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A Gentleman’s Guide to Flying a Shitty Airline

This take won’t earn me any friends, but I’m a Spirit Airlines apologist. Airlines are uniformly terrible to anyone who isn’t a loyal, platinum-status customer — they cancel our flights without apology; force us to compete against one another for seats and overhead compartment space; cram us into rows that no fully grown human could ever consider comfortable; serve us food that’s barely edible; and frequently lose our luggage (again, without apology).

But most airlines have the audacity to tell us that they value customer service. Only Spirit has the courage to be unabashed about its shittiness, and that’s a transparency I can respect.

There’s no pretense with Spirit. It’s kind of like eating in a retro-themed diner, where patrons pay for the privilege of rude service. Spirit is completely upfront about making the flying process as unpleasant as oral surgery, and people fly Spirit anyway because their prices are so irresistibly cheap.

Spirit compensates for its basement-level airfares by nickel-and-diming its passengers at every possible turn. Things that come standard at nearly every other airline cost extra with Spirit. Checking a bag? That’ll be $30. Choosing a seat (any seat)? Another $50. Spirit even has the audacity to charge passengers $2 for printing out their boarding pass at a kiosk.

Spirit’s “optional services” have created a strange dichotomy for the airline: It’s simultaneously the most hated and one of the most profitable airlines currently operating.

But there’s a way to bask in Spirit’s ultra-low prices without losing your sanity. I would know — I regularly flew Spirit to Chicago from New York when I lived in the latter. Were the flights miserable? Oh, God, yes. But I’m a cheap bastard, and for $140 round-trip, I’ll endure a little discomfort.

Over time, I came to learn how to fly Spirit without accruing additional fees. And now I present those hard-earned lessons to you — and, unlike Spirit, for no fee.

Pack Light. Like, Very Light

Most people don’t realize that a regular piece of luggage isn’t included with the price of your Spirit ticket. Not even your standard, two-wheeled carry-on suitcase is allowed. All a Spirit ticket gets you is one 18x14x18-inch bag to place under your feet. That’s roughly the size of a backpack.

If you must bring a regular-sized carry-on, then remember to pay the $30 fee when buying your ticket. That price jumps to $35 if you pay at the airport, and if you try to get cute and “sneak” your carry-on onto the plane without paying at all, you’ll get dinged with a $100 “carry-on fee” at the gate.

Check in Online and Use a Mobile Boarding Pass

The only unequivocally good thing about smartphones is how they’ve expedited the airline check-in process. With Spirit, that means choosing to have your boarding pass emailed to you (instead of printing it out). At security, you pull up the email on your smartphone, and the TSA agent scans the barcode from your device.

No waiting in line at the gate! No fumbling with the dang kiosk! No constantly checking your pockets to make sure you didn’t lose your boarding pass!

And the best part — no having to pay $10 to have a Spirit agent print out a boarding pass for you. Of course, you could print out a boarding pass yourself, free of charge, but who owns a printer anymore?

Get TSA PreCheck Already

Life is filled with pain and regret, but it’s a little less so when you have TSA PreCheck. For those who don’t know, U.S. citizens can submit themselves to a background check that (if they pass) affords them special privileges at the TSA line, such as the luxury of not having to remove their shoes and belt before walking through the metal detector and not having to take their laptop out when putting it through the bag screener.

It’s amazing what an enormous difference those little changes make. The line flies. With online check-in, a mobile boarding pass, carry-on luggage and TSA PreCheck, it often takes as little as 10 minutes to get from the curb at the departures terminal to the gate where your plane is boarding.

To apply for PreCheck, click here.

Do it. You haven’t experienced true smugness until you pull out your mobile boarding pass and the TSA agent waves you through to the super-special speedy PreCheck line.

The only drawback in this context: While Spirit is a TSA PreCheck participant, this is only the case at certain airports.

Bring an Empty Water Bottle

My single worst case of the Sunday Scaries involved a hung-over Spirit flight the day after a friend’s wedding. I woke up from a mid-flight nap in a cold sweat, not knowing where I was, and in my disorientation briefly consider trying to open the exit row door. (I didn’t.)

I did ask the flight attendant for a cup of water, though, and that’s when I learned the hard way that Spirit even charges for water. As in, they charge you for water poured into a tiny plastic cup. I never paid for anything faster, but I learned the importance of bringing a reusable water bottle to the airport.

Buy a nice water bottle. Empty it. Bring it with you through security. Then fill it up once you’re all the way in the terminal at one of those top-filling water fountains.

Pay More, You Cheap Bastard!

If this all sounds like a lot of work to save a couple hundred bucks, then upgrade to a nicer airline, ya whiner! I recommend Virgin. They have annoying safety videos, but great mood lighting.

Flying is the kind of thing where you get what you pay for, and Spirit charges and gives little. But if you’re diligent enough, it truly can be a good deal.