Thinking about choosing Spirit or United Airlines for your next flight?
The quick answer is that United offers more pre-flight and in-flight than Spirit, and they have significantly more flights and destinations to choose from. If you’re booking a cross-country or international flight, chances are high that United will have better options and will be a little easier to deal with in the event of flight changes or lost luggage. Both of airlines are low-cost airlines with comprises in experience, but that is expected when the goal is to save money.
Low cost airlines are really popular options for lots of travelers when planning a trip domestic and international trips. Since this choosing a low cost fare helps save you money on vacation, it’s pretty common to see people comparing United Airlines and Spirit. Let’s begin with a quick background on both:
United Airlines is the world’s third largest airline, traced back to Varney Air Lines in 1926. Varney company charted the first private air mail flight on April 6, 1926. Boeing Air Transport later purchased Varney and several other airlines to form United Air Lines, Inc. in 1931. In 2010, United merged with Contintental Airlines to create the fleet we see today.
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 developed into 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.
Pricing & Extra Charges
Pricing is usually the first factor when comparing airlines while planning a trip. Airfare, along with hotel fees, are two of the biggest travel expenses, so it’s important to know how each company prices their tickets and baggage. We’ll also cover any hidden or extra fees these airlines include in the expense.
Pricing & Extra Charges
United uses a checklist process when booking your flight. The first step in booking prompts you to select all the requirements you’re looking for to narrow your search results – you can even search and compare other Star Alliance airlines to United’s options. We used United’s Economy class option for this particular pricing comparison.
Our research showed that the average cost of a round trip flight on the East Coast is around $485, cross-country flights from New York to Los Angeles are about $615, and a trip to France is approximately $975 at any point during the year.
Here’s the breakdown of United’s class system and what’s included with each option:
- Basic Economy: includes carry-on and personal item, last to board and seat will already be assigned
- United Economy: includes carry-on and personal item with general boarding
- Premium Economy: available on international flights, includes carry-on and personal item, two checked bags with general boarding
- First: includes carry-on and personal item, two checked bags with early boarding, premier access check-in, premium dining and complimentary beverages
- Business: available on international flights, includes carry-on and personal item, two checked bags with early boarding, premier access check-in, premium dining and complimentary beverages
- United Premium Plus: available using the Mileage Plus program in the First/Business Class section, includes carry-on and personal item, two checked bags, free alcoholic beverages, free meal on domestic flights, noise-reducing headphones, premium bedding, larger entertainment screen
- United Polaris Business: this top-of-the-line experience is reserved for select guests on select flights and has limited access. Polaris lounges have custom dining options for three-course meals with exclusive access to rest stations and shower facilities. Seasonal menus are offered in flight while traveling in giant reclining seats encased in separate pods.
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 your trip requires 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.
P.S. – When you’re done reading this one, don’t miss our other expert airline comparisons:
United only includes checked bags in premium classes. All Economy guests will pay $35 for one checked bag and $45 for an additional checked bag per person. Economy guests are reduced to 50 lbs per bag, while premium guests can pack over 70 lbs in their suitcases. A fee will be assessed for overweight luggage.
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.
United has extra fees for upgraded experience. For example, Economy Plus is an upgrade that Economy guests can purchase for $70 per person, per flight in order to access more leg room and in-seat charging power closer to the front of the plane. Premium flight passengers can purchase access to United’s predeparture lounges (the fee is assessed based on the destination).
United also has several hundred dollars in cancellation and change fees. In order to avoid this, we suggest purchasing their refundable ticket options (usually $75-100 over Economy).
Spirit offers a Premium option for an extra fee, 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 slightly 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).
Ways to Save
United has a rewards program called Mileage Plus. Spending on this Visa card or flying with United will earn miles that never expire and can be used toward many different flights, hotels and destinations. Premier members gain access to even more deals and complimentary perks like Economy Plus and upgrades to their flight experience.
Using Mileage Plus can get you special perks when flying First Class, or can get you deals on regular flights.
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.
Seats & Flight Experience
Comfort is the next most important factor when choosing your airline – and for some people, it’s even more important than the price. Short flights might be manageable with a less than ideal cabin, but comfortable seating with plenty of leg room is a necessity for long flights. We review the full details on flight experience in this section, covering everything from customer service to food selection.
United gets mixed reviews on their Economy class seating areas, usually dependent upon how old the aircraft is. It’s likely that each flight in Economy will provide a different experience due to the age of the plane. Many guests state that the seats are far too small in even some of the newer jets, with limited legroom and seat placement a little too close for comfort.
Overall, the design of the cabin and the general seating is fairly on par with other similar airlines and the majority of people may think it meets their expectations. However, the outdated tech in the headrest and the comfort of the chair might be a couple noticeable setbacks on your 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.
United and their new Polaris Business Class section has gotten great reviews. However, most guests will be seated in the First Class or regular Business Class in most flights. These experiences will vary depending on the age of the plane. The good news is that your seat will always be more comfortable and offer more leg room; but the actual design and experience may not be worth the hefty price if you get an older plane.
Most first class fliers state that the lie-flat seats are the ones to look for. In the booking process, you can see which kind of seat is assigned to that flight. Another helpful tip is to look up what type of plane is used for that flight. The wider body planes generally have better first class seating. On another note, the smaller planes have no separation between First and Economy, leaving the last row of First Class open to the rest of the cabin.
The top of the line seats are by far the Polaris Business Class lie-flat seats, but these are limited.
