Here’s Why It’s Cheaper To Buy Spirit Airlines Tickets At The Airport

Earlier in the week I flew Spirit from Los Angeles to Seattle, and yesterday I shared my thoughts on the overall experience. The more I learn about Spirit, the more I find them to be endlessly fascinating. For example, I don’t know of any other airline that charges you more to carry-on a bag than to check it. The airline even charges you $10 if you want an agent to print out your boarding pass at the airport (though you can print it out for free at a kiosk).

But they have one policy that on the surface seems the craziest of all. The cheapest place to make a Spirit reservation is at the airport, rather than at spirit.com or by phone. And we’re not just talking a few dollars cheaper, but rather ~$19 per direction cheaper, which is often half of the airfare. Let me explain.

Let’s pull up a flight from Tampa to Fort Lauderdale on spirit.com as an example. Take the “standard” fare of $44.19 (this trick doesn’t work on $9 Fare Club fares, unfortunately).

Spirit is incredibly transparent, and they display the “flight price” and then the “government’s cut.” The government’s cut includes things like the security fee, passenger facility fee, segment fee, federal excise tax, etc.

Meanwhile the “flight price” is sort of hilarious. You have the cost of the flight itself, and then you have the “unintended consequences of DOT regulations” (which is purely to spite the DOT, and is totally hilarious), and the “passenger usage charge.”

The passenger usage charge is $18.99 each way. That’s a fee that applies when booking online or by phone, though it’s not technically part of the base fare. The only way to avoid that passenger usage charge is to ticket at the airport.

Why would Spirit do this? Because airlines don’t have to pay the 7.5% federal excise tax on fees. They only pay this on airfare, and technically the $18.99 “passenger usage charge” is a fee. That basically saves them $1.42 on each one-way (technically it’s passed on to consumers, but given that airfare has to be marketed as “all-in,” there’s not much of a distinction).

In order for it to be a fee, though, there has to be a way for customers to avoid it. That’s why Spirit makes you go to the airport to avoid that fee. As Travis explained a few days ago, the lines at Spirit check-in counters are long, and there’s no special counter for ticketing. After all, they don’t want to encourage this, but rather just have to make the option available.

Nonetheless the savings here could add-up. We’re talking about ~$38 on a roundtrip flight, so if you’re a family of four, those are savings of $150+ on a roundtrip flight. Everyone has to decide for themselves whether it’s worth going to the airport (if you’re not there already anyway) to ticket, and even more so, whether it’s worth waiting in the line.

Either way, I find this to be an innovative way for the airline to get around fees, and for some, this will no doubt be worthwhile.

Comments

  1. No, they don’t have another fee for ticketing at the airport. Unless you count parking your car for 20 minutes at the airport to buy a ticket. But you can avoid that by buying your ticket when you’re already at the airport for another flight.

    I fly Spirit pretty frequently since United has a monopoly to most destinations out of IAH and definitely charges you for it. As long as everything you’re taking fits in an under seat carry on and you’re okay with being around non-white people for a couple hours, Spirit really isn’t that bad for domestic travel. Their nonstop flight actually have decent scheduling and they bring much needed competition to the markets they serve. Combined with buying your ticket at the airport, their flights are always the cheapest, though I will fly other carriers if they’re not more than 50% the price of the Spirit flights.

    Nobody wishes to fly on Spirit, but they are glad that the option is there. They do a good job of making air travel actually attainable for a lot of people.

  2. Wanted to ticket a Spirit flight a month ago at the airport for this exact reason. Went to ATL, and the agents working there had no idea about the fee. Didn’t want to risk booking a ticket there and still paying that fee.

  3. ^^ the quote

    Quote: In order for it to be a fee, though, there has to be a way for customers to avoid it.

  4. Back in the day, I would quite often show up at an airport and buy a ticket at the sales counter. I even did it for a Trans-Atlantic business class flight on Delta once.

    It generally works better these days with the discount airlines, as even their full-fare tickets are not gouging like the big three.

  5. Last night I wanted to book a flight to Detroit next week. The fare online was $205, but at the counter was $42 roundtrip.

    I think it’s since there are secret “penny fares” that are very spontaneous. So spontaneous in fact, that after 10 minutes the fare rose to $130.

  6. @Ray “you’re okay with being around non-white people for a couple hours”

    That’s a false statement, you’ll be around us minorities for a while due to Spirit’s delays and long lines. Hopefully, our presence won’t offend you too much.

  7. there’s zero guarantee it’s cheaper to buy it at the airport. With online purchase you have the leeway to wait till the price is right for you. With airport purchase, you’re making a gamble that the discounted inventory buckets would still have space left by the time the agent starts typing on the computer.

    it’s just about the most non-practical “fee avoidance” method they’re using to circumvent regulations.

  8. Beware – the airport trick doesn’t always work. I tried it once, and it didn’t. The fare online for a flight DFW-FLL was $34 with the (then) $17 fee. At the counter at DFW, the agent a) said the flight I wanted to book didn’t even exist, and b) priced out a different nonstop at $46. I thought maybe the fare had just sold out and there was a schedule change, but when I got home, lo and behold, the one I wanted was still available for $34 – and the flight the agent tried to sell me didn’t even exist! It might have just been an incompetent agent, but I wouldn’t count on a counter purchase actually saving you any money.

