When you think of flying and saving money, two airlines that may pop into your head are Spirit Airlines and Southwest Airlines.
These are two very different airlines but they both help millions of passengers save money every year.
But many people wonder what exactly are the differences between these two airlines? Is one cheaper than the other and does one offer a better product than the other?
In this article, I’ll take a detailed look at these two airlines and compare things like the routes, pricing, product, baggage policies, etc.
You’ll see that one of the airlines is a good degree cheaper than the other but that you’ll still have to factor in some hidden costs.
Overview of the two airlines
Spirit Airlines is an ultra-low-cost carrier, meaning that they have very low base fares but charge you for things typically included with your fare such as a carry-on bag.
They have a reputation of nickel-and-diming passengers and are known for having little legroom but do seem to serve a broad niche of budget-conscious passengers pretty well.
Southwest on the other hand is a low-cost carrier.
In fact, it is the world’s largest low-cost carrier and it truly competes with the legacy carriers in the US when it comes to volume of traffic and passengers.
As a whole, Southwest Airlines is taken more seriously than Spirit in terms of its status as a national carrier but for many it leaves some to be desired when compared to the legacy carriers.
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Domestically, you’ll find Southwest with more destinations, making it much easier to find a flight to any given destinations within the US. Southwest also has the advantage with flights going to Hawaii.
Spirit Airlines has a much more extensive international route network. You can find flights going to various countries in the Caribbean, Central America, and even South America. The international focus for Southwest is much more limited.
While Southwest does not cover as many international routes, Southwest is overall a much larger airline than Spirit Airlines.
In fact, Southwest Airlines is one of the largest airlines in the world by various metrics like revenue and passengers carried.
In 2019, Southwest Airlines was in the top three for passengers carried at right around 162 million. Meanwhile, the 2019 figures showed about 35 million passengers carried for Spirit Airlines.
Fleet size and make-up
As of March 2022, the Spirit Airlines fleet consists entirely of Airbus A320 and A320neo family aircraft. Here’s a look at the fleet as of the spring of 2022.
Meanwhile, Southwest is virtually synonymous with Boeing at this point with the fleet consisting of Boeing 737s.
They are introducing a lot of 737 MAXs as well. You can take a look at the size of the fleet below — it’s obviously a lot bigger than Spirit.
|Boeing 737 MAX 7||—||238|
|Boeing 737 MAX 8||74||206|
Cabins and legroom
Southwest aircraft do not contain a first class cabin and so the entire airplane essentially consists of economy seats. Seat pitch is going to be 31 inches to 32 inches and the seats do recline.
Spirit Airlines refers to their Economy Class as “Deluxe Leather” seats and some aircraft are equipped with all economy class seats.
Economy seats with Spirit Airlines only have 28 inches of pitch and they do NOT recline. This is one of the biggest knocks against Spirit — it’s just a very uncomfortable riding experience being so cramped. The flip side is that the seats are slightly wider than Southwest by about .75 inches on some aircraft.
Some Spirit Airlines aircraft have the “Big Front” seats, which are essentially the first class seats of Spirit Airlines. On those seats, you can expect 36 inches of pitch and 20 inches of width but you still may not be able to recline.
These Big Front seats aren’t really a different class fare but instead more of an upgraded seat that you can select at the time of seat selection. The price to upgrade will vary but you could upgrade your tickets for about $25 to $50 in some cases.
You will not find seatback TVs on Southwest and you probably will not find outlets unless you are flying on one of the newer aircraft in the future. They do offer in-flight entertainment via their app, so you can watch movies and TV shows for free from your phone or other device.
Spirit Airlines will also not have power outlets or seatback TVs and they currently do NOT offer in-flight entertainment via an app.
Both airlines may have Wi-Fi available but they are not currently available on every aircraft.
Food and drink
Southwest offers free beverages and light and simple snacks on flights.
So you can get a little package of crackers on certain flights and order up a soda for free. They also have an alcoholic beverage menu. Beyond the little packs of snacks, they do not offer any food or snack menu for you to purchase items from.
There is no complimentary beverage or snack service on Spirit flights.
So you have to pay for all of your drinks including sodas and waters. The good news is that they do have a food menu with snacks and drinks including alcoholic beverages.
So you can order up little cheese trays, crackers, cookies, etc. You’ll be spending around $3.50 for sodas and $9 for a beer or liquor.
