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Trip Report: Three Major U.S. Ultra-Low-Cost Carriers
Ultra-Low-Cost Carrier (ULCC) refers to a carrier that doesn’t offer any amenities or services with their fares. ULCCs often receive harsh and significant criticism here in the U.S., and I have made every effort to avoid traveling on them until this point. However, I have been curious about why people disliked them and how they have survived the market. Therefore, I set out to fly on as many of them as possible in a single day to understand what they are and which one is the worst of the worsts.
I flew Frontier, Allegiant and Spirit on individual, separate occasions between Las Vegas and Santa Ana, Calif. in early May 2022. I chose these three carriers because they all operate the Airbus A320 Family exclusively and are comparable in fleet size on this route.
This report will discuss the best ways to book these flights, the seats, onboard experience and the overall impression of flying on a budget.
I booked all my flights through each carrier’s website and spent about the same for each flight. The booking process is very similar across all three websites. They all made multiple attempts to remind you of all the À la carte options. The Spirit flight has a ‘Book on Google’ option, which saves you the trouble of navigating all the up-sale attempts. However, the option only provides the ability to reserve a seat. Anyone who wants to purchase luggage allowances will miss out on the discount offered on the carrier’s website.
Despite providing the same À la carte options, the three ULCCs priced them very differently.
All three carriers charge a fee for seat reservations. If a passenger chooses not to pay for seating, they will be assigned a seat at check-in. The three ULCCs all offer some level of premium seating. While Spirit has the famous Big Front Seat, the other two airlines only offered seats with slightly more legroom. For consistency in the comparison, my travels stuck to each airline’s most basic seats.
Seating charges are priced differently depending on many factors, such as route, location, etc. Since all three of my flights are on the same day, same route and were booked simultaneously, I thought it’d be interesting to see how the seating fees stack up against each other.
Since I did not pay for seat reservations when I booked the flights, I was able to see the seating charge change as my flights drew near. Despite stating they are offering the best rates at booking, Frontier and Spirit dropped prices on seats until check-in. Allegiant’s charges were consistent from the time of booking to check-in. I missed checking Frontier’s pricing at check-in because its app does not automatically show the seat map.
Allegiant’s option provides the most affordability and range. One can avoid a middle seat for as low as $6 or reserve a middle seat in the rear for $1 on the Las Vegas-based carrier’s metal. In comparison, the cheapest seat on Frontier was $43. However, the seats on the Denver-based carrier are wider than those on the other two. The airline also charges a premium for their middle seats because they provide even more width.
Spirit’s Big Front Seat looks like a steal as far as premium seating is concerned. It’s comparable in pricing with the other two airlines’ offerings but offers a real premium experience by domestic flight standards.
|Main Cabin Seat – at booking||$1-$21||$18*-$27*||$43-$78|
|Main Cabin Seat – two weeks before flight||$1-$21||$15-$23||$22-$34|
|Main Cabin Seat – at check in||$1-$21||$9-$10||Unknown|
|Main Cabin Seat – after check-in||NA||$28||Unknown|
|Premium Seat – at booking||$24-$25||$ 34||$ 102|
|Premium Seat – two weeks before flight||$24-$25||$ 32||$61-$62|
|Premium Seat – at check in||$24-$25||Unknown||Unknown|
|Premium Seat – after check-in||NA||$ 45||Unknown|
As you’d expect from a ULCC, none of the carriers has free baggage allowance beyond one personal item. All of them provide some level of discount when you pay for bags at booking. Carry-ons are more expensive than checked bags since they’ll slow down boarding. On the day of my flights, Allegiant offered the best deal for baggage.
|Carry-on Bag – at booking||$ 15.00||$ 36.00||$ 59.00|
|Carry-on Bag – at check-in||$ 45.00||$ 51.00||$ 63.00|
|Carry-on Bag – at gate||$ 50.00||$ 65.00||$ 60.00|
|Checked Bag – at booking||$ 25.00||$ 30.00||$ 54.00|
All three airlines’ flexible booking option waives a one-time flight change fee. Allegiant’s option stands out among the three because it allows changes up to 1 hour before the departure.
