Free Spirit: Surprisingly good, but still suspicious

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Spirit Airlines Saver$ Club is a terrific value today and Spirit Airlines Free Spirit points can be worth far more than you might expect, yet despite some massive surprises in both of those departments that are worth attention, I still struggle to suggest taking Spirit seriously — just not for the reasons you might assume.

Forget about that brawl on the news

Everyone who reads this post is likely aware enough of Spirit Airlines to have seen a brawl or two on the news or a video of some passenger getting out of line. I don’t care about that stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want it happening on my flight. But I know that with the volume of flights happening every day, even if one of those situations made the news every day, the likelihood of it being on my flight is pretty darn low.

And I know that someone in the comments will note that they collect points and miles so they don’t have to fly Spirit. Look, I totally get that we collect points and miles to live a life that’s more luxurious than the one we could likely afford. I’ll take Emirates First Class and its free-flowing Dom Perignon or the taste test between Dom and Krug in Singapore First any day of the week over any flight on Spirit. But domestically, if I’m flying in economy class, it just really doesn’t make much difference to me. I expect poor service and cramped seats when I’m flying domestic economy and feel pleasantly surprised when I get something better. I’ve only flown Spirit once and it was neither better nor worse than anyone else in domestic economy in my experience.

My main issues with Spirit are route network (i.e. they just don’t fly out of any airport reasonably close to me), additional fees for bags / seat selection, and the conundrum one might face in a delay / cancellation situation since Spirit may only have 1 flight a day or a couple flights a week on the route you need, which could ruin a trip if you need to be reaccommodated.

But if you live somewhere well-served by Spirit, you have credit cards that will cover incidentals like checked bags and seat selection and trip delay or cancellation and/or you can accept that you may have an issue if there’s a cancellation, the new program is worth a look. I’m certainly not going to ignore a program over its worst customers so the analysis here totally disregards that stuff.

A new program, new hope

When Spirit Airlines first reached out to us about how they had “started with a blank sheet of paper” and totally redesigned their loyalty program, I was intrigued. What did Spirit have to lose by doing something really innovative?

I was soon disappointed when I saw that they may have started with a blank page but quickly copied and pasted most of the new contents. I was further skeptical when we met with Spirit executives and they were so reticent to make any commitments regarding point value. Their strategy was to say that they were confident that when we took a deep dive into the program that we would find it to be as good as they bragged it would be.

Later, I realized that it was my own over-optimism to blame for my initial disappointment. I had unrealistic expectations of some wildly innovative and hugely rewarding program that just wouldn’t make sense. I came to think that maybe Spirit was offering a pretty reasonable value after all.

Then, last Thursday, Greg and I recorded our weekly podcast episode. During our post roast, Greg noted that he felt some headlines had been overly generous about the new Free Spirit program. I argued that Free Spirit looked pretty decent. If points were worth a penny each (a rough guess at the time), they were offering 6% back on base fares and 12% back on incidentals (which we know makes up the majority of the spend on Spirit). Those numbers are competitive. During that recording, FedEx dropped off a package that I would only open hours later. Well, I’ll let you see it for yourself.

That made me more skeptical yet. Don’t get me wrong — I love free stuff. I now own more Spirit Airlines swag than anyone who doesn’t work for Spirit ever should. I’m typing this post by the light of that desk lamp. But man, it sure seemed like Spirit was pushing hard for some positive press. What were they trying to sweep under the rug?

I’ll give them this: they made me look. And when I looked, what I saw was surprisingly good. But I’ll get to my continued skepticism — don’t just drink the Kool-Aid without getting to my conclusions.

Spirit Saver$ Club sometimes has massive savings….right now

Last week, I noticed that Angelina Travels posted for the first time in nearly a year to say that Spirit Saver$ club was money well spent. In her post, she shows how she saved a substantial amount of cash – well beyond the membership fee — on a single trip (and of course she used an airline incidental credit to pay for Spirit Saver$ club and thus should get that reimbursed).

I was surprised to find that Angelina’s case wasn’t an exception — and it fact it wasn’t even that impressive compared to savings I saw when Saver$ Club fares are available. I found many instances where the savings with a Spirit Saver$ Club membership was $40 or $50 per passenger one-way. I even found one instance where the one-way savings was more than $95. Since you can realize that savings for up to 8 passengers on the same itinerary, there is no doubt that the savings could easily justify a membership….today.

And while my data below makes Spirit Saver$ Club look pretty good (especially when you consider that the example flights are the savings for just one passenger one-way), that last sentence above is what fuels my ongoing skepticism. While Saver$ Club fares look very good in many instances right now, they aren’t available on all flights. Perhaps more troubling, I haven’t found any Saver$ Club fares beyond May 12th — they end just before peak summer travel season. On the one hand, it isn’t surprising not to see discounted travel during peak summer season. On the other hand, it makes the value of a membership plummet to nothing if the cheap fares aren’t available when you want to travel. And in fact on some routes, Saver$ Club fares aren’t plentiful even before the May 12th cutoff. For example, this is a look at Indianapolis to Dallas at the end of April. Only one day (a Wednesday) has the yellow “SC” logo that signifies availability of a Saver$ Club fare.

