The Economics Of My Recent Flight On Spirit Airlines

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Great Circle Mapper

A lot of frequent fliers that I know go out of the way to fly their preferred airline in order to enjoy elite status and earn miles.  They will often pay more for a ticket to fly their preferred airline even if it doesn’t make sense financially.  Some of those people are business travelers with expense accounts, but since I pay for my own travel, I have to look at things a bit closer.

Last week I flew from LAS-OAK on Spirit Airlines to visit my father.  (A Guide To Avoiding Fees On Spirit.) After looking at the prices, I decided not to fly American Airlines which is my preferred carrier.  The reason is that financially it just didn’t make sense.  Before I break down the numbers, I will give you a brief overview of the scenario.  My father lives about 90 minutes north of Sacramento.  This means that SMF airport is about a 90 minute drive to his house while OAK is around 3 hours.  By flying into OAK I was definitely adding time and gas.

Flight options from LAS/SMF:

The first thing I always look for is flights to SMF.  Since it is not the biggest airport, to get to SMF I either have to connect or fly on Southwest.

  • Southwest: $180 RT nonstop
  • JetBlue: $183 RT connect in LGB
  • United: $182 RT connect in SFO
  • Delta: $212 RT connect in LAX
  • Amerian: $247 connect in LAX

As we can see, the most attractive option to SMF is Southwest.  My preferred carrier is the most expensive out of the five.  Now lets look at the flight options to OAK.

American is the most expensive option for the route I want to fly.
American is the most expensive option for the route I want to fly.

Flight options from LAS/OAK:

  • Southwest: $170 RT nonstop
  • Spirit: $68 RT nonstop (My chosen flight.)
  • JetBlue: $162 RT connect in LGB
  • Delta: $185 RT connect in LAX
  • US Airways: $242 RT connect in PHX

Note: San Francisco International Airport would have been another option which added about two hours of additional driving over SMF, but the fares were about the same as OAK.  In this comparison I will focus on just OAK and SMF.

$68 roundtrip on Spirit is a very tempting deal!
$68 roundtrip on Spirit is a very tempting deal!

Pairing Down The Options

Now that we have looked at all of the options, I will choose the three that make the most sense to me.

  • Southwest: $180 RT to SMF.  Earns 1080 points worth about $16 in free airfare.
  • Spirit: $68 RT to OAK. Earns worthless frequent flier miles that expire very quickly.
  • American Airlines: $247 RT earns 2,000 EQM miles and 4,000 redeemable miles including elite bonuses.  4 segments towards elite status.

Rental Cars

Since I have to rent a car when I arrive, I must then look at the math for that.  I always try to book the most inexpensive car so I will compare economy car prices and list the cheapest option at each airport

  • OAK – Alamo $47-$30 coupon = $17 for four days plus 1,000 United Miles
  • SMF – Alamo $198-$30 coupon = $168 for four days plus 1,000 United Miles

As you can see the rental car prices are much cheaper at OAK.  Since I was able to find a coupon and a bonus of 1,000 United miles, it is almost like my rental is free.

With the $30 off coupon I have, Alamo is the cheapest.
With the $30 off coupon I have, Alamo is the cheapest.

Final Math

For the final math I will take into account the airfare, car rental price and gas figured at $3.50 per gallon with the car getting 25 miles per gallon.

  • Southwest to SMF – $180 flights, $168 car, 174 miles driven RT = $24.36 in gas – TOTAL COST =  $372.36
  • American to SMF – $247 flights, $168 car, 174 miles driven RT = $24.36 in gas  – TOTAL COST = $439.36
  • Spirit to OAK – $68 flights, $17 car, 354 miles driven RT = $49.56 in gas – TOTAL COST = $134.56

Benefits of Each Option

  • Southwest – 1,080 Rapid Rewards Points, 3 hours less driving combined.
  • American Airlines – 2,000 EQM, 4,000 Aadvantage miles, 4 segments towards elite status, 3 hours less driving time
  • Spirit – No miles of worth, 3 hours more driving. Much less money.

Is American Worth It

Since I have my elite status with American Airlines, I must look at if the premium is worth it.  Essentially are 4,000 redeemable miles, 2000 EQM, 4 segments and three hours of driving time on days that I am not busy worth paying an extra $304.80.  For me, given the dates of my travel, my schedule and all other factors, the answer is no.

This flight would cost 9,000 Avios or 12,500 Aadvantage miles each way on American.
This flight would cost 9,000 Avios or 12,500 Aadvantage miles each way on American.

Mileage Options

If you are wondering why I don’t just use miles for the trip, currently I don’t have enough Rapid Rewards miles available.  This would be a great route to use Avios, but unfortunately American doesn’t fly directly to any Northern California airport from LAS so it is 9,000 Avios each way to SMF with the connection in LAX.  All of the other carriers charger 12,500 each way which is a horrible value.

I also want to point out that the $68 airfare on Spirit didn’t cost me anything.  I was able to use points from my Barclay Arrival Card to cover the entire cost of airfare.  Had I gone with one of the higher airfares then I would not have had enough points to cover the entire thing.  Not having to come out of pocket is another benefit in my opinion.


This type of math is something I do very quickly in my head when I am looking to book travel.  Usually I don’t go as in depth as here, but this is a good example of why flying the same carrier all of the time may not be the best value.

Since I was traveling solo this time, the math was a little closer.  Had Jasmine and Shawn Reece been with me, then it would have not even have been close.  The more people you add to this the scenario, the better flying on Spirit looks.  This is one of the reasons that someone booking travel for an entire family MUST look at all of the options.

While I will have a full review of Spirit Airlines and my flight coming soon, I will go out and say the experience is not nearly as comfortable as on other airlines.  Comfort has to factor in as well, although for me, on a one hour flight, it isn’t as big of a deal.

What do you think?  Is my math screwed up?  Which flight would you have chosen?  Let me know in the comments below!



Shawn Coomer
Since 2007 Shawn Coomer has been circling the globe with his family for pennies on the dollar. He uses that first-hand knowledge and experience to teach others how to achieve their travel dreams for the least amount of money possible.

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