Unlike traditional airlines, most ULCCs will charge you for agent services at the airport. While Frontier charges a fee at most airports, the agent assistance at Las Vegas was free for my flight.
Allegiant’s booking system promoted its Pet in Cabin option. Unlike most carriers that charge a per direction fee, the Las Vegas-based carrier charges $50 per pet per flight. It is a good option for traveling with a pet if there’s a nonstop flight on the airline.
I used each airline’s app for checking in. All three apps offered similar experiences as the websites. Allegiant’s check-in seems stricter than the other two players since it won’t allow any further changes to either seat or baggage once checked in.
Spirit’s app made another last-ditch effort to sell the Big Front Seats an hour before the flight. The notification worked well since all the seats were filled by the time I boarded the airplane.
Frontier’s boarding pass automatically popped up when I arrived at Las Vegas airport. I thought that was a nice touch from them.
All three airlines have assigned seating, so the boarding areas are similar to the mainline carriers’. Frontier’s boarding area stands out from the three, with multiple banners reminding passengers to pay for carry-on bags in the app. Spirit and Frontier stated they would strictly enforce personal item sizes in the pre-boarding announcements.
The ULCCs are notorious for up charging carry-on baggage fees at the gate. However, they also thrive on fast turnover times. Therefore, I was interested in seeing the balancing act from the three carriers. I did not see anyone get checked for personal item size. In all fairness, most people seem to follow the personal item rules well. At the same time, there are certainly a small number of bags that are very unlikely to fit under the seat on each flight.
My backpack was oversized for the Allegiant flight, because I failed to check Allegiant’s requirements and packed my bag based on Frontier’s and Spirit’s requirements. Allegiant’s item limit is 16 x 15 x 7 inches, much smaller than the limit of 18 x 14 x 8 inches from the other two airlines. While my bag is oversized in two dimensions by the Las Vegas-based carrier’s standard, it would fit under the seat. I can only assume that’s why the gate agent let me board without any issue.
The three airlines use a similar boarding methodology. Passengers with carry-ons or priority boarding will board the airplane first. The rest of the passengers are generally divided into groups, with the rear, boarding earlier than the front.
The Denver-based carrier seems to have the fastest boarding time among the three, boarding roughly ten people per minute, even though it has the narrowest aisle. The Miramar-based carrier is a close second at nine people per minute. However, the Las Vegas-based carrier was only on par with the mainline carriers, which boarded around six people per minute.
I measured the boarding time from the start of boarding until no continuous stream of passengers boarding the airplane. Therefore, the numbers above are rough estimates rather than scientific measurements. However, it appears the higher baggage fees are deterring people from bringing carry-on bags which accelerated boarding.
Overall, the Denver-based carrier is the best in setting expectations for passengers and boarding speed. Another thing to note is that the crews on all these flights are friendly. I saw all of them assisting people and helping customers with seating arrangements.
The three carriers’ cabins look largely indistinguishable, except for the orange-colored strips underneath the luggage bins on Allegiant’s airplane. Based on the overhead panel design, the Las Vegas-based airline likely carried over the bins from the plane’s original operator, easyJet. Both carriers shared a similar shade of orange in their paint schemes, so it made sense for the used-plane owner to forego refurnishing the bins.
Interestingly, the company’s new airplanes inherited this look. Spirit also introduced a new cabin look that showcased its color scheme in the seam underneath luggage bins. However, the aircraft I was on did not feature the new branding components.
In contrast, mainline airlines usually have custom-designed partitions near the entrance area and between different classes of services. The lack of character shows how little effort the ULCCs have spent to stand out from their competitions. It is in line with Allegiant’s CEO’s comment that their customers do not care about their interiors.
All three airlines have lavatories in both the front and back of the cabin. The lavatories in front are identical. Frontier and Spirit use the space flex lavatory, which consists of two toilets in the back. Allegiant only had a single more spacious lavatory. However, the single lavatory configuration was on a smaller airplane than the latter. The space-saving design has become very popular among mainline carriers as well. The experience is similar to what one would get from flying on a full-service airline.
Both Frontier and Spirit have debuted upgraded seats in the main cabin in recent years. Unfortunately, none of the aircraft I flew on featured the new seats. All three flights carried Acro Series 3ST seats, and none of them have in-seat power.
