Are you too desperate for an airfare deal?

What would you do for a cheap airfare?

If you said “anything” then you’re probably going to love flying in the future. It’s a place that will be filled with steals and deals, and for a lucky few who take their time to study the system, you’ll be able to travel for next to nothing.

The rest of us? Not so much.

Consider what happened to Adrienne Hester, who was trying to find a flight for her father, Frank, to get from Las Vegas to Dallas recently.

“He normally flies Southwest, but the price for a roundtrip ticket was $700 plus tax and fees for the dates needed,” she told me. “The senior discount for a person 65-plus was between $245 and $379 one way — and that is pricey too. Plus, I don’t want my father having a stopover of several hours or having to change multiple planes.”

And so Hester looked around for a better deal.

“In desperation, I convinced him to fly Spirit Airlines,” she says. The fare? Just $187.

She wishes she hadn’t.

The first thing she noticed were the fees, including $70 for his carry-on and checked luggage and a $4 “Unintended Consequences of DOT Regulations” fee to cover the airline’s cost of “misguided and expensive regulation.”

And that was just the beginning.

Hester tried to reach Spirit’s customer service department, but had some trouble.

“They make it very difficult to speak to anyone,” she says. “Luckily, I’m computer-savvy and simply Googled ‘Spirit Airlines customer service number’ since it’s not on the homepage under ‘Customer Service’ on the bottom of the page and ‘Help’ takes you to questions, and not contact numbers.”

(I list Spirit’s customer service contacts on my wiki, too.)

Hester was trying to reach Spirit to modify her father’s ticket, which according to the site would cost her $115. But other terms applied. After the fees, he had just 60 days to use the ticket.

“If he is unable to fly in the next 60 days he loses his money on the original ticket and paid $115 to cancel,” she says.

Hester can’t believe an airline is allowed to operate like Spirit.

“I am dumbfounded by it all,” she says. “This is the worst airline experience without leaving my house and I will never again recommend this company to anyone — ever.”

Welcome to the future

By now, most of you are probably saying to yourself, “Well, that’s what you get for flying on Spirit.” And the rest of you are wondering, “What’s Spirit?”

Spirit represents a dystopian future of air travel that everyone denies will happen — but deep down inside, everyone knows probably will.

It capitalizes on a human need to find a bargain, speaks to your inner gambler, and has no shame about its business model. It is the inevitable result of airline deregulation. It is what every domestic airline could look like in another decade, unless air travelers say “no, thanks.”

By the way, the alternative nightmare would see the so-called “full service” carriers create an extreme two-class system, where the “haves” are given every creature comfort in exchange for their unquestioning loyalty and money, and the “have-nots” have it worse than they would under the most onerous ticket offered today by a discount airline like Spirit or Allegiant. I shudder to imagine it.

All the pieces of this future are being put in place now, starting with the reckless unbundling of fees — now you pay extra for anything that isn’t nailed down — and ending with IATA Resolution 787, which will allow airlines to send passengers a “custom” airfare within a decade or less.

The new order of airline pricing will allow a company like Spirit to turn its sophisticated yield-management algorithms around to predict what you as an individual would probably pay for an airfare. Based on your previous spending patterns, it might also offer cheaper — or more expensive — baggage fees, change fees and seat reservation fees.

Under such a scenario, customers like Hester would be tagged as the passengers they are: desperate for a deal, willing to accept a low fare in exchange for obscene change fees and other prohibitive terms. If they have a problem with any of it, they can just talk to the website.

It isn’t too difficult to imagine other industries embracing this idea that the prices and rules should be flexible, depending on who you are.

But do you want to live in that world?

Are air travelers too desperate for a deal?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • polexia_rogue

    “What would you do for a cheap airfare?”

    nothing- i want Virgin Airlines. i like their planes and their service. they are not always the cheapest (and i don’t even have a “miles card”) but i like them.

    too many people (especially on yahoo answers) say “how can i get a cheap flight?!” “how can i fly international for less then 1000 dollars?!” – sacrifice ALOT. be ready to be treated like cattle- and don’t even try to complain.

    if you don’t mind flying the ‘public transportation’ of the sky then go right ahead but there are plenty of airlines that offer a great experience- they are just not the cheap ones.


