Trying to decide between Southwest and Spirit for your next trip?
The short answer is that Southwest is a larger low-cost carrier with a good level of service equal to what is expected from any well-liked airline. Spirit is a smaller low-cost carrier that sacrifices services and comforts in lieu of lower base ticket prices.
Low cost airlines are some of the most popular options for travelers when planning a trip around the country or around the world. Since this is the case, it’s pretty common to see travelers comparing Spirit Airlines versus Southwest Airlines.
They both cover a lot of air space, so choosing between them will come down to comfort, experience and price – all will be covered in this article. To begin, we’ll give a brief background on both:
Spirit Airlines is categorized as an ultra-low-cost-carrier, beginning as a trucking company called Clippert in 1964. Their air service was started under the name Charter One in 1983, then as Spirit Airlines, Inc. in 1992. Spirit is currently the 8th largest airline in America by passengers carried and has remained independent since it’s inception. Spirit’s customer satisfaction ratings are notoriously low.
Southwest Airlines is the world’s largest low-cost carrier, first established in 1967. First operating solely in the state of Texas, Southwest later expanded their reach to the United States and beyond. Southwest has high customer satisfaction ratings while offering competitive pricing on tickets.
Pricing & Extra Charges
Pricing is the most important factor when comparing airlines. Airfare is almost always the biggest travel expense when planning a trip in the United States or across the globe, so it’s important to see how each company measures up when it comes to charging for tickets and extra fees.
Spirit takes an unbundled approach to its fares. This means that you’ll pay a base fee for your ticket and then get charged for any additional bags or options that you want on the flight. This type of airfare is a great option for anyone wanting to travel spontaneously for cheap with one bag, but it can get pricier if you need more than this.
The process starts with a base fare for tickets, averaging around $200 round trip on the East Coast, about $350 cross-country, and around $675 round trip to the Caribbean for a single passenger. From here, expect for prices to continue climbing as you add passengers, carry-ons and checked bags.
For example, we booked a round trip, nonstop flight from Miami to New York City in the busy summer month of June. The base fare started at $370.18. This base fare only includes one personal item (purse or backpack, for instance) and assigns you to a random seat – no carry-on bags or additional luggage is included and you’ll be boarding the plane last. For comparison’s sake, a similar flight in the slow month of February was only $60.
Southwest pricing is based on class, separating costs by Business Select (premium), Anytime (moderate) and Wanna Get Away (cheapest) options. There isn’t a huge difference between the classes since the seating is pretty standard across the board. The biggest differences come into play with the extras included with each fare. Here’s the breakdown:
- Wanna Get Away: includes two free checked bags, no change fees and no cancel fees for the lowest price available
- Anytime: includes two free checked bags, no change fees, no cancel fees and the opportunity to change your flight last minute and get a refund for about $400 over “Wanna Get Away”
- Business Select: includes two free checked bags, no change fees, no cancel fees, opportunity to change your flight last minute or refund a flight, priority boarding, priority security line and a complimentary alcoholic beverage for about $400 – $500 over “Wanna Get Away”
We used the Wanna Get Away option to price out different trips throughout the year, comparing to Spirit’s costs. We found that a round trip along the East Coast averages about $150, a cross-country trip with a likely stop is around $300, and a round trip to the Caribbean is about $515.
Spirit, as mentioned before, charges extra for baggage. So using the previous example, traveling from Miami to New York in June for $370, add an extra $65 for one carry-on bag, which also comes with the ability to pick your seat and board the plane earlier. Tack on $80 if you also want to bring one checked bag and have the option to modify your flight.
If you need to bring another checked bag (whether it be an additional suitcase, or a snowboard or skis), that bag will cost $44. If you need to bring a third checked bag, the additional cost for that bag is $85. If you’re bringing a bike on the trip, the cost is $75 and the cost to bring a surfboard is $100.
Southwest never charges for luggage unless you have more than two checked bags per person. They must meet or be under the weight and size requirements, which is typically 50 lbs per bag at less than 62 inches long. Otherwise the fee could be $75 for an overweight or oversized bag.
Southwest will allow you to bring more than two checked bags at a fee of $75 per bag.
Spirit doesn’t have classes like other airlines, but they do have a Premium option which is a step up from standard Economy seating. The cost to upgrade is about $31 per flight and includes up to 11 inches more leg room and a comfier chair.
You can get in your own premium security line at the airport for a small fee of $8 per person. This is only available at certain airports, so it won’t always be an option, but it’ll give you shorter wait times.
Lastly, you can check in to your flight in the airport or online for free – OR you can choose to pay $10 per person to check in early. And if you want traveler’s insurance, the cost will be determined by the amount you’re paying in airfare (generally between $50 – $200 over the ticket price).
