Tag: Award Flights

How I beat Spirit Airlines at their own game, and in the process realized I may not need to pack so much

How I beat Spirit Airlines at their own game, and in the process realized I may not need to pack so much

While I’m guessing most of you are very familiar with Spirit Airlines, perhaps from your own past experience, for those that aren’t, Spirit is considered a pioneer among Ultra Low-Cost Carriers, or ULCCs. This is a fancy term for airlines that offer very low fares, but charge you for literally everything imaginable. Though extremely controversial, Spirit for many years has been the most profitable domestic airline, and also is generally considered to be the main reason we’ve seen many of the bigger airlines start to charge more fees. There are many people that have very strong negative opinions about Spirit Airlines due to their controversial business model, but their defense has always been that they are very transparent upfront about all of the fees. I decided recently to see for myself if this was true.
I try to book my flights using frequent flyer miles as much as I can, but I also like to try to avoid wasting miles on domestic flights that could be used for more valuable international award flights. I signed up for the Spirit Airlines World Elite MasterCard last year, which gave me 15,000 Free Spirit Miles after my first purchase, added on an additional 8,000 miles by taking their “Hate Thousand Miles” survey, and then an additional 5,000 miles through buying toothpaste from Wal-Mart using their online shopping portal. (Funny enough, they tried to sell us on the card during the flight, claiming that they offered an “industry-leading frequent flyer program.”)
Not surprisingly, Spirit also makes it extremely hard to redeem their frequent flyer miles for flights, charging 12,500 miles for one-way cross-country flights on certain mid-week days, but 45,000 on most other days, including weekends. Given that right now I do have the luxury of being able to fly midweek, I figured I might as well take advantage of this, and booked a roundtrip flight for 25,000. While all airlines will tack on a $5.60 “security fee” each way for award resrevations, Spirit also adds on a $15 fee if you book your reservation less than six months in advance. I don’t really know anyone who plans short-distance budget air travel more than six months in advance, but I decided to suck it up and pay that fee, but no other fees to them.
There’s certainly no shortage of opportunities to pay additional fees during the booking process though, first, to add a hotel:


Then, a car:



A “bundle” including seat assignment, carry-on/checked bags, and airport check-in:




A confirmation that I didn’t want to pre-purchase any checked bags or carry-on:sure

A chance to choose my seat:


A chance to purchase flight change insurance:


And lastly, a chance to join their “$9 Fare Club” that actually costs more than $9:



I said no each time.
24 hours before my flight yesterday, I got an e-mail reminder from Spirit to check-in, reminding me that I could print out my boarding pass at home and avoid paying a $10 fee to print it out at the airport. Yes, I realize this is absurd, but it’s not that hard to print it out in advance. During the online check-in process, they tried again to upsell me on seats, checked baggage, carry-ons, and other packages, and I continued to say no.
This is definitely the best boarding pass I’ve ever had. Who includes a crossword puzzle as in-flight entertainment?!

Of course, the real challenge was going to be not bringing a carry-on, as I had declined to purchase one in advance for $35, even knowing that I would be charged $50 to add one at the check-in counter, or $100 at the gate! Spirit does however allow one personal item, no bigger than 16x14x12. While most people will use a small backpack, I didn’t have one that small, so I instead decided to use my laptop case. After emptying everything out, I first placed my laptop in it, then a few pants, shirts, and underwear, as well as toiletries and power cords/chargers.

I then rolled up some v-necks and socks, and put them into the front pockets of my hoodie. My pockets were indeed bulging, but I was certainly within their requirements (not to mention I knew I would have access to laundry). I started to wonder why I didn’t pack like this more often….
Of course, I wasn’t out of the woods yet. Spirit also makes money by charging for everything on board, including food and drink, as well as by cramming as many seats as possible into their airline, giving them the least leg room of any domestic airline (28″). While I was pretty confident I could avoid paying any fees, I was less sure if a 6’7″ person like me could tolerate a cross-country flight with so little legroom.
Luckily, thanks to my Citi Prestige card, I had free access to the Air France lounge at Logan Airport, where I not only loaded up on food in advance of the flight:

but also on “sleeping medications”:


I proceeded to the gate, where they very clearly let me know that I would be charged $100 if my carry-on did not fit the stated dimensions:


Given the stories I’d heard, I was kind of relishing an argument with the gate agents, but they didn’t even make me place my bag in the container to check, and just waved me on through. Success! I pinched myself a little:

As I boarded the plane, I noticed quite a lot of advertisements on the storage bins, yet another way Spirit keeps their fares low. I don’t know why more airlines don’t do this. I’ll also present this one without comment:


Since I didn’t want to pay extra to select my seat, they had assigned it for me, and I was in a window seat, next to a woman from Rhode Island who was flying to Las Vegas just to play slot machines. Right. While I always prefer aisle seat, at least it wasn’t the middle seat. Still, I was less than comfortable:

Thankfully, I flagged down a flight attendant and asked if there was something that could be done after takeoff, and much to my surprise, she was more than happy to move me to an exit row seat, which would have cost $50 if I selected it myself. After we were in the air, she motioned me forward, and I settled into my new exit row seat, allowing me more legroom than a regular economy seat on domestic airlines:


Not too long after, I happily drifted off to sleep, and spent most of the flight sleeping, before waking up to write this post for the remainder of the flight.