  9. “Spirit is incredibly transparent,”

    *proceeds to right post about having to jump through hoops to get the base fare which isn’t actually the base fare and includes random fees*

  10. I think Spirit has it right. It’s never made sense to me why carry-on is free and checked bags cost more on other airlines. The most precious thing in an airplane is space. As it is now, almost every single person lugs some big suitcase around, plus bags. It clutters up the gates and seating, clutters up the halls and restaurants in the airport, and clutters up the restrooms. But to carry-on a bag is MUCH more convenient to me than having to find the baggage carousels and waiting around, sometimes for a long time, for my bag.

    So between the two, carrying-on is much more “premium” because you keep possession of all your stuff, and when you walk off the plane you can just go, rather than wait in yet another line. Its the option I’d much rather pay more for.

  11. @Ray

    I understand about your color blindness, but there are equally if not more Caucasians who select Spirit Airlines as their carrier of choice than non-Caucasians. It may be your ignorance that is blind sighting you?

  12. @Simon, DOT, which has rules concerning airline pricing, doesn’t regulate hotel pricing scams. That’s the FTC which has sometimes muttered mild threats but never faced up to its duty to take action. I personally see nothing cool about Spirit’s work-around on the DOT rules.

  13. @Simon: in the case of government regulation on airfare, the government taxes 7.5% on airfare itself, so Spirit attempts to avoid this taxation by cutting the airfare and rerouting that cost to a “usage fee”… but the government has also regulated that airline “fees” must be avoidable. I thought that was pretty self-explanatory in Lucky’s post.

    Obviously this doesn’t apply to “resort fees”.

  14. The all-in pricing rule by the FAA is great. Hotels and rental cars should be forced to do the same when searching in OTAs. Resort fees and taxes are not optional and should be shown in the price.

  15. (From another Tom)

    In my last comment yesterday, I said the by-at-the-airport savings were $36 but, you’re right, they raised it to $38 per round-trip a year or so ago. Good catch.

    And the “airport purchase” trick absolutely DOES work no matter what the above comments say. During your drive to the airport, your fare bucket could still sell out, but that’s never happened to me. The more realistic problem is that the fare on your itinerary could drop after your purchase date. Well, c’est la vie.

    Implicit in Ben’s posts is that Spirit has now joined the Pre Check program. This happened late last fall and, at least for me, has made a difference. Usually.

  16. @Lucky – One time I flew between Tampa and Fort Lauderdale on Southwest for $15 per person!!!!
    In total it cost us $64 FOR 4 PEOPLE (with taxes). That was the lowest fare I’ve ever seen. Have you ever seen any fare lower than that (without points).

  17. About 8 years ago I flew either UA or AA from O’Hare to Buffalo for $49 RT. I’ve been waiting for something similar since then.

  18. @Doug: no, I don’t – nor should I, or anybody else for that matter – take Ray’s comment to be sarcasm, as there are many folks who feel and think the same way, and I’m talking from experience.

    What’s particularly upsetting is that racist comments are defended by people like you as being “sarcastic” or “a joke”.

  19. Just went today to BWI to buy a ticket. The price was literally half of what SW was charging, and since it was for four people, the savings on the fee were substantial. However, there are some definite drawbacks. It took nearly two hours. Most of the staff didn’t know how to actually book a ticket. You cannot get the lower price for bags at the airport. Once the ticket is booked, bags can be added online for $10 more than if you booked the whole ticket online. This might change the calculation for some. So if you plan on cramming everything into your free “personal item” it can be worth the savings for a family. For one person who needs to bring a bigger carry-on, just buy it online.

  20. How much did you save by waiting 2 hours? How much is your time worth? I guess maybe this works if you are minimum wage or unemployed, but then you probably can’t afford air travel.

  21. boraxo

    Even people flying in First usually have to screw around in an airport for a couple of hours

  22. 2 roundtrip tickets from lax to dfw last year cost me 102 by going to the counter. Did lax to den for 53 roundtrip. The trick worked especially well for spirits “off peak” flights. Maybe I’m lucky but the wait in line in both cases was under 10 minutes didn’t even have to pay to park in terminal 3 main parking structure, I was out fast enough. These days I’ve found American airlines has some good deals that match or beat spirits at lax. That has an equal amount to do with spirits prices going up and Americans coming down. Whatever your income is doesn’t really matter. The way I see it you can travel more often with spirit of you’re a regular Joe.

