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A bargain airfare. What could go wrong?

When my friend Larry told me earlier this week that he was about to fly from San Francisco to Newark on a Frontier Airlines flight to Phoenix, connecting to a Spirit flight to Newark, I jokingly told him to take good notes, because this could make for an interesting column.

I had no idea what he would experience, but flying these two budget airlines with a connection looked risky to me. Frontier and Spirit have more than their share of problems, but taking both of them seemed to compound the chance for the unexpected.

Larry made this choice because of his circumstances – he couldn’t buy his flight in advance, and the other airlines all had fares of about $600 during this busy holiday season. His fare cost half, just $275.

He might have been forwarned while trying to use Spirit’s website to purchase his ticket and seat. He was unable to pay for anything with his credit cards. The website rejected his valid credit cards, one after another. He called Spirit and got through after a 20 minute hold. The agent said they cannot take credit cards on the phone and couldn’t help him buy his ticket – it’s outsourced to another company and only done online.

He was eventually given a phone number that took his credit card by automated voice. But fif Spirit is run mostly from the web, you’d think it would be a flawless experience. Spirit’s website problems persisted. Later, when he checked in for his flight, the webpage displayed a message “No Permission.”

The trip didn’t get off to a good start. Larry’s Frontier flight from San Francisco to Phoenix left 90 minutes late, leaving him with just a 30 minute connection to get to his midnight flight to Newark. He needn’t had worried, because as he was landing and turned on his phone, he got an message that his Spirit flight was canceled due to a “security issue,” and the plane he was supposed to be on was in Houston.

He went to the Spirit counter and couldn’t get on their next flight at 10am the next morning; it was fully booked. The best they could do was to get him on a flight 24 hours later, midnight the following night. Spirit told him that they do not provide any food or hotel vouchers, nor do they put passengers on other airlines. He’s on his own.

Larry looked for other earlier flights on other airlines for the next day, but the fares were many hundreds more. So he reserved a room at a local Marriott property for two nights.

The next evening he headed to the airport with his suitcase to be checked and a computer/camera bag he would carry on. The two bags cost an additional $110 ($65 and $45) and a seat for $11. By this time I’m sure Larry has realized this is not the low cost trip he expected, having spent $275 for airfares, $121 for Spirit fees, and $250 for the hotel. That bargain $275 fair turned out to cost him $650 plus meals plus a lost day and a lot of aggrevation.

Even though his costs are close to what a good airline like Alaska charges, he still had to endure a long redeye on Spirit with a non-reclining bench-like seat. At 4pm on flight day he got an alert that his flight was 41 minutes late, now leaving at 12:40 am. I twondered how accurate could the precise number of 41 minutes be from Spirit? Turned out not very. He eventually took off at 1:30am, 90 minutes late. The flight was fully packed and the service was non-exististence. In fact he commented that the flight attendents seemed to avoid any conversation and didn’t even look at the passengers as they went down the aisle selling water.

Larry told me how foolish he feels, ending up spending at least as much as he would flying a normal airline and putting up with all of the aggrevation, inconvience and frustration.

But this is not unusual. It’s pretty much the way it’s supposed to work with these airlines. And it’s being experienced by millions each year that are trying to save money or haven’t traveled enough to be aware of the risks. Spirit has a terrible reputation for the way they treat their customers at every level. Entice the traveler with a low fare and then get more money at each turn. Larry finally made it to Newark 25 1/2 hours later than scheduled.