Given that I had gone into this flight dreading the experience, I have to say that Spirit exceeded my (admittedly very low) expectations. Of course, they’re certainly not in danger of dethroning JetBlue or Virgin America as my preferred domestic airline (I also did start to get a little hungry and thirsty at the five-hour mark), but I wouldn’t object to flying with them again if one of their many low-fare sales worked for me. (I highly recommend subscribing to their e-mail newsletter regardless of if you ever plan to fly them, solely for the risque marketing, yet another example of how they save money, as it costs them nothing for major newspapers to run stories on their controversial marketing).
Have a Spirit Airlines experience of your own that you’d like to share? Feel free to e-mail me or post in the comments below.

How to book award (free) flights with your United miles

How to book award (free) flights with your United miles

Over the next few days, I’m going to go over how to book award travel with the various frequent flyer programs of the major U.S. airlines (this will not be about how to decide which is the best one to book an award flight with or how to earn United miles; those will come later).

As SFO (San Francisco) has been my primary airport for most of the past 7 years, I figured I would start with United, which is the only of the “Big Three” U.S. airlines (United, American, Delta) to have a hub there.

United generally has one of the better online award travel search engines. You have access to almost all of the Star Alliance airlines, and it’s very easy to use. Furthermore, Star Alliance is the largest of the three major airline alliances, which will allow you award flights to almost (not here) anywhere in the world.

To search, all you need to do is check “Search for award travel” on United.com:

Screenshot 2016-01-03 at 2.50.18 PM

There are two types of economy awards on United: Saver, and Standard. Saver awards cost half as many miles as Standard awards , and are generally how you want to use your miles. If there are no saver awards available for your date and you have some flexibility on dates, check other dates. Standard awards should really only be used if you have no flexibility on dates and you don’t want to pay for the flight, but it’s not a very good use of your miles.

United used to display Standard and Saver awards in separate columns, but now they combine them, always listing Saver award space first. For example, here is an award search from Boston to Kathmandu, with saver award space on a routing that combines Lufthansa and Thai Airways, and Standard award space on a routing that combines United and Air India:

Screenshot 2016-01-03 at 1.33.37 PM

In this situation (aside from the fact that Lufthansa and Thai Airways are far better than United and Air India), you want to choose Saver award. Of course, it’s always important to look at the taxes and fees associated with each award. These are generally either charged by the airports that the flight passes through, or sometimes by the airline under the misleading name of “fuel surcharges.” In some situations in which one award might charge you several hundred dollars in additional taxes and fees to book, it might not be a good idea even if it’s less miles. Of course, in this situation, saving $20 in taxes and fees with the second option isn’t worth the extra 42,500 miles.

The problem with United’s online award search:

As I mentioned earlier, United shows most, but not all Star Alliance flights. In particular, there are two airlines that get left out. The first, Shenzhen Airlines, is an airline that you or I will likely never fly unless we live in southern China. The second, Singapore Airlines, is generally considered one of the best airlines in the world, and connects major cities all over the world to Singapore. You do not want to miss a chance to fly Singapore Airlines for free.

While All Nippon Airways (ANA) is generally considered to have the best search engine for Star Alliance availability (in terms of yielding the most results), it’s also extremely difficult to use, and I wouldn’t recommend it for beginners. Instead, to make sure you’re not missing out on Singapore Airlines award space, I would recommend using the search engine for Aeroplan, the loyalty program of Air Canada. (Note that you will need to create a frequent flyer account with Aeroplan first before you can search).

Here’s an example of United’s award search engine showing no nonstop flights between Hanoi and Singapore:

Screenshot 2016-01-03 at 2.12.38 PM

While this itinerary isn’t terrible, it still is frustrating to not fly nonstop between two cities that are so close to each other. But here’s Air Canada’s search engine showing that there is indeed a nonstop flight on that date on Singapore Airlines:

Screenshot 2016-01-03 at 2.12.47 PM

You don’t have to worry about the 20,000 miles displayed next to the award; since you are booking it with your United miles, you’ll use the United rate for one-way travel in Southeast Asia (17,500 miles). You just have to call up the United MileagePlus service center and have them book the award for you.

“OK, but I don’t plan on flying anywhere near Singapore, so can’t I just search United?”

In theory, yes, but given that Singapore Airlines operates five fifth freedom routes (which is when an airline from one country transports passengers between two other countries), it’s often still important to check.

For example, if you were to use United’s award search engine to look for flights from Houston to Moscow, you would see that the fastest way to get there with your miles is by flying United from Houston to Frankfurt, then making a connecting flight to Moscow on Lufthansa:

Screenshot 2016-01-03 at 2.22.48 PM

However, by searching on Air Canada, you’ll see that you can fly nonstop from Houston to Moscow on Singapore Airlines:

Screenshot 2016-01-03 at 2.24.43 PM

Singapore Airlines offers the following fifth freedom flights: (flights that depart the US and go to a country that’s not Singapore)

New York (JFK) to Frankfurt (FRA)

San Francisco (SFO) to Hong Kong (HKG)

San Francisco (SFO) to Seoul (ICN)

Los Angeles (LAX) to Tokyo (NRT)

Houston (IAH) to Moscow (DME)

So if you think there’s a chance that one of those flights might be of use to you on your trip, it’s worth going beyond the United search engine to look for Singapore Airlines award space.

Pro tip: People often use “nonstop” and “direct” interchangeably when describing flights. They are NOT the same thing. A nonstop flight is just what it sounds like – it flies from one city to the other without stopping at any cities in between. A direct flight may stop at a city in between, but and then continue on using the same aircraft and flight number. For example, Singapore Airlines Flight 1 is considered a direct flight from San Francisco to Singapore, even though it stops at Hong Kong on the way. Either the San Francisco to Hong Kong leg or Hong Kong to Singapore leg would be considered nonstop, but not together. In other words, all nonstop flights are direct flights, but not all direct flights are nonstop flights.