Allegiant and Spirit, Head to Head (Trip Report)

With Allegiant deciding to flee Long Beach at the end of this month, I sensed there was a unique experience that I would regret missing out on if I didn’t jump on it. I had the chance to fly Allegiant to Vegas and then Spirit back to LAX. This head-to-head comparison could be had for less than $50 total. Just to make things fun, I was determined to do it without paying a single fee. I almost succeeded.

Buying the Tickets My first decision was to pick the day to go. I of course looked for the cheap days and the days where the flight times worked. Spirit keeps a fairly consistent schedule but Allegiant is all over the map. The morning flight on Wednesdays looked best, because it would give me 3 hours in Vegas to connect. I knew I needed a buffer in case Allegiant was delayed (and it was).

I first went to to buy my ticket. The website is a bit clunky but I found my flight on November 2 for $10.01. I declined the myriad of seat assignment fees, bag fees, car rentals, hotels, etc before finally getting to the final screen. My ticket had still ballooned from $10 to over $50. Why?

Allegiant slaps on a “convenience” fee of $17 per ticket if you book online. The airline also snuck a transfer in on the website which I would have had to de-select. Knowing that I would be running by Long Beach Airport, I figured I’d just drop in and save the $17.

Tickets can be bought within an hour after every flight departure, but finding out when each flight departs wasn’t easy. I did figure it out, and it took me only 10 minutes to get ticketed so I was able to avoid a parking fee at the airport. Total ticket price was $20.71 with a mere $9.31 going to Allegiant and the rest to the feds.

With Spirit, I wasn’t so lucky. I went on the website and got the same kind of experience as Allegiant though the fees were displayed more clearly and the site looked more professional. On Spirit, there’s an $8.99 passenger usage fee each way, and I wasn’t about to drive up to LAX just to avoid that. I gave in and paid $28.69 for the trip with $8.37 going to Spirit for the fare plus $8.99 for the passenger usage fee. That was the only fee I’d pay on the whole trip.

Checking In The day before departure, I went to check in for both flights. Allegiant just gave me an error message saying that since I hadn’t paid for an assigned seat, I couldn’t check in online. If I wanted to pay for a seat, I could call Allegiant. I knew that was the case, but this was very poor presentation. Why not let me pay right there? (Not that I was going to . . .)

Spirit does things differently. When you check in, they try to upsell you more on bags, seats, etc. If you pass, then they just assign you a random seat, which is, of course, a middle. I ended up in seat 19B, printed my boarding pass, and I was set with them.

When I bought my Allegiant ticket, the people at the counter said it was a madhouse and people usually really did need to arrive 2 hours before departure. But they said that the Wednesday morning flight was lighter so I could get there 1.5 hours early and I’d be fine.

I parked on a side street off the airport and walked the 10 minutes into the terminal. Once there, I found nobody waiting at the Allegiant counter. I checked in and the first thing the agent said was that the flight was delayed “about 30 minutes.” Had Allegiant actually offered flight status on its website, I would have known this when I checked. Unfortunately, it just redirects to you FlightView and has no delay info. Boo. She then said the airplane was only half full so I’d have an easy time picking an open seat. I got my boarding pass, which was Z17 and went to wait at the gate.

The Flights There is no Allegiant presence in the gate area – they just board from the Delta gate. When the airplane finally arrived, they started boarding and there was some confusion. First they did some pre-boarding for those who paid. Then they board those who paid for assigned seats (about 15 boarded). After that, they boarded families and then open seating in groups of 10.

I did the long walk to the airplane and saw it in shiny new paint. What a beauty, especially with the iconic Fly DC Jets sign in the background. I figured this might be the last chance I’d have to fly a Douglas aircraft out of its Long Beach home.

The interior was clean but the fixtures looked old. I loved it. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry and in the end, we left about an hour late. The Santa Ana winds were kicking up so I had the chance to experience my first departure from runway 12.

As you can see in the video, we took off like a rocket, and circled over Long Beach before heading toward Vegas. Being in the front of the airplane, I could hear nothing but the slipstream. I love that airplane. It’s so funny, because were I stuck sitting in the back next to the engine, I would have a very different opinion.