Southwest has upgraded boarding available on some flights, typically between $30 – $50 extra per person. This allows you to board early and choose the seat you want. Southwest does not allow guests to pre-select their seat, so early boarding is the only way you’ll be able to choose who you sit next to.
Early check-in can be purchased for $15 extra, guaranteeing a better boarding position after the Business Select class.
P.S. – When you’re done reading this one, don’t miss our other expert airline comparisons:
Ways to Save
Spirit has a dedicated page on their site to help you get the best deal possible. Search under the “Deals” tab and find a range of round trip and one way flights to destinations primarily in the US for as low as $25. They also have coupon codes and other discounts available on occasion. You’ll find more of these deals during slower months, so this is a great way to save on a spontaneous trip – if you don’t mind the additional fees for baggage and odd flight times.
Spirit also has a $9 Fare Club which can give you exclusive discounts on flights and waived fees. The annual cost is $69.95, but could end up saving you money if you fly several times a year with Spirit Airlines, specifically.
Southwest has a rewards program called Rapid Rewards, that allows you to earn miles by booking flights and spending with Southwest retail and accommodations partners. You can use your points/miles on flights, hotels, car rentals, gift cards, merchandise and Cardmember experiences.
The best part about the program is that there are no blackout dates for booking flights and the points never expire. In addition to this program, look for the “lowest fare” marker when booking regular flights to find the best rate.
Seats & Flight Experience
Aside from pricing, comfort is the next most important factor when determining which airline to choose. Along with the comfort and experience is the overall cleanliness, friendliness and food served on the flight.
Spirit economy seats are some of the slimmest and least padded seats on the market. Some have compared the experience to taking a public transportation bus in the air; in other words – they’re not comfortable. This could be ok for short flights, but definitely something to consider for cross-country and international flights.
The tray tables are very small, as well. In general, the room given can be a tight squeeze and most people might not fit comfortably.
Southwest has the same kind of seats on the entire plane, so those in Business Select will be choosing from the same seats as the “Wanna Get Away” passengers. The major difference is that economy passengers will typically board the plane last. Since there is no way to select your seat in advance of the flight, boarding the plane last could mean that you won’t be sitting with your traveling party.
As far as the comfort level of the seating goes, Southwest has some of the largest economy seats on the market with big headrests and cozy cushioning.
Spirit has a great option for bumping up from economy class with large roomy seats. However, the “Big Comfy Seats” are the only upgrade you’ll get from standard Economy and they are only slightly more comfortable. You’ll be offered the same menu and the opportunity to purchase Wifi with your extra 11 inches of leg room. Basically, Spirit’s Premium seats are like sitting in the exit row for an extra $31 and a little more cushion.
Southwest, as mentioned before, has Business Select and Anytime classes. However, these don’t work in the traditional sense. These higher classes simply mean that you can get on the plane sooner and might have better perks for getting a refund on your flight, along with the possible free drink in Business Select.
The seat size and comfort level are the same across the plane, but the benefit to Business Select is that you can board the plane early and choose the window, exit or front if you want.
Southwest seats are preferable to Spirit seats in almost every possible scenario.
Spirit, by many flyer reports, is considered one of the “worst airlines in America”. Whether you personally feel this way or not, there is no arguing that customer service ratings are very low.
Everyone’s experience will be different, and of course, your attitude helps to determine the outcome of the flight. But generally, the Spirit flight attendants and pilots do the bare minimum on your flight, so it’s very likely that you will view this as poor service if you have any expectations at all.
With Spirit, you get what you pay for and should expect as much going in. Since it accommodates it’s passengers with some of the lowest prices in the industry, you shouldn’t expect the service to be outstanding.
Southwest is very highly rated by passengers, achieving the highest possible score in the Department of Transportation’s Air Travel Consumer Report for the lowest number of complaints per year. The staff at Southwest is generally very friendly and hospitable on each of its flights.
Spirit does not include snacks and drinks on the flight, so prepare to bring them with you or pay extra in-flight. Entertainment is also not included on your flight, so bring it with you, unless you’d like to pay the $6.50 for Wifi access to streaming services.
Southwest will include free snacks and drinks on all of their flights and will even give out free alcoholic beverages on certain holidays. Wifi can be purchased on the flight, but there is plenty of free entertainment on board in the headrest tv. Live streaming, movies and shows are offered on all flights.
It’s fairly easy to find flights to most major cities any day of the year, but more obscure cities and international flights might be harder to get. If you’re looking to travel spur-of-the-moment, it’s helpful to know which airlines are most accessible. In the event that your flight changes or is cancelled, it’s also nice to know which will get you on the next flight faster.