Spirit has a Premium option offering larger, roomier seats and bumps you up from economy class. 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.
United has mixed reviews on their customer service. Some exclaim the service was great, but many more complaining of the lack of empathy for passengers in the booking process, as well as in flight. With United being a huge airline serving hundreds of cities all over the world and employing hundreds of thousands of employees, empathy isn’t always their first priority.
Premium passengers report the same feeling from the staff, though there are a few great reviews about particular employees that went out of their way to make someone’s day.
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.
United offers complimentary beverages and snacks to all classes, with additional items for purchase. Premium passengers will have varying levels of complimentary alcoholic beverages, but everyone else will pay. The tech in the headrest has been a major complaint for many, especially in the old, outdated planes, and there have been reports of the Wifi going out often.
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.
Flights to most US cities and international destinations are pretty easy to find with United, Spirit primarily serves the United States. If you’re looking to travel spontaneously, it’s helpful to know which airlines are most accommodating with the best availability. In the event that your flight changes or gets cancelled, it’s also good to know which company will get you on a new flight faster.
United has 827 aircraft in their fleet, shuttling passengers on over 4,900 flights every day. Spirit has 157 aircraft in it’s current fleet, sending travelers on over 500 flights daily.
United is based in Chicago, with other main hubs in 6 other US cities and one in Guam. It reaches 258 destinations within the United States. United is part of the Star Alliance and has good relationships with dozens of other airlines in the world. It’s likely that if United can’t get you on one of their own flights that they will book one with another partner airline in the event of a cancellation.
However, if you are the one cancelling or rescheduling with them, things may not be that easy. Many customer reports state that the customer service is hard to deal with and it could take hours to resolve the problem on the phone. It’s even more difficult if you happened to book your flight through a third-party.
It’s highly suggested that you read their refund and cancellations policy before booking, just in case you have to go through these steps yourself. In general, it’s best to be sure you’re good to go before booking a flight or just select the “full refund” option on the ticket. This will be slightly more expensive, but could save you the hassle of dealing with customer service when changing or cancelling.
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 – but since their flights are very cheap, you won’t have too much out of pocket.
United has a great international presence and flies to 362 different cities across the globe. They reach all 6 continents around the world with international flights departing daily. Essentially, you could use United to take you anywhere you could possibly want to go.
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.
Spirit will allow dogs, cats, domestic rabbits and household birds inside the cabin. The fee can change periodically, but typically hovers around $125 per pet. Pets must remain inside their carriers for the duration of the flight and cannot be a nuisance. Travelers with pets cannot sit in the front seats or exit rows of the flight.
United will allow small cats, dogs or even rabbits to travel in the cabin if there is enough space. Pets are required to be at least 2 months old and must remain in their carrier for the duration of the flight. The carrier has to fit under the seat in front of you and can be hard or soft-sided. United charges $250 for passengers to travel with one pet.
United and Spirit both do not allow pets to travel with checked baggage inside the cargo hold.
Based on percentage, air travel is the safest way to go when compared to other forms of transportation. Crashes are extremely rare, but it’s worth noting which airlines have the best safety measures in place for you personally. We’ll also cover how each airline handles lost baggage.
Both airlines are equipped with the standard aircraft makes and models. Airbus makes planes for the majority of airlines across the world and the aircrafts they build come have a built-in “Skywise Reliability” program which reports safety concerns automatically to the airline.
United employs Airbus and Embraer, but primarily uses Boeing 757, 767, 777 and 787 models. United also plans to replace many of their older 757 models with Airbus’ state-of-the-art A321XLR within the next few years.
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.
Most airlines have a few incidents in the books, while others have many. For the most part, no airline commonly experiences scenarios that cause major harm to passengers, but we’ll touch on the worst incidents each airline has experienced.
United has many different incidents, primarily related to passenger arrest or minor plane damage. Two of the most notable plane crashes to date includes Flight 93 and Flight 175 on September 11, 2001. Flight 175 hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center, while Flight 93 crash landed in a field in Somerset, Pennsylvania.
In February 2018, a Boeing 777 lost engine power en route to Honolulu. The plane was landed safely with no injuries or deaths. Again in February 2021, another Boeing 777 en route to Honolulu lost engine power causing debris to trail the flight shortly after takeoff. The plane returned to the airport and landed safely with no injuries or deaths. However, many Boeing 777 models were grounded after the incident for thorough inspection.
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.
When it comes to luggage safety, both airlines follow the strict TSA guidelines for both acceptable and prohibited items aboard the aircraft. 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.
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 United has a bag tracing web page where customers can search for lost luggage and file complaints.
In conclusion, United Airlines may cost more, but it’s better suited for long trips with better inclusions. Spirit may be good for spontaneous travel, but the poor customer service and lack of options is something to consider.
If saving money is your only goal, Spirit may sound like it would always be the natural choice, but United also offers cheap flights in economy while offering more to passengers. We suggest only considering Spirit over United if you’re traveling less than 2 hours with limited luggage, find an unbeatable price and don’t care about free food and drinks.
United Airlines is definitely the way to go when flying cross country or internationally. The seats and accommodations might be sub-par, but they offer more options with your ticket and have significantly more destinations to choose from. While cancellations with United might be a pain to deal with, finding your luggage and rescheduling flights should be less of a hassle than it would be with Spirit. Neither are the most ideal option, but between the two, United is the best choice.