The flight was quick as we went by Disneyland and Ontario Airport. By the time we had passed over the Cajon Pass, the flight attendants had already done their beverage-only service. Sticking with my no-fee plan, I passed. Soon we were descending over the desert, and we landed straight in to the north.

I got off the airplane and noticed that half of the D concourse we were using was fenced off. I took the train back to the main terminal and went through security at the B gates, where Spirit flew out of. This time, I opted for the Millimeter Wave scan instead of opting out, and they really have sped the process up dramatically. It was quite efficient.

By now, I had about 1.5 hours until my flight back, so I wandered. I strolled down the A concourse where Spirit uses a couple gates and US Airways uses a couple more. One whole part of it is fenced off and it’s really quite empty. (And THIS is an airport that’s building another terminal. Yeah, that’s a good idea.)

I went back to the B gates and found my airplane waiting there in the old black cube colors. I went up to the gate and asked if I could change my seat or if that would cost money. The agent laughed and said that no, he could change my seat at the gate without charge.

He asked if I wanted an exit row, and I stared at him wondering what the catch was. He said that it was again no charge at the gate – first come first served. And since the flight was less than half full, there wasn’t much demand.

I parked myself in the empty gate area and waited until it was time to board. Spirit has a much more normal boarding process, using zones. They boarded zone 1 and 2 but apparently, that’s only for exit rows and people sitting in the Big Front Seats. Only three of us boarded.

The first thing I noticed was the advertising on the bulkhead, on the overhead bins, on the seatbacks…. It didn’t bother me , but the advertisers are certainly getting their money’s worth.

I took my exit row seat and found it to be horribly uncomfortable. The seat lacked padding, as exit rows often do, and it felt like it was reclined forward. I moved up a couple rows to a standard row and found the seat pitch tight but it was for more comfortable. Certainly nothing that would bother me on a short flight like this.

But I couldn’t stay long. The flight attendant said that everyone had to sit in their assigned seats for weight and balance. Really? Ok, so I went back to my generous exit row legroom. I did notice that the seats were very well worn and there was a lot of junk in the seatback pockets, but it was just fine.

Soon, we were pushing back to take off, but then we sat. Other airplanes passed us to depart, so I assumed there was some sort of flow control delay into LA. The pilots never said anything and after about a 10 minute wait, we were on our way.

We had barely made the turn back toward LA after our westbound departure before the flight attendants started pitching the Spirit credit card. That was followed by a pass through the aisles asking if anyone wanted “purchased items.” Then they came back through and handed out credit card apps. Believe it or not, people actually took them.

Unlike on the Allegiant flight up, the Spirit pilots turned the seatbelt sign off quickly. As soon as they did, I headed back up a couple rows to the more comfortable seat.

After the early quick passes, the flight attendants went back to the galley while travelers slept or read. I just stared out the window as we headed toward LA.

It was an uneventful landing and we pulled in to our gate in the war zone known as Terminal 6 a few minutes early. Terminal 6 is under massive construction preparing for the Alaska move next year, and it’s a mess right now. My wife picked me up at the curb and we headed back down to Long Beach.

The Verdict Both of these airlines gave great value for the money, and that’s no surprise. I mean, if you pay $48 roundtrip, it’s hard to get poor value as long as the flights get you there. Most of the things that bugged me could easily have been resolved by paying for an extra level of service. And that’s great. I’m more than happy to have the choice to pay for what I want. So, who was better?

While I loved the MD-80 ride on Allegiant, I have to give the nod to Spirit for being more polished. Spirit seemed to be more clear about the model throughout the entire process. The website was pretty easy to use and the nature of the product was very clear throughout the process. My biggest complaint about Allegiant is really on the operational side.

Allegiant has no flight status on its website so it’s impossible to know for sure if your flight is delayed unless you just look for an inbound flight on a flight tracking service. There’s no reason they have to be so difficult with those kinds of things. I also found Allegiant’s boarding process to be pretty confusing with some assigned seats and some open seating. The whole process just ran more smoothly on Spirit.

But in the end, both did a good job.

[See more photos from the trip]

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Muscat,  Oman
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