While the pitch on all of them is identical and significantly smaller than traditional airlines’, one doesn’t necessarily feel cramped. The slim seat cushion and the pre-reclined seatback give more space to the passenger. The legroom is 10 inches at the narrowest point. Still, the actual space matched my most recent flight on Delta, because the seat curvature provides nearly two inches of extra room.
As many people have mentioned before, slim cushions are bearable for short hops but not enjoyable on longer flights. I started feeling uncomfortable on my second flight, because there was not enough cushioning between me and the seat shell.
Surprisingly, none of the airlines applied any branding component on the seats. The seams on Allegiant’s and Spirit’s seats are even identical.
Unlike tray tables on traditional seats, the tray tables on the Acro seats are aluminum. It provides the needed joint strength and reduces the part count. The weight penalty is negligible since the tables are smaller than the mainline seats’. The tray tables also printed safety messages on the tables rather than using labels to save more weight.
Even though the base seats are essentially the same, the three carriers customized the seats slightly differently. There are clear impacts on the experience from these customizations.
Pre-flight announcements and checks are professional and on par with regular airlines. On the day of my flights, the Spirit crew appeared to be the most energetic. They also put some personal spin on the announcement.
The Florida-based carrier’s crew mentioned the flight had WiFi connectivity during the pre-flight announcement. However, I did not remember to check WiFi since there were no other reminders of WiFi connectivity onboard or announcement in-flight. Other trip reports have suggested the internet option is reasonably priced and fast.
All beverages and snacks come at a price on the no-frills airlines. You can find a hard copy of the menu on Allegiant and Frontier flights in the seat pocket in front, while Spirit removed paper menus for weight savings. Digital menus are available on each airline’s apps except on Frontier’s.
The beverage and snack offerings on all three flights are comparable, with minor differences in pricing. In comparison, Southwest’s beer options are between $6 – $7, while all three US majors sell beer for $8.
|Soda||$ 3.00||$ 3.50||$ 3.25|
|Beer||$ 8.00||$ 9.00||$ 9.00|
|Snack||$ 4.00||$ 4.50||$ 4.50|
The three airlines also took different approaches in selling the products on these short hops. Spirit was the only one that took a galley cart out to make the most sales. Both Allegiant’s and Frontier’s crew announced the service once we reached our cruising altitude and made a few sales on demand by asking people to press the call button. While Spirit is the most aggressive in pursuing extra revenue from in-flight services, they managed not to do it obnoxiously. I did not feel bothered as I have on other LCCs.
ULCCs are also infamous for flight delays and cancellations. I flew on a fair-weather day in and out of the carriers’ focus city, so my flights were on time. However, the airlines schedule the airplanes’ turnover times incredibly short. One delay can quickly ripple through the schedule. My first attempt to fly on these three airlines fell through because no suitable replacement was available when Frontier canceled the first leg of my trip.
I was expecting this report to an end after completing my flights. However, it’s worth mentioning Allegiant sent a promotional email with various discounts for a future flight/vacation package. The discounts were valid for 72 hours from the day after my flight and can be applied to travels two months from my travel date. It is an interesting gesture to get people flying more with the airline.
I set out on this trip expecting disorganized boarding processes, cramped seats and constant in-flight sales. I came off these flights without feeling very different from any other of my travels. There is unease about whether the gate agent will check my backpack for size. And the seats are by no means comfortable. However, there shouldn’t be any major surprises when you don’t expect to get services such as flying first class.
Overall, the ULCCs provide a viable option for traveling short routes. If I ever fly with them again, I would pay for luggage at booking and maybe wait to select my seats if I’m traveling alone.
One more thing
I started planning this trip before Frontier and Spirit announced their plans for a merger. My objective changed slightly to see what the market would lose should the merger go through after that announcement. It turns out that not much will change. The two airlines already offer very similar products. Their pricing for add-ons is more aligned with each other than with Allegiant or another airline. Additionally, they both have some of the youngest fleets in the country. A merger between the two can avoid a lot of the operational chaos experienced by other companies and may create a true market-disrupting force.
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