With a fraction of the planes and daily flights, Spirit Airlines isn't as well known as its major competitors save for the occasional eye-popping fare sale or joke on late-night TV.
But the Florida-based budget airline is expanding rapidly, with new service in Nashville, Tenn.; Charlotte, North Carolina; and California this year, meaning an increasing number of travelers are going to see Spirit in airfare searches and at their airport gates.
USA TODAY took seven Spirit flights in five days to check out the expanding discount airline with the hard-to-miss yellow and black planes.
Here are 13 do's and don'ts:
1. Do the math when shopping for tickets. That $65 one-way fare from Detroit to Las Vegas will quickly balloon if you’re bringing anything bigger than a purse or backpack (Spirit charges for carry-on and checked bags) and want an advance seat assignment. Conversely, it probably can’t be beat if you travel light and don’t care where you sit.
2. Don’t assume a similarly priced ticket on another airline will get you more. American, United and Delta created basic economy fares to match Spirit’s bargain fares, and those tickets come with their own restrictions. American and Delta do allow a free standard carry-on bag unlike Spirit, but United, for example, does not. And all three major airlines charge basic economy passengers for advance seat assignments.
3. Do sign up for Spirit emails and, if you plan to fly Spirit a lot, the $9 Fare Club ($60 a year). Spirit sends almost daily emails with promo codes for flight discounts. One 50% off deal saved me $35 on a cheap flight from Fort Lauderdale. Note that they are limited-time offers, sometimes requiring purchase that day, and the discount doesn’t shave 50% off the posted fare because Spirit has several fees – including an arcane and pricey "passenger usage charge" – baked into the fare that is displayed. But it's still savings you wouldn't otherwise get. The $9 Fare Club, which is $60 the first year and $70 in succeeding years, provides discounts on airfare and big discounts on bag fees. I recouped the cost with my first booking.
7 Spirit Airlines flights in 5 days: The good, the (not too) bad and the annoying
4. Don't pay for a seat assignment if you aren't picky about your seat. A Spirit ticket does not include an advance seat assignment. A seat is assigned last minute at online check-in or at the airport. The pickings may be slim – hello, middle seat – or you could get lucky and be randomly assigned an aisle or window seat or, even better, an exit row seat or empty Big Front Seat. Families are often separated. Spirit tries to sell you a seat several times during and after booking. The price to reserve an aisle seat on two of my flights: $12 a piece. If you're flying on an Airbus A321, check out seats 10B and 10C. They're the favorite of Spirit Vice President Greg Christopher because there are only two seats in the row, which is in front of an exit row seat with a rear-facing seat for the flight attendant.
5. Do make sure the Thrills Combo, a package of "perks'' including a carry-on bag, checked bag, seat assignment and waiver of the change fee, is necessary before clicking buy. Spirit touts the savings during every booking, but it's only a deal if you were planning to buy everything that is included in the lineup.
6. Don't book a last-minute ticket thinking you can get your money back within 24 hours if your plans change. Like other airlines, Spirit has a 24-hour risk-free cancellation period. Unlike other airlines, however, the policy doesn't apply to tickets booked fewer than seven days before travel, i.e., last-minute trips. Passengers in the latter category have to pay Spirit's $90 change fee (which is less than other airlines' change fees) plus any fare difference.
7. Don't wait to pay for your bags at the airport. Spirit's bag fees are priciest at the airport. Pay for them when you book your ticket.
8. Don't wait until you get to the airport to print your boarding pass. It'll cost you $10 per person. You can print one out at home, use a mobile boarding pass from Spirit's app or print one for free at the airport kiosk.
9. Don’t freak out about the seats. Yes, they’re thin, there’s not much cushioning and they don’t recline. But they are more than manageable for all but the tallest or largest passengers or those with a big carry-on stuffed underneath the seat.
10. Do splurge on the Big Front Seats if it’s in the budget. The seats at the front of the plane are large, plush and there’s no middle seat. You’ll feel like you’re in first class, minus the free food and drink and the curtain separating you from the passengers in coach. Many passengers mistakenly call it first class when they file by. Prices vary by route. I paid $60 on one flight and $45 on another.
11. Don’t bother pulling out your laptop to work or watch a movie. Spirit's tray tables are tiny. Most passengers use their smartphones or tablets for entertainment.
12. Do bring your own food and drinks. Spirit charges for in-flight drinks, including coffee ($2), bottled water ($3) and soda ($3). It sells snacks, too, like many airlines, but some of the choices (Cup of Noodles, anyone?) might leave you wishing you'd picked up something at one of those trendy airport restaurants or at least at an airport sundries shop.
13. Do expect a lot of infrequent flyers on board. There’s a reason the flight attendants make repeated announcements about using headphones when playing music or watching videos; remind travelers to use the restroom before the plane starts it descent and the seat belt sign goes on; and to use the restroom, not the seats, to change a diaper.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Spirit Airlines tips: 13 do's and don'ts from flight deals to seats