    Nice article…..Thanks for sharing……..

  • Chester P. Chucklebutt

    Unless consumers are informed, Spirit is the future of air travel. Chris, I applaud you for attempting to avert this crisis. Hopefully your warnings won’t fall upon deaf ears…

  • jim6555

    In addition to Spirit, Allegiant Air has a business model that is loaded with extra fees and charges for many items that most passengers expect to be free. That includes charging a convenience fee to use a credit card on-line, forcing the passenger to pay for both carry-on and checked luggage and charging for soft drinks and snacks. Allegiant has no connections or one-stop flights. Most city pairs are flown only two or three days a week. Larger cities are usually served though distant secondary airports such as Mesa AZ for Phoenix, Bellingham, WA for Seattle, Sanford for Orlando, FL and St. Petersburg/Clearwater for Tampa, FL.

    Frontier Airlines has begun adopting a business model similar to that of Spirit and Allegiant. They used to have daily service from their Denver hub to Tampa. They have now started two or three times a week service from Tampa to Trenton (for Philadelphia and central NJ) and Wilmington DE (also for Philadelphia). Frontier recently announced that they will soon begin charging $100 for carry-on bags to passengers who use travel agents rather than the Frontier web site to purchase their tickets. I don’t understand this move since it has infuriated the travel agent community. Frontier does not pay commissions to these agents. Their only additional expense is to have their flights listed on travel agent reservations systems

    I personally will not fly any of the three airlines listed above and advise others to do the same. It’s just not worth all of the hassle to deal with companies that have their hands in your pocket all the time..

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    As long as the fees are adequately disclosed, I’m fine. Spirit Airlines has worked for me. I had to fly a contractor from Vegas to LA on a moment’s notice. I booked Spirit because it was the cheapest airline that day, even after you factored in the various fees.

    Its just a different business model, much like Ryan-air. It works for some, not so much for others. To call it a crisis is to indulge in hyperbole.

  • PsyGuy

    I have no problem with Spirit’s business model, more choices are better then fewer choices. It’s really our own falt though, we demanded cheap airfare, and the airlines gave it to us. We spoke with words not our wallets and that’s what businesses listen too. You can’t demand champaign experience and service and pay bargain beer prices for it. It does t matter how angry or upset you get. It doesn’t matter if you take your business elsewhere, the couple of hundred your willing to spend on a ticket isn’t incentive for an airline to give you more then they have determined that couple hundreds worth. At the price of air travel now, the customer threat of give us free checked bags, bigger seats, an actual meal “or else” has gotten to the point the airlines is prepared and happy to take the “or else”, they know that they have a fungible service, the vast majority of the traveling public has to fly. We don’t have a choice, whether it’s because of business or only having a week or so of vacation. Most of us can’t take a steamer across the Atlantic, and domestically traveling by car takes too much time and after gas, meals and hotel on the road costs as much as flying. I don’t see many flights flying empty anymore , or positioning flights on a 747 that are a handful of people. It seems that now pretty much every flight is full or very near full, someone’s buying those seats, and they’re doing so because for all practicle purposes they have too.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Does this woman live under a rock? Is she incapable of reading Spirit’s website?


  • island

    This is what happens when people want cheap airfares. They get exactly what they wanted, but have had to deal with the consequences of that choice, which is airlines carving out anything that can be sold separately.

    As Aladdin put it: “You wanted to be a genie? You got it. And everything that comes with it.” *Jafar is forced into a lamp*

  • Casa Mariposa Panama

    Of course the vast majority of travelers are looking for a “deal”. That is one of only two reasons the OTA’s exist like Expedia,,, priceline, or any of a dozen you can think of. Check any of those sites, and you will see that they are full of “booking hyperbole” like “act fast! only 2 seats/rooms/etc left at this amazing price!” I believe as well that many travelers start and end their “research” with these OTA’s because they cannot or will not take the time to do more extensive research, like actually visiting (and reading) the providers’ websites for themselves.

