A bargain airfare. What could go wrong?

I cringed when my friend Larry told me that he was flying from San Francisco to Newark during the holidays. Then I shuddered when he said he was flying Frontier Airlines to Phoenix connecting to a Spirit Airlines flight to Newark. I jokingly told him to take good notes because this could make for an interesting column.

I had no idea what he’d experience, but flying these two budget airlines with a connection seemed risky. Frontier and Spirit have more than their share of problems, and taking both seemed to compound the chance for the unexpected.

Larry made this choice because it was a last minute trip – he couldn’t buy his flight in advance, and the other airline fares were much more expensive at ~ $600. His fare cost just $275.

He might have been forwarned while trying to use Spirit’s website to purchase his ticket and seat. He was unable to pay with his credit cards – the website rejected his valid cards, one after another. He called Spirit and got through after a 20 minute hold. The agent said they don’t take credit cards on the phone and couldn’t help him buy his ticket – it’s outsourced to another company and only done online.

He eventually got a phone number that took his card by automated voice. But if Spirit is run mostly from the web, you’d think it would be a flawless experience. No, Spirit’s website problems persisted. When he checked in for his flight, the webpage displayed a message “No Permission.”

The trip didn’t get off to a good start. Larry’s Frontier flight from San Francisco to Phoenix left 90 minutes late, leaving him with just 30 minutes to get to his midnight flight to Newark. But he needn’t have worried, because as he was landing, he turned on his phone and saw a message that his Spirit flight was canceled due to a security issue, and his plane was in Houston.

He went to the Spirit counter to rebook, but couldn’t get on their next flight at 10am the following morning – it was fully booked. The best they could do was to get him on a flight 24 hours later, midnight the following night. Spirit told him that they don’t provide food or hotel vouchers, nor do they put passengers on other airlines. He’s on his own.

Larry looked for earlier flights for the next day on other airlines, but the fares were many hundreds more. So he reserved a room at a local Marriott property, paying for two nights to get an evening checkout.

Late next evening he headed to the airport with his suitcase to be checked and a computer/camera bag he would carry on. The two bags cost an additional $110 and his seat cost $11. By this time Larry realized this is not the low cost trip he expected, having spent $275 for airfare, $121 for Spirit fees, and $250 for his hotel.

That bargain $275 fare was now $650 plus meals plus a lost day and a lot of aggrevation. Even though his costs were what a good airline like Alaska charges, he still had to endure a long redeye on Spirit with a non-reclining barely padded seat.

A few hours before departure, he got an alert that his flight was 41 minutes late, now leaving at 12:40 am. I wondered how accurate that precise number of 41 minutes could be? Turned out not very. He eventually took off at 1:30am, 91 minutes late.

His flight was fully packed and service was non-existent. He told me that the flight attendants avoided making eye contact as they went down the aisle selling water. And he told me how foolish he felt, ending up spending at least as much as he would flying a normal airline and putting up with all of the aggravation, inconvenience, discomfort, and frustration.

But this is not all that unusual. It’s pretty much the way it’s supposed to work with Spirit: entice the customer with a low fare and then sock them with exorbitant fees at every turn, fees that cost more than full fare airlines like $19 for WiFi. And then offer no services and no help when a flight is cancelled and the passenger is stranded.

This is what millions each year experience whenever they’re trying to save money or haven’t traveled enough to be aware of the risks. Larry finally made it to Newark twenty-six hours later than scheduled.

by Phil Baker