This expanded food/snack offering combined with the ability to upgrade to a front seat with more legroom means that Spirit actually can offer you a more premium experience than Southwest if you are willing to pay for it.
Seat selection and boarding
Southwest Airlines has a no seat assignment policy so you are never going to select your seats at the time of booking.
Instead, you are issued a boarding group and position at the time of check-in and the boarding position determines the order that you board the plane. You can then choose any seat that is open.
This is why it is really important to remember to check in 24 hours prior to departure or to purchase EarlyBird that will automatically check you in 36 hours prior to departure.
Alternatively, you can also purchase a Business Select ticket which is the most expensive fare offered by Southwest. Those fares come with the following benefits:
- Guaranteed A1-A15 boarding
- Fly By lane access
- Free premium drink
- 12 Rapid Rewards per dollar spent
- Fully refundable fare
Spirit Airlines will assign you a seat randomly at check-in unless you pay to select your seat. This means that if you don’t pay to select your seats you likely will not be sitting together as a group.
The cost to select your seat begins at five dollars but then goes up depending on the route/seat. You can take a look at the seat selection prices in the image below but remember they will be set different for each flight.
When it comes to boarding you can add on priority boarding to get on the plane quicker and ensure room for your carry-on.
I don’t have enough experience flying with Spirit to comment on the service but I’ve flown Southwest many, many times over the years and will say that they are usually very on point with service.
Crew members are regularly very friendly and professional and I’ve had very few negative interactions with them.
Southwest Airlines allows you to check two bags for free on every flight and you also get a free carry-on plus a personal item. They are one of the most generous airlines when it comes to baggage fees.
But things are very different on Spirit Airlines.
On Spirit Airlines, you will have to pay for your carry-on and checked baggage. Sometimes these prices can get a little crazy. For example, below it shows a $49 charge for a carry-on!
(Here’s a look at the Spirit Airlines baggage fees.)
The checked baggage limit for Spirit is 40 pounds while Southwest allows up to 50 pounds before you get hit with overweight charges.
As you go through the checkout process Spirit will offer you a package deal where you can add on things like a carry-on, checked bag, and priority boarding.
It’s at that point that the true cost of your travel becomes apparent and it’s a good time to compare the total cost with alternatives such as Southwest.
Both airlines have a loyalty program.
Southwest offers Rapid Rewards and has an elite system with two elite levels for A-List.
You can earn Southwest A-List if you meet the following requirements in a calendar year:
- 25 one-way qualifying flights OR
- 35,000 tier qualifying points (TQPs)
Here are the Southwest A-List benefits.
- Priority boarding
- Priority security and check-in lanes
- 25% bonus earning
- Free same day standby
- Dedicated A-List phone number
You can earn A-List Preferred if you meet the following requirements in a calendar year:
- 50 one-way qualifying flights OR
- 70,000 tier qualifying points
The benefits for A-list Preferred are extremely similar to the benefits for A-List and include:
- Priority boarding
- Priority security and check-in lanes
- 100% bonus earning
- Free same day standby
- Dedicated A-List phone number
- Free in-flight wifi
The 100% bonus earning means that you’ll earn tier qualifying points (TQPs) at the following rates:
- 12X per dollar for Wanna Get Away fares
- 20X per dollar for Anytime fares
- 24X per dollar for Business Select
Southwest also has a handful of credit cards issued from Chase Bank. These often come with generous bonuses and have cool perks like upgrades and EarlyBird credits.
You can also receive 1,500 TQPs for every $10,000 in purchases on your Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card, Rapid Rewards Premier Business Credit Card, Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card, or Rewards Performance Business Credit Card.
Plus, you can transfer out Chase Ultimate Rewards to Southwest at a 1:1 ratio, they can get extremely easy to earn a Rapid Rewards.
What makes Southwest Airlines really stand out is the option to earn the Southwest Companion Pass. That pass allows a companion to fly for free with you for up to two calendar years.
To earn the Southwest Companion Pass by flying you’ll need to:
- Complete 100 qualifying one-way flights in a calendar year
- Earn 125,000 Rapid Rewards points in one calendar year
Credit card welcome bonuses count towards the 125,000 points in a calendar year making this very attainable for a lot of people.
Together with the credit card bonuses you can earn and the easy transferability of points from Chase, the Companion Pass allows you to receive an enormous amount of value if you maximize it. To me, this makes the frequent flyer program for Southwest the most valuable program for the average traveler.