We just have no idea how much the savings will be nor how often it will be available because there is no standard. Spirit could pull all of the Saver$ club fares except for on odd-numbered Tuesdays that are divisible by 3 or they could trim the discount to a small margin at the drop of a hat. The initial investment for a membership is low enough that it will still easily be worth it to buy a membership for a lot of people who stand to save more than the cost of membership on a single trip they’re booking. But will it still be worth as much a year from now when it auto-renews? I’d be very hesitant to pay for an 18-month or 24-month commitment unless I were saving substantially on a booking at the time of purchase.

But the fact is that in some cases the juice is well worth the squeeze on a membership for the savings on a single flight, particularly for those of us who will be putting an airline incidental credit to use (and then using the rest of that incidental credit to pay for bags, seat selection, etc). I won’t be buying a membership right now myself because I just don’t have any plans that would match well with their flights at the moment, though that could conceivably change in the coming months.

One thing that I found particularly exciting regarding Saver$ Club fares is that when they are available, you can also save on award tickets. For example, see this day where the Saver$ Club fare drops about $95 off of a fare from Los Angeles to Medellin, Colombia.

You could save a similarly large margin in points when there is a Saver$ Club fare available.

Unfortunately, as you see in that first screen shot, Saver$ Club fares just weren’t available most days on that route (in fact there were none on any other date pictured).

How much are Spirit Airlines Free Spirit points worth?

Spirit Airlines Free Spirit points are highly variable in value, but based on my searches they are frequently worth 1.1c per point or more, sometimes reaching as high as 1.9c per point. But in some instances, they may be worth less than three quarters of a cent. They tend to be most valuable when cash prices are low after subtracting any necessary taxes.

At Frequent Miler, we maintain Reasonable Redemption Values for points and miles that are aimed at determining how much value you can reasonably expect to get without too much effort. Valuing transferable currencies is much simpler than valuing airline miles. The value of miles for a typical airline program varies depending on how you use them. One person may redeem miles for an incredibly expensive international first class trip and another for a short domestic hop. Rather than taking on the impossible task of gathering enough data to determine a precise value, we have long used a method for major carriers that puts miles on an equal level for major programs. Read more about that methodology here.

However, valuing Spirit miles is obviously much harder without a standard number of miles necessary for a trip. It would be a seemingly insurmountable task to gather a meaningful sample size of data, though I spent chunk of time searching one route after another (randomly chosen routes and dates to plug into the spreadsheet below). I’m not convinced that this shows the true value of Spirit points for a number of reasons.

First, despite some patterns, we don’t yet have a predictable metric for the value. I thought I had the system figured out a few times when looking at pricing patterns but then it fell apart — maybe someone better at recognizing patterns will see it in the spreadsheet below. But an additional problem with determining a value is that it seems to vary by day. For example, look at the following week of cash fares and notice that tickets on the first three dates (Apr 20, 21, 22) price from the same $112.56 and that fares on the last 3 dates (Apr 24, 25, 26) price from the same $139.18 each day.

Now check out the price in points for the same week. Notice that Apr 22nd costs more than the two previous days and Apr 24, 25, and 26 all cost different amounts of points despite cash fares being the same.

Generally speaking, weekends and Mondays tended to cost more points than similar fares mid-week. However, even on the same day I sometimes found that two flights with the same cash price would cost a different number of points for no explicable reason.

See the following sheet for a list of values I compiled just searching random routes and dates. If there is now Saver$ Club fare, that’s because there wasn’t one on the flight I selected in that search.

All of that highly unpredictable variance is why I have trouble giving Free Spirit two thumbs up despite the fact that, as you see below, points are frequently as valuable if not more valuable than what you might expect from other programs (particularly so with Saver$ Club fares).

That said, if you frequently travel a route served by Spirit and you have the flexibility to cherry pick the right dates, Free Spirit certainly might be an attractive program. The elite benefits aren’t bad (particularly at the Gold level) and if you’re a manufactured spender, it isn’t that expensive to attain Silver or Gold status. For example, if you have liquidation options for Simon Visa Gift Cards, you would be looking at a cost of around $250 for the $50K spend required for top-tier status (not considering your margin of sacrifice in not choosing a more rewarding card). If you’re already spending some measure on Spirit flights, you likely wouldn’t have to MS as much to attain status and for free bags and free exit row selection it may be worth it.

There are obviously a lot of qualifications there and the obvious companion to that sentence is that it may not be worth it. But let’s be real: the fact that Spirit has a loyalty program that may be worth investing in for some folks certainly is newsworthy.

Bottom line

I was very surprised to see that Spirit Airlines points can often be worth more than 1.3c each as seen in the spreadsheet in this post. I was even more surprised to see savings of $30, $40, or even as much as $95 one-way for one passenger with a Saver$ Club membership (which could be extended to 7 other passengers on the same itinerary when available). The problem is that the value of points remains unpredictable and the Saver$ Club fares are far from ubiquitous. Still, I could see the Free Spirit program being appealing for a family that travels the same short route several times each year, particularly if they tend to plan in advance (making it easier to find those cheap fares where points are more valuable). If anyone expected Spirit’s new program to poach American Airlines Executive Platinum members or to convince Greg to stop spending for Delta Diamond in favor of spending his way to Spirit Gold status, they were disillusioned from the start. Spirit’s new loyalty program is solidly decent for the target market they’re after and it is going to give you rewards that are actually worth collecting when you choose to fly Spirit. It isn’t going to make you choose Spirit as your go-to airline of choice, but the fact that it will be reasonably rewarding to fly Spirit is a welcome change in a world where short domestic trips may be much more common for many people — including those in the travel hacking community.

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