Delta vs. Spirit: Airline experience comparison

As discussed previously, we booked a hacker fare to Florida. This meant that we booked one way flights on two different carriers. On our return flight, we also booked separate itineraries due to gift card redemption. All of the details on our airfare pricing are included in this post. Today, we’re going to talk about the travel experience.

Our flight to Florida was on Spirit Air, so we knew we’d be packing ultra light. We push the limits of free personal item sizing, but follow certain tips to make sure our bag is allowed onboard for free. Each of carries a bag, typically in backpack form. My bag is convertible between briefcase, shoulder-strap and backpack style. The cardinal rule for Spirit and other personal item limited carriers is to consolidate to a single bag. This means no purse or handbag of any kind. The only exception to this is food, especially if it is in a disposable paper or plastic bag. We often carry on some sort of food with Spirit, but usually we find a way to consolidate that into one of our bags as well. We have a foldable shopping bag similar to these.

I like to use it for carrying snacks because it packs down to a tiny size when the snacks are gone. The reusable nature makes it much more durable for multiple uses than a paper or plastic bag. If we purchase more snacks for the return trip, we can unfold the bag and reuse it without fear that it was destroyed on the initial trip. Bonus points that it is reusable. Although, if you have a disposable bag on hand, repurposing that is also environmentally friendly.

On that note, we prepare for discount carrier flights by bringing along some food and creating our own in-flight entertainment. The week before this trip was hectic for both of us at work. As a result, we didn’t have much time to prepare elaborate meals. We were also coming to the end of a no grocery challenge. Our pantry and fridge were sparse. I was a little worried about our dinner time flight, but all was fine. In a whirlwind, I packed up four clementine oranges, two apples, a small bag of raw almonds, a small bag of salted cashews and a few chocolates along with kettle corn and coconut macaroon cookies from a holiday gift. This turned out to be more than enough to sustain us on our flight. After the flight, we had enough snacks left to enjoy on our road trip from Jacksonville to Miami. 

We each made sure headphones and devices were charged prior to boarding. We downloaded movies and music. I watched One Child Nation courtesy of Prime Video and finished a book on my kindle. 

It was my intention to create a post on packing for the trip, but the week leading up to our vacation was so hectic. I just didn’t have the time. My packing was less thoughtful than I normally like. As a result, I overpacked. This is possible even when not bringing much! I had pants where I wished I had shorts. And short sleeved shirts where I wished I had long sleeves. But it worked out okay. I survived. My vacation was still fun. This is my tip for any chronic overpackers–try packing less and see how it feels. 

You can almost always buy something at your destination if you discover you don’t have something critical. Here are some examples of items we’ve failed to pack and purchased while traveling. I habitually buy sunglasses on every trip to Florida. What started out as forgetting to pack sunglasses because I rarely need a pair in my overcast home state has turned into a fun vacation tradition. Mr. Vine bought swim trunks in Istanbul so he could use the Turkish bath and pool in our hotel. I even bought artificial tears at a Bic Camera in Tokyo on a layover to Vietnam. [LINK] I have also picked up other over the counter medications like ibuprofen and a package of hair ties for running. The big exceptions are prescription items–do not forget to pack those!

We don’t pay for any extras on Spirit Air or other discount carriers, including seat selection. Usually we still get seated next to each other, but not on this flight. Mr. Vine was seated a few rows ahead of me. Not wanting to bother the gate agent, we decided we’d try to swap seats once onboard. Both of us ended up seated next to couples, though, and accepted our fate. We understand this is a gamble we make when we don’t pay for pre-selected seats.

It has been awhile since we’ve had the opportunity to make such a direct comparison between a  legacy carrier airline and a discount carrier. We remain willing to fly discount carriers under certain circumstances and for the right price, but there is a difference. 

The Spirit experience felt more chaotic overall. Upon checking in on the app, I received a notification that our flight might be oversold and an invitation to bid on a travel voucher to take a bump to another flight. The process asks the user to enter the minimum travel voucher they would accept in exchange for their seat. I checked the next flight schedules and decided we were unwilling to bid for a bump as the alternative flights were not ideal. On the travel day, I received numerous text updates that our flight time changed–it showed as up to an hour delayed, bounced around somewhat, before eventually going back to on time. This was unnerving as we had a lengthy drive to the airport. In the end, our flight was delayed by a half hour or less and was not oversold. Perhaps others had taken bumps via the bid process in the app, but the gate agent never announced a need for passengers to volunteer their seats. 

Anyone who has flown Spirit can attest to the fact that the passengers at the gate are quite different from legacy passengers. Typically they are leisure, not business, travelers and therefore less efficient at getting through security and managing the boarding process. Lots of families choose Spirit. 

Mr. Vine was luckier in his seat assignment. A small child was seated behind me who kept slamming the tray table up and down into my seat back. Spirit’s thin seats made this especially obnoxious. Unfortunately my noise canceling headphones didn’t cancel out the noise or reverberation from the slamming. I had boarded the plane with a headache and my seat neighbors didn’t improve that condition. Deplaning also seemed to take an extra long time, with a distressed child behind me. In a post-flight survey, I suggested to Spirit that they try to assign families seats near the front of the plane. That seems so logical as it would make deplaning easier and faster for the families (not to mention more pleasant for everyone else). Aside from the small delay, though, we were satisfied with the Spirit flight and appreciated its low cost.

On the flight home, Delta felt luxurious by comparison. Again, Mr. Vine and I were separated. But this time we asked the gate agent if she would reseat us. She offered us exit row seats together and we readily accepted. We were so impressed with this extra-mile service from the gate agent! As we settled into our seats, I whispered to Mr. Vine that our main cabin seats felt like first class in comparison to the spartan appointments on Spirit. It’s funny how powerful a little perspective can be. The Delta flight was otherwise uneventful and quiet. I enjoyed a movie on the in flight entertainment system while Mr. Vine napped.  

We flew into a hub airport for Delta. It always seems like flying into an airport on one of its major carriers results in a quicker arrival at the gate. We arrived a little early, but had a long wait for the shuttle to take us to our parking area. Due to the hacker fare, we opted to park more conveniently to our departure airline because of the time constraints of catching a flight. 

Our comparison of Delta and Spirit likely won’t influence our airline choices in the future. We value price and itinerary too highly. But the experience is certainly more refined on Delta. For longer flights (4+ hours), we are more likely to opt against a discount carrier. But for the short hops, we’re all about which airline can get us to our destination for the lowest price with the most convenient schedule. We plan to take at least three more roundtrip flights this year, on a mix of carriers. Stay tuned to find out whether Delta can retain its place as our favorite domestic carrier!

Do you have a favorite airline? Why or why not? What are your thoughts on Spirit and other discount carriers? Do you pay for any of the add-on items like baggage or seat upgrades to make the experience more comfortable?

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