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The next time you search for a cheap flight online, there’s a good chance you’ll find an option for “basic economy” tickets from major airlines Delta, American and United.
These no-frills fares are priced to compete with low-cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier.
My experience flying Delta's Basic Economy and Spirit's Bare Fare
The fine print for basic economy fares will vary by airline, but all three don’t allow passengers to choose a seat, so you’re likely to end up in the middle.
There’s no question that basic economy fares can save you a lot of money, but I wanted to see how the flying experience compares to a discount carrier.
I found a great deal on Kayak and booked these one-way fares:
Delta’s Basic Economy
- Miami to Los Angeles
- Nonstop daytime flight
- Ticket price: $113.20
Spirit’s Bare Fare
- Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale
- Nonstop overnight flight
- Ticket price: $105.50
While there's only a few dollars between the ticket prices, the flights were quite different -- and I did end up paying a lot more for that Spirit fare.
Read on to learn about my experience flying across the country on these cheap flights:
Unlike other major airlines with basic economy fares, Delta still allows passengers to bring one full-sized carry-on and one personal item on the plane at no extra charge.
I packed everything I needed, including a suit, into this under seat carry-on bag:
I bought this specific bag because of its compact dimensions, 16 x 12.20 x 8 inches, which safely met Spirit’s size requirements for a personal item.
Spirit's personal item size requirements:
- 16 x 14 x 12 inches
- 18 x 14 x 8 inches (After April 4, 2017)
If you’re not familiar with Spirit’s policies, passengers must pay an additional fee for carry-on and checked bags, but one personal item is allowed.
Unfortunately, my bag was too big once it was packed full of clothing.
The lesson here is that I really should have taken the time to measure my bag after it was packed because I ended up paying $55 at check-in to bring it on the plane.
Although I played by the rules, I do think I could've gotten away with it.
I noticed that many of the other passengers on my overnight flight had oversized personal items and carry-on bags, and no Spirit employees appeared to be enforcing the baggage policy.
If you’ve had a different experience, I want to hear about it in the comments section below.
When I bought a basic economy ticket with Delta, I assumed that I would be getting a middle seat, but I was surprised to get an aisle seat on the full flight.
I wasn’t as lucky on my trip back with Spirit, as I was assigned a middle seat.
Since I knew I had a nearly five-hour flight ahead of me, I decided to pay an extra $18 for a window seat when I checked in at the Spirit kiosk -- an impulse upgrade after the flight was delayed.
Speaking of seats, the ones on Spirit don’t recline. Just remember to bring a travel pillow with you!
Snack and beverage service
Delta’s basic economy fare entitles travelers to the same snack and beverage service that economy passengers receive, which certainly is appreciated on a transcontinental flight.
Spirit, on the other hand, charges for everything – including $3 for a soda.
On the Delta flight, I noticed that the yogurt bar, part of the carrier’s new and improved snack lineup, was a hit with my fellow passengers. The other snack options were pretzels, peanuts and cookies.
Image credit: Delta
My Miami to Los Angeles flight didn’t include a complimentary meal, which Delta is bringing back on some of its other longer U.S. routes.
Bottom line: Beating Spirit’s fees isn't easy!
The Spirit flight ended up being $65 more expensive than the Delta flight because of the carry-on bag fee that caught me by surprise at the airport.
I only wish I had one of those baggage sizers at home so I could've checked in advance!
Although I was unable to beat Spirit’s fees this time around, I have flown with them in the past on shorter flights (Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale) and avoided fees and surcharges.
Here are five questions to ask yourself before flying Spirit:
- Do I need a window seat or an aisle seat?
- Are snacks and beverages necessary?
- Do I like to recline my seat?
- Is in-flight entertainment important to me?
- Do I need to check a bag or carry-on?
If you answered “no” to most or all of these questions, buying a ticket on Spirit Airlines may be a great way for you to save money on your next trip.
Otherwise, that cheap ticket may end up costing you more than you realize.
How to avoid a checked baggage fee
Check out more from our Michael Saves series:
- How I paid off my $86,000 mortgage in 2 years
- Secret Aldi savings trick you probably haven't tried
- How I save 75% on prescription drugs
- 12 things that are cheaper at T.J. Maxx than on Amazon
- Simple budgeting trick to save 2 full paychecks in 2017