    As a result, my opinion is that many travelers see the OTA’s as the end-all and be-all for travel research. And the OTA’s are not stupid. They know very well that the majority of travelers are seeking that “great deal”, and that most travelers will not research elsewhere. Accordingly, the OTA’s have generated travelers’ expectations that are far too high for most airlines/hotels/etc. Travelers want a “great” deal, no fees, great service, and a great experience. My guess is that in 98% of cases, travelers are disappointed because airlines (and many hotels) simply cannot deliver all those things together. The industry is simply fraught with too many moving parts. In the end, you get what you pay for.

    As I have said before, and still believe, do not have high expectations for any flight. Simply grit your teeth, bear the crappy experience, and enjoy yourself more once you are on the ground wherever you are going.

  • MarkKelling

    I have no problem with Frontier – so far. They at least offer you a way to avoid the carry on fee and most other fees that Spirit doesn’t – book directly with them. Their scheduling unfortunately makes it nearly impossible for me to fly them. For example, even thought they fly from DEN – IAH daily, they don’t fly IAH – DEN on every Sunday (not sure what happens with those panes that fly in on Sunday, do they just sit there until Monday? Seems a waste of resources if the plane does sit idle). So when I visit Houston, I have to plan my return trip around the fact that I might have to use a different airline for my return trip. This means I usually fly someone else.

  • MarkKelling

    “It is the inevitable result of airline deregulation.” No it isn’t.

    What we see in the airline business models is the inevitable result of cheap travelers who will take a flight with 3 plane changes to save $20 but then swear they will never fly again because they were treated like cattle and packed into a space that would violate most laws protecting cattle that are transported to their slaughter. And yet they fly again because they want to visit grandma or go somewhere exotic and once again choose the flights that cost the absolute least in money. It is a self-reinforcing cycle that the airlines have latched onto.

    The US based airlines that try to provide a better experience fail because no one wants to pay for that experience. UA is having some success with its Economy Plus seating. But I would bet most people in those seats are the higher level frequent flyers that did not have to pay the extra fee to sit there (just they were unlucky enough to not get that “free” 1st class upgrade that almost doesn’t exist any more).

    A couple of coworkers were planning a vacation trip to Germany. They found a great r/t fare through one of the OTA sites that was unbelievably low cost. They thought they found the best deal ever, until I looked at the flights and commented they must be crazy to fly that route to save a couple hundred. The route? DEN – YVR – LHR – FCO – MUC – FRA on 3 different airlines. The return flight was even more convoluted. After looking further, they decided on DEN – KEF – FRA booked directly with the airline which saved them 24 hours of travel time each way and only cost $150 more r/t. Thy both said it was the nicest flight they had been on in a very long time.

  • Bill___A

    You get what you pay for. Just like it makes sense to check out a car that is thousands less than other cars, or cheap restaurants, the same thing applies to flights and airlines.

  • MeanMeosh

    The CBS Morning Show interviewed Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza last week, after his airline ranked at the bottom of the most recent Consumer Reports survey on airlines. While most of what he said was the typical mealy-mouthed corporate speak, he did bring up one very good point. The gist was that while everyone says how much they hate Spirit Airlines, their planes are always full, and they’ve been consistently profitable. That being the case, why would Spirit care about what anyone thinks about their service? They full well know that there’s 130 other suckers that will fill up their planes. It’s really our own [fill in preferred expletive] fault that airlines like Spirit exist and prosper, and that others are rushing to copy their model. We the public keep flocking like sheep to the “low fare”, and then keep coming back for more and more, even though we claim we hate it!

  • rwm

    I wouldn’t fly Spirit if they were the last airline on earth.

  • jim6555

    I believe that in the next year or two, Frontier will be dismantling their DEN hub and concentrating on providing point-to-point flights from major cities to small markets that are currently either under-served or not served by other carriers. This is the successful business model of Allegiant and to a lesser extent of Spirit. Flying DEN-IAH does not fit this business model.

  • $16635417

    Well, I usually can find shoes cheaper at Walmart than Macy’s. Sometimes I go to WalMart…sometimes Macy’s, it depends on the circumstances. My customer service level expectations for WalMart are low and they always deliver that low level of service, meeting my expectations.

