Today I want to share a story from TPG reader Robbie, who saved $80 on a flight to South America:
My girlfriend is living in Lima, Peru, and I planned to visit her this spring. I generally just try to find the cheapest rate, so I was looking at Spirit flights from the East Coast for around $500 round-trip. I had flown Spirit once before and had a good experience, so even though I was hesitant to take a long layover in Fort Lauderdale (FLL), I decided to give it a chance and book when the price was right. I started watching fares and saw they went up and down regularly by around $10-20.
Then I found some articles about how you can save on Spirit flights by purchasing tickets at the airport, indicating you could eliminate the “passenger usage fee” to reduce the cost of a flight by roughly $20 for each leg. I saw that flights from Philadelphia (PHL) to Lima (LIM) dropped to $447 round-trip, and they included a usage fee of around $40 each way. That made buying at the airport even more enticing, and since I was heading to Philadelphia the next day anyway, I thought I’d try it.
Apart from the obstacle of getting to the airport, it worked perfectly. I noticed both the fare and the usage fee had changed a little by the time I got there — changing fares is part of the game, but I don’t know why the fee amount would change. In any case, after investing a little time, I’m heading to Peru for two weeks for $367 round-trip!
The passenger usage charge is spelled out in Spirit’s general terms and conditions. Most reservations incur a fee of $19.99 per passenger per segment, though it may be lower on some discounted fares. Akin to hotel resort fees that skirt local taxes, the passenger usage charge lets Spirit off the hook for the 7.5% federal excise tax charged on airfare. It’s ostensibly a fee for the privilege of booking online, and to keep it legal, Spirit has to make the fee avoidable by offering an alternative. As a result, the passenger usage charge is explicitly waived for bookings made at Spirit airport locations, so you can save by buying tickets at the counter like Robbie did.
The question is whether those savings are worth the extra effort. You might run into long lines at the ticketing counter, and anecdotal evidence suggests you won’t always get as much of a discount as you expect. If you wait to buy until your next airport visit, you also risk having any savings wiped out by rising airfare (in fairness, those savings could instead be amplified if prices go down). On the other hand, the usage fee is charged to each passenger individually, so the potential savings multiply when you’re buying tickets for a group.
If you’re already departing from or arriving at an airport with a Spirit ticketing counter, or if getting to your local airport is easy, then there’s little harm in trying — you can always bail if the line is too long. If you’re just passing through on a layover, you’ll have to exit the secure area to reach the ticketing counter, so factor the extra time spent getting through security again into your plans. Please share your own experiences with this strategy in the comments below, including any tips you have for streamlining the process, and let everyone know whether you think it was worthwhile.
I love this story and I want to hear more like it! In appreciation for sharing this experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending Robbie a $200 airline gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I’d like to do the same for you. Please email your own award travel success stories to email@example.com; be sure to include details about how you earned and redeemed your rewards, and put “Reader Success Story” in the subject line. Feel free to also submit your most woeful travel mistakes, or to contribute to our new award redemption series. If your story is published, we’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure. Due to the volume of submissions, we can’t respond to each story individually, but we’ll be in touch if yours is selected.
Safe and happy travels to all, and I look forward to hearing from you!
Featured photo by baona / Getty Images.