CLEVELAND, Ohio – Spirit Airlines has some of the cheapest airfares in the industry.
But there is a way to make them even cheaper, and it’s counterintuitive: Buy your tickets at the airport.
True, you have to drive to the airport, park your car and then get in line behind the queue of people dropping off bags or checking in for their flights.
But for some, the effort is worth it.
“Spirit is cheap regardless,” said Sydney Scott of Shaker Heights, who came to Cleveland Hopkins earlier this week to buy tickets for a Spirit flight to Atlanta. “It’s even cheaper when you come in person.”
Scott and her travel partner, mom Chatasha Daniels, figure they saved $138 round-trip on three tickets by buying their tickets at the Spirit Airlines ticket counter rather than online.
Jack Peter of Strongsville saved even more – nearly $200 – on a recent purchase of three round-trip tickets to Orlando on Frontier Airlines. “$200 is good money,” he said.
Not all airlines offer this in-person benefit. The carriers that do are what are known in the industry as ultra-low cost airlines – including Spirit and Frontier, which operate out of Cleveland Hopkins, and Allegiant and Breeze, which fly from the Akron-Canton Airport. All four carriers offer low airfares and make most of their revenue from extra charges for baggage, seat assignments and other extras.
Indeed, the in-person savings is a consequence, likely an unintended one, of another fee – essentially an online reservation fee – that ultra-low-cost airlines also assess, although most customers probably are unaware of it.
Note: The airlines call these fees by different names; Spirit calls it a “Passenger Usage Charge”; Frontier uses the term “Carrier Interface Charge”; Allegiant calls it an “Electronic Carrier Usage Charge”; and Breeze calls it a “Technology Development Charge.”
One of the benefits to the airlines of all these optional fees is that they keep the carriers’ tax burden relatively low, said airline industry analyst Brett Snyder, who follows the industry at CrankyFlier.com.
Airlines only pay taxes on airfares – not optional fees – which incentivizes some airlines to keep fares low and add more and more fees to boost revenue.
For an optional fee to be truly optional, however, the airline must provide customers with a way to avoid it.
Passengers don’t have to buy an advanced seat assignment; they don’t have to pay for luggage; and they don’t have to pay an online reservation fee – but only if they can come to the airport to buy a ticket.
It’s unclear how many people buy their tickets this way. It’s likely a tiny fraction of the nearly 1 billion passengers carried by U.S. carriers each year.
“I can’t give you a specific number, but it is a small percentage of our passengers who purchase tickets this way,” said Allegiant spokesperson Rachel Christiansen.
For one thing, most travelers are likely unaware that they can come to the airport and buy a cheaper ticket. The airlines don’t exactly advertise the savings.
In addition, they don’t always make the process easy. Breeze Airways, for example, officially permits in-person ticket counter sales between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Tuesdays only.
And for those who do make the effort to get to the airport, the process can be cumbersome – with long lines and less-than-helpful staff.
Cleveland traveler Tonya Johnson discovered the discount a while back when she had to buy a last-minute ticket at the airport. Now she goes to the airport to buy her tickets whenever she can.
She said she prefers buying from Spirit over Frontier because Frontier ticket agents at Cleveland Hopkins sometimes complicate the process – sending her downstairs to baggage claim to buy tickets, then back upstairs to the ticket counter. “It can take a while,” she said.
One recent traveler was more explicit in his criticism of Frontier, saying it took the airline two hours to sell him a ticket in person at Cleveland Hopkins.
“The runaround I got at the airport today was downright comical,” he wrote last month on Reddit, describing how he shuttled back and forth between baggage claim and the ticket counter several times before someone finally assisted.
He added, “This is not an isolated incident. Other people in line tried yesterday to buy tickets and were told to return today. And when I was in the Tampa airport, I experienced similar instructions and wait times. This is happening at multiple airports. Complaining to corporate is not going to change any of this. This is how the system has been structured to work.”
Frontier did not respond to a request for comment.
Some airlines have set hours to handle ticket sales. Cleveland’s Spirit operation, for example, asks buyers to come by between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Even then, customers who are traveling that day will always get priority over ticket sales. So it’s best to time your visit to coincide with an airline’s slow period, if possible.
The savings vary per flight but can be substantial, depending on the routes involved and how many people are traveling.
A recent round-trip booking from Cleveland to Orlando on Spirit showed the Passenger Usage Fee at $22.99 to Orlando and $10.99 back to Cleveland – roughly $34 round-trip, or $136 for a family of four.
Also note: Baggage fees may be higher if you buy your ticket at the airport, as bag fees are typically cheapest if bought online, at the time of ticket purchase.
Brett Snyder, the industry analyst, tried buying a cheaper ticket at the airport just once, to see how it works.
Snyder, who lives in Southern California, drove 10 minutes to the Long Beach Airport, where he got an hour of free parking. He bought a ticket on Allegiant and, as he recalls, “I saved a few bucks.”
He said he would never – ever – drive to Los Angeles International Airport to do the same. It’s too far away, too big and parking is expensive.
“You just have to think about it rationally,” he said. “If you can do it on your lunch break, great.”
On a trip to Detroit last summer, he overheard a woman on the bus talking about going to the airport to buy a ticket on Spirit. “I was thinking – this is three or four hours out of your day? I guess it’s all about how valuable your time is. Maybe if you’re a retiree, this is a fun adventure.”
He noted, “It’s way easier if you live near a small, easy-to-reach airport.”
Indeed, Lisa Dalpiaz, vice president of air service and business development at the Akron-Canton Airport, said numerous travelers come to CAK to buy their tickets on Allegiant and Breeze, although she never has – and she works at the airport. “It’s definitely something people are willing to do,” she said.
How much can you save?
At least four U.S. airlines charge “optional” online reservation fees, although they have different names. Travelers don’t pay the fees if they buy their tickets at the airport. Note: Fees are per passenger, per segment:
Allegiant, electronic carrier usage charge, $22
Breeze, technology development charge, $24-$30 (estimated)
Frontier, carrier interface charge, $4-$21
Spirit, passenger usage charge, $3.99-$21
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