    When I’ve flown Spirit, my expectations were low and they delivered as well.

  • kmwcary

    I fly JetBlue or take Amtrak on the rare occasions I travel domestically, and I usually use FF miles on AA to get out of the country. I’m planning to move to Europe soon, where the train system is so much better….

    On short flights I’ll put up with a fair amount of discomfort, but not on long ones.

  • MarkKelling

    I agree that each company must find its niche to serve. You might be right about Frontier.

    Frontier currently serves many small towns in Montana, Wyoming and others out of DEN that have no other commercial service and all these flights are packed every day. Not sure abandoning these is in their best interest.

    Frontier also recently moved from IAH to HOU and then back to IAH trying to find the best fit. HOU didn’t work mainly because of the overwhelming presence of Southwest.

  • MarkKelling

    The European train system is the most efficient way to travel I have ever experienced. A couple years ago traveling from Frankfurt to Munich, the train was 10 minutes late due to construction on the line along the way. Deutsche Bahn refunded the ticket price and apologized profusely for not being on time! Imagine any US based travel provider doing anything close to that.

  • MarkKelling

    Spirit and others like them do provide a service to those who would not be able to afford to fly otherwise (or that’s what they would like you to believe). Unfortunately, many people who could afford to fly on a better airline still choose Spirit simply because they want to pay the least. Sometimes I think people make those choices just so they can have something to complain about.

    Back when I was young, if you couldn’t afford to fly domestically or didn’t have a dependable car you took a Greyhound to your destination or you hitchhiked. If you couldn’t afford to fly internationally, you stayed home. Now it seems that everyone feels they have a right to be able to fly round the world for free or as close to it as they can get.

  • Don Hulser

    And your point is?

  • Rindy

    I’ve never flown Spirit, but is this fee for real? $4 “Unintended Consequences of DOT Regulations” fee to cover the airline’s cost of “misguided and expensive regulation.” If so, that’s an awesome bit of disclosure!

  • MarkKelling

    That is Spirit’s response to the DOT rule requiring airlines to refund tickets within 24 hours of purchase. Not a required fee, not something that even makes sense. Like a lot of things Spirit does.

  • Dick Jordan

    Here are actions that could theoretically bring about a brighter future for the commercial air travel:

    1. Re-establish the CAB and give it authority to set routes, fares, and what’s included in the fare.

    2. More business travelers staying “home” and using Skype or other videoconferencing software to conduct meetings instead of spending thousands of dollars in airfare and other travel expenses.

    3. “Destinations” (e.g., Visitor and Convention Bureaus, Chambers of Commerce) exerting pressure on the airlines that serve them to provide better “at-the-airport” and inflight experience as an incentive for leisure travelers to visit those destinations.

    4. The flying public taking a “Hell, no, we won’t go!” approach to air travel: Make it a better experience, or we’re going to “See the U.S.A. in our Chevrolets!”

    But as the comic strip character “Pogo” (who will be remembered by those old enough to recall when air travel was pleasant and exciting) was wont to say, “We’ve met the enemy [i.e., we air travel consumers] and he is us,” so don’t expect any of the aforementioned actions to occur anytime soon.

  • Ali Jackson

    The real problem with Spirit isn’t the fees, it’s their refusal to help passengers when their flights are canceled. When they cancel a flight, the only thing they will do is offer a full refund or put you on their next flight to your destination. Since their schedule is not very robust, the next flight might be several days later. (They do not interline…which is an agreement between airlines to transfer the ticket.) If that canceled flight was your trip home, you’re now stuck with the option of paying for a hotel or buying a same-day ticket on another airline.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    Spirit is ok, but why would you stupidly think that a much cheaper airfare includes everything that a much dearer airfare would.
    The real scam is legacy airlines who include “meals & drinks”, giving you 1 cookie & 1 small can of coke.
    Don’t be such a tight arse. Airfares are going up for a number of reasons, over regulation by govt, fuel prices & weak US dollar.