  23. One thing that no one is talking about is the $9 Fare Club, which I’ve become a huge fan of. So I travel the legacy carriers for work, but I take my 4 kids away for a weekend getaway each month because of the $9 deal. It is used to actually be $9 fares (sometimes even less), but it’s just a name now. Still it can be quite a discount. However it depends on your home airport. For Orlando, every month there are flights in the $9 Fare Club for $23.99 each way…so for less than $250 total, I can fly 5 people round trip (and non-stop) to some destination (my traveling companions, i.e. my adult kids, get the same price break if we are on the same itinerary). Now the destinations with the price break change and there is typically only one flight a day at that rate (sometimes no flights at that rate, so you stay an extra day to get the rate), but in 2017 we have taken weekend getaways to Buffalo, Plattsburgh (for Lake Placid and Montreal), Philadelphia, Kansas City, Atlanta and Atlantic City (for Wildwood)…with reservations this month for Latrobe (Pittsburgh) and Cleveland next month…all for this price. Since we are only going overnight or for two nights at the most, our change of clothes and toiletries fit under the seat in knapsacks or backpacks, so no baggage fees. We don’t pay for seats…since there are 5 of us, every time the computer automatically generates us seating in the same row when we check in. So truly, all 5 of us are flying non-stop, round trip for under $250 total. Spirit gets knocked quite a bit, but the flights are generally on time (no money being made with the plane on the ground) unlike the legacies that I fly for work, the flight attendants have been pleasant and we bring our own food if we want something. The annual fee is somewhere around $59 or $69 to access these fares…it’s been well worth it for us, as this is the only way we would have been able to afford these great drop-in and sample the best of the city trips, and we have literally saved a couple thousand dollars off of Spirit’s base fares, let alone had we tried this on a legacy. Anyway, only works if they offer those fares in your market (if they do, get on the email list…it comes out every couple of days and they mix up the fares/destinations usually each time). Are the seats a bit uncomfortable and sometimes you only get half a tray table…yes, of course! But we can suck it up for a hour or two in order to experience different parts of our country and local culture each month,

  24. Rich,
    I’m glad I’m not the only OMAAT reader who values Spirit for what it is.

    A great budget option to get from A to B. Absolutely nothing more but also nothing less.

    they really help bring prices down in markets that are strangled by one airline, like mine (MSP). I see all these amazing fare deals on the internet from almost every major city. Except mine since Delta is a near monopoly. “$348 RT TO PARIS!!!!” Unless you live in MSP. “$198 Transcon in F!!!!” But not for MSP

    And It’s not like Delta has nice planes. They’re all old and terrible. To make matters worse Delta took all the nice Northwest Planes… and moved them to Atlanta.

    So let’s see… $550 to get to FLL in economy on an old Delta plane, or $250 (+$14 wine) to get there in a Big Front Seat, which is as big as Delta domestic F?

    Thank god for Sun Country (my favorite airline) and Spirit or a RT ticket in economy from MSP to Florida would be $10,000

    The ONLY issue I have with Spirit is the potential to get stranded through an IRROPS.
    Thus, we use it for last minute getaways and when getting stranded is no big deal.

    (Also please know that Sun Country is nothing like Spirit.)

  25. Spirit Airlines works well for the average joe (minus IRROPS, but a lot of airlines nowadays screw you anyway…)

    The ticket-at-counter trick definitely does work as does the $9 Fare Club Member (which is far more superior than gambling with the ticket-at-counter trick).

    Purchased a ticket for $0.01 FLL to EWR and $0.01 EWR to FLL. After Taxes, it was just shy of like 35.00-40.00 RT. Brought my personal bag (duffle) and wallah, I was on my way.

    It’s unfortunate Spirit gets knocked down all the time when they really offer an awesome service, but oh well…I’ll continue to use them while I can.

  26. Under fifteen minutes basically counts as driving in then directly out. Maybe the policy has changed in the past year though.

  27. Not a fan of their passive aggressive attacks on what keep people safe in the air. I’m not talking about the security fee, or even their fairly ridiculous comments on taxes, but the DOT regulations break out.

    “Dave — How do you park free at a LAX main terminal? I was thinking that the minimum is $3.”

    A sub-15 minute stay incurs no fee. I think they should actually increase this to 30, as it would decrease circling traffic.

  28. As usual, all this is one more reason to fly southwest– Two checked bags are free & free cancellation 10 minutes before the flight (with reimbursement as a voucher for non-reward fares).

  29. FYI. this is true.
    I actually booked flights for a group trip for 24 people. It only cost me under $1000 to book flights for all 24 people ROUND TRIP. Yes, bags do cost more than other airlines. But when you add all prices up, you still come out more than half cheaper than your typical (AA or United) airlines. Why pay the extra money? All airlines will be delay flights. I don’t need a free drink or free sample pack of pretzels. With all my savings, I can buy those things and have money to pay for massage afterwards from the non-retractable seat option pain caused. Do the math and fly smart.

  30. Is there a specific counter to purchase tickets? Or do you wait in the same line as those checking in for the flight? Also, can tickets be purchased at any time the counter is open? Thanks for the tips!

  31. Same counter. Best to go during non peak hours. I usually have what I want to purchase in advance. Seems rude to have counter lady search flights for you. MIO
    Be mindful all tix are non refundable.

  32. I bought 4 round trip tickets to Florida last year right before Christmas at the Spirit Counter at the Airport. I saved us $135.00. Husband waited in the car and I ran in. Spirit going and coming was a piece of cake.

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