROPs was a long time ago flying to FLL from ORD. The plane had a birdstrike coming from FLL, so the very amazing Irish manager pulled out her corporate credit card and moved us all over to AA first-class check-in next door (at the time) and purchased us all new tickets on AA in economy. Some of us had to go to MIA instead, but that was fine. Thankfully Enterprise (I think) moved our reservation over. The tickets weren’t that expensive, but we did pay only $9 each way, so we really came out ahead. I doubt Spirit will ever do that again, but it did prove to me that they do have some type of real customer service. It’s great the customer service is more automated and proactive now. I can’t recall any other airline giving me that kind of heads up on a delayed flight, with a voucher. The 3-month expiration is annoying – but maybe your goal now is to find a really cheap Spirit flight you can take to use up expiring hotel certificates? Hehe

JULES MONTEROS

The problem is that you haven’t encountered the full Spirit customer service experience. They will leave you stranded, with little or no help from the ticket counter, who will just referred you to calling their phone line, which is a joke. Twice a flight was cancelled for days out from the original flight from no valid reason, and I had to book expensive last minute flights on other airlines, because Spirit has no reciprocity with other airlines. I have learned that it is so worth paying a little more to avoid the constant delays, hassles, and poor customer service that is the Spirit experience.