Spirit has 157 aircraft in it’s current fleet, sending travelers on over 500 flights daily. Southwest has 734 aircraft in their fleet, shuttling nearly 4,000 passengers every day.
Spirit focuses mainly on the Eastern United States. In our previous example, traveling from Miami to New York City, plenty of flights were available when booking ahead of time for both slow and busy months. Spirit runs a point-to-point network system and doesn’t have a hub like other airlines. They also don’t do deals with other airlines, so it may be difficult to reschedule your flight if it gets cancelled or delayed.
Southwest has many destinations all over the United States, with it’s central hub in Dallas, TX. Many flights are available daily within the country, even in the slower months. Typically, if a flight is cancelled or delayed, the company will get you on another Southwest flight as soon as possible. If you have to change your flight last minute, they will have you pay the difference if the flight is more expensive or they’ll give you a credit if the flight is less expensive than your original.
Spirit currently flies passengers as far as Lima, Peru. The countries on their international list primarily focus on Central & South America, reaching two destinations in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela.
They also reach islands in the Caribbean, including Aruba, Saint Maarten, Saint Croix, Saint Thomas, Jamaica, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Southwest‘s farthest destination is San Jose, Costa Rica. They mainly operate inside the United States, but they have several locations in Central America including a Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta, Cancun and Cozumel in Mexico, and Belize City.
They also reach islands in the Caribbean including Cuba, the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, Grand Cayman, Montego Bay, Punta Cana, San Juan and Aruba.
All airline are extremely safe and catastrophes are almost nonexistent. Based on percentage, air travel is the safest when compared to other forms of transportation. But it’s worth noting which airlines have the best safety measures in place for you personally, as well as your luggage.
Both airlines are equipped with the standard aircraft makes and models. Airbus supplies planes to a good number of airlines across the world and the aircrafts they build come equipped with a “Skywise Reliability” program which reports safety concerns automatically to the airline.
Spirit‘s fleet is mostly comprised of Airbus 319, Airbus 320 and Airbus 321. These particular Airbus models are among the most highly rated planes on the market, never experiencing a fatal crash in their entire existence.
Southwest‘s fleet is primarily comprised of Boeing 737 jetliners. Boeing, like Airbus, is among the safest types of planes on the market, with a .8% fatal crashes per one million flights according to Boeing’s Statistical Summary.
Most airlines are not free from the rare incident. For the most part, no airline commonly experiences scenarios that due major harm to passengers, but we’ll touch on the worst incidents each airline has experienced.
Spirit has never had a fatal crash and accident reports have not shown anything major in the last 35 years that they’ve been in business. The worst incidents have happened during maintenance on the planes as they undergo routine inspection, when passengers are not present.
Southwest has also never had a fatal crash, but has experienced two deaths on board. The only death caused directly from air trouble was the result of engine failure, where debris damaged a passenger window. The passenger sustained injuries and later died.
Three other reports of injuries have occurred due to rough landing or landing outside the runway.
When it comes to safety, both airlines strictly follow the TSA guidelines for prohibited items aboard the plane. They also adhere to the rules of each country they fly in to during international travel and will have each traveler complete a form stating that they have not brought any prohibited items in their checked bags or carry-ons, which are subject to search.
It’s helpful to review each airline’s baggage requirements before flying. Some people may not know that hoverboards and other types of electric skateboards are among SouthWest’s prohibited items.
As far as losing baggage goes, checking directly with the airline in the airport should be your first step. Second, Spirit will ask you to call customer service for help, while Southwest has a separate web page where customers can file lost luggage reports and complaints.
Southwest will pay up to $3500 for lost or damaged luggage if applicable.
In conclusion, a random example roundtrip flight from Miami to New York City during the busy summer month of June will cost one person about $496.78 with Spirit and will cost one person about $210.96 with Southwest. Both of these options factor in carry-on bags and at least one checked bag.
If saving money is your only goal, Spirit may sound like it would always be the natural choice, but Southwest really gives it a run for the money. The example above is not only a higher price, but it also only includes one checked bag for the trip. On top of this, you’ll spend 3 hours of flight time in a relatively uncomfortable seat with no snacks or entertainment and possibly poor service.
Southwest, in this example, is actually cheaper than Spirit and includes two whole checked bags for one person. You’ll have a comfier chair, free snacks and drinks, free entertainment and much better service. However, you won’t get to select your seat ahead of time and could risk sitting separately from your travel partner.
Overall, we strongly believe that Southwest is the best option, especially in the Summer and over the holidays when flights are naturally higher across the board. Spirit, however, is a viable option for short or spontaneous trips, giving out good deals pretty frequently.
If all things are equal and you’re on the fence, Southwest is a no-brainer.