  • Ariel Body

    I feel like if you’re going to travel with one of these ‘budget airlines’, you’re probably aware of the sacrifices you’re making. It is unfortunate that the lower price often also comes with a decline in service, but in the end, do your research, know what you’re getting into, and enjoy the adventure along the way!

  • LadyoftheLake

    I fly Sprit frequently because, even with the ala carte pricing, it is still much, much cheaper than any of the other airlines, hands down. Why would I pay $100 or more for a round trip ticket for the privilege of getting “free” peanuts and a small glass of Coke? Their fees are plainly disclosed on their website if you bother to check, as you should when booking with any airline. I fly with a small carryon for which there is no extra charge. I like that they charge a fee for a regular carryon. It makes people think twice about carrying all that excessive baggage on board. And, as for customer service, I’ve had nothing but a positive experience every time I’ve called their 800 number, and the most delightful, helpful, engaging flight attendant I’ve EVER encountered, Molly, was on an MSP to ORD Spirit flight.

  • TravelProgressNow

    Until the U.S. forces their government to fund a high speed rail system like in Europe, they will always be at the mercy of the airline industry. I have no idea what this country has against actual progress and competition

  • Zarkov505

    I suggest that you look very carefully at the actual costs of high speed rail, everywhere.

    High speed rail is heavily subsidized, everywhere.

    California is currently spending money faster than they can print it to fund a high speed rail link from nowhere point A to nowhere point B. EVENTUALLY, they hope to extend it to someplace where people who might use it actually live or work. Maybe. If they can find the money. Before the state goes completely bankrupt, and is sold off at auction.

    Texas TGV tried to sell their high-speed train project in Texas, on the claim that they would meet Southwest Airlines ticket prices and not need one penny of state subsidies to do it. When they finally admitted that their capital and operations plan had always assumed and included huge FEDERAL subsidies, Herb Kelleher, then-CEO of Southwest Airlines, loudly pointed out that Southwest was already meeting Southwest Airlines ticket prices, and they weren’t taking ANY subsidies, Federal, State, or local. (Some people dispute this, claiming that he didn’t include the costs of operating Love Field. I would point out that Love Field handles a lot of business aviation, and some other things, as well as Southwest Airlines flights.)

    Southwest at that time flew all Boeing 737s. I have never seen any analyses of similar route coverage using Embraer RJ145s or Canadair CRJ 700s, but I suspect, given the popularity of those two airplanes with feeder lines, that the numbers would work pretty well.

  • brianguy

    that’s actually a great rule to remember. which they’ll gladly charge and accept $4 for, but 99% of travelers will never know the real reasoning behind it or get a straight explanation of, even after paying the fee twice on a RT journey.

  • brianguy

    by the way, the key is this rule only holds true when booked at least 7 days in advance. the traveler can request the full refund as long as it’s within 24 hours of booking. holds true even if the fare says “nonrefundable” (which is true… after 24 hours or if booked less than 7 days of departure). keep in mind those are calendar days, so if you’re leaving on the 8th you better have booked it by the end of the day on the 1st if you want to get a refund on the 2nd. here’s a summary:

  • brianguy

    big deal breaker for anyone but the most flexible travelers. GOOD TIP why it’s great to avoid this airline, or buy travel insurance for that ticket, have a plan “B” and “C” in mind, etc.

  • brianguy

    true, but most of these disclose they have “meals” or “snacks” for purchase when they’re not giving them to you for free. the worst is when you’re on a major airline but they only have a snack box for purchase when it’s a flight over 3 hours… and your flight is 2 3/4, with a 40 minute “layover” to get to the next flight that is 2 more hours. because there was not a nonstop available. you might be able to buy something edible (that’s not $12) running to your next plane – if you’re lucky.

    a real crime is flying coast to coast for $700-800 and literally only getting a coke and bag of peanuts and no reserved seat. but avoidable usually…

  • brianguy

    I’d much rather have regional (city-to-city, normal speed) trains, or inter-city “light rail” by a factor of about 100x. and the cost forced along is roughly the same ratio, to taxpayers.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    High speed rail makes great sense in Europe, a place of much different dynamics, e.g. concentrated cities, smaller areas, etc. I loved traveling by rail when I’m there. Unfortunately, hi speed rail makes little sense in most of the US considering how large and spread out the US tends to be outside of the Northeast. High Speed Rail replaces neither cars not airplanes in the US.

    California is currently in a boondoogle with the high speed rail. Consider, who would ride a high speed rail to California biggest city, Los Angeles, with any regularity. The city is so large and so spread out that its public transportation system doesn’t work for most people,

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    In order

    1. That would be a return to the higher prices of yesteryear. Instead of having a bad flying experience, regular folks would simply have no flying experience because the prices would be so high.

    2. Business travelers decisions to fly or not fly are not based upon the flying experience but rather is your personal presence needed. For example, I will send a local attorney to out of town perfunctory court appearances, but I personally attend all substantive court hearings. Staying home is not an option.

    3. How?

    4. A fantasy. Driving is often not an option for business travelers. The additional time on the road, combined with early morning meetings makes that impossible. Leisure travelers don’t want to give up precious vacation time, unless the trip itself if the vacation.

  • Dick Jordan

    In the days before airfare deregulation, I was hardly rich by anyone’s standards, and my guess is that was the case with nearly all of the passengers flying in Coach.

    Today, airlines quote a low base fare, and then tack on several ancillary fees, and provide less customer service. So the actual fares aren’t really that low.

    If you are on cross-country flight, or even one of much shorter duration, odds are that you will be eating a “bring-a-board” meal from an airport restaurant. Since you are essentially paying for the meal service that the airline no longer provides, tack that on to your travel costs.

    How much would Coach fares increase if airlines removed enough seats to provide a more reasonable and comfortable distance between you and the back of the seat in front of you? Some, but probably not that much.

  • Ali Jackson

    I actually live in Fort Lauderdale, where Spirit is based. When they started flying, I was excited because they had so many non-stop flights out of FLL. I learned about the lack of interline agreements the hard way when the return portion of my first Spirit trip was canceled. Since then, I’ve tried to inform as many people as possible.

  • Mishal Harish

    I have heard a majority of people complain about low cost airlines. About their “poor on board services” and their “shrewd payment structures”.

    I have traveled by low cost airlines many times and have found it mostly reasonable. But that was during my college days when i used to travel with just a backpack and had very flexible timings. Today however i would probably think twice before i travel by low cost . The fact is that though the initial prices are very attractive you must realize that it limits your options. With my current hectic work timings and the possibility of unexpected projects suddenly popping up, I need a more convenient travel option.

    So in answer to the question “What would you do for a cheap airfare?”

    Well it depends on how necessary it is…

  • sirwired

    $115 isn’t bad for a change fee at all (well, relatively anyway)… given Spirit’s reputation, I’m surprised it’s that cheap! (Especially how most of the “majors” just upped it to $200!)

  • pauletteb

    Got to love the hypocrisy of Spirit’s “unintended consequence” charge, when the charge is definitely management’s intention. I wouldn’t fly Spirit at ANY price.

  • Lindabator

    And a ticket to Disney BEFORE de-regulation actually cost MORE than it does now. Don’t be naive enough to think they can keep low fares and add all the bells and whistles. WON’T happen.

  • Lindabator

    But they have no agreements with other airlines, so knowing that when you book is part of the decision process. And one reason it doesn’t always work out for folks.

  • BMG4ME

    I don’t see anything wrong here. They paid less than $200 to get a seat that would have cost $700 on Southwest (which has its own issues – try flying standby if you miss your flight or arrive early, for example). In return they got a very restricted ticket. Most airlines charge for baggage. As for the two classes of service on full service airlines – welcome back to what air travel should be like. Maybe then first class will be more like first class.

  • jmjbrtw

    I live in NJ and flown Spirit Airlines at least a dozen times in the past 3 years out of Atlantic City.

    The prices are great. I joined their $9 club, and got a couple deals as low as $5 PP roundtrip to FL and $20 PP to STT. Unbeatable even with $25 for a checked bags which most airlines do now.

    Never had a late flight or flight canceled.