Spirit Airlines also has a loyalty program called Free Spirit rewards and flight redemptions start at 2,500 points.
They also have an elite program with two levels called Free Spirit Silver and Free Spirit Gold.
You earn Free Spirit Silver Status at 2,000 Status Qualifying Points (SQPs) and Free Spirit Gold Status at 5,000 SQPs.
Free Spirit members earn 6 times the points on every dollar spent.
Silver members earn 8 points for every dollar spent on fares and 16 points for dollars spent on options.
They also get free Shortcut Security and Boarding, same-day standby, and seat selection at check-in. Additional perks include: a dedicated Guest Care line, ability to create a Points Pool, and no redemption fees.
Gold members earn 10 points for every dollar spent on fares and 20 points for every dollar spent on options.
They get the silver benefits but also get free: Flight Flex, first checked and carry-on bag, seat selection at booking (including exit rows), as well as a free inflight beverage and snacks.
With the Free Spirit® Travel More World Elite Mastercard® you also earn 1 Status Qualifying Point for each $10 in Net Purchases during a calendar year.
Southwest allows you to change your flight for free.
Spirit Airlines offers a sliding scale for change fees that is based on how many days before departure you request your change.
If you request your change 60 days before departure you can get the request done for free but after that you’ll have to start paying.
Here are the current change and cancellation charges:
|Days from Departure||Fee Amount|
|0-2 days from departure||$99|
|3-6 days from departure||$79|
|7-59 days from departure||$49|
|60+ days from departure||Free|
They also have the Flight Flex option, which allows you to modify your itinerary once, online, and up to 24 hours before departure with no modification charges. This option is often included in one of the bundles.
You have already seen how Spirit may require you to pay more fees with things like carry-on bags and changes to your itinerary.
But things can actually get worse when you don’t check in online.
If you don’t check in online and check in with a customer service agent at a check-in counter, there is a charge of $10 to print each boarding pass. (Kiosks should be available.)
The pet fees for Spirit Airlines are $110 per pet container, each way. Southwest Airlines allows small vaccinated domestic cats and dogs to travel with you in-cabin under the seat in front of you for $95 per one-way.
Drama can happen anywhere and anytime when traveling and Southwest is certainly not immune to passenger fights and scuffles.
But based on videos surfacing on social media and elsewhere, it feels like Spirit Airlines passengers get involved in these scuffles more than Southwest passengers.
I’ve tried finding data on this type of thing but have yet to be successful so I don’t have any hard data to offer a conclusion. But if you’re not a fan of royal rumbles at the check-in counter, Southwest may be more your style.
We were very curious about how the prices would compare on the exact same routes between Southwest Airlines and Spirit Airlines.
So we analyzed about 250 points, found the cheapest (non-membership) tickets offered by the airlines, and put them side-by-side.
We did not include the Spirit Saver$ Club prices which require you to pay for a membership but if you did pay the membership fee, your savings could be even better than shown below.
Because Spirit Airlines is an “ultra low-cost carrier” and Southwest Airlines is only a “low-cost carrier,” as expected Spirit Airlines had the cheaper prices on the vast majority of routes that we compared.
On average, Spirit Airlines was approximately 31% cheaper than Southwest Airlines.
However, some flights were considerably cheaper than that. For example, we found flights up to 60% cheaper.
At the same time, there were some instances where Southwest was cheaper than Spirit although they were definitely the minority. (Typically this was the product of the special ~$50 fares offered by Southwest.)
Of course, the cheaper price only really means something if you don’t check bags and don’t require a carry-on.
As soon as you begin to add on those costs the Spirit prices can become much more equivalent or even more expensive so you always have to keep that in mind.
|Albuquerque, NM (ABQ)|
|Las Vegas, NV (LAS)||$109||$95.59|
|Atlanta, GA (ATL)|
|Austin, TX (AUS)||$149||$87.59|
|Baltimore/Washington, MD (BWI)||$141||$90.59|
|Cleveland, OH (CLE)||$141||$82.59|
|Fort Lauderdale, FL (FLL)||$99||$76.59|
|Las Vegas, NV (LAS)||$195||$135.59|
|Los Angeles, CA (LAX)||$178||$228.59|
|Miami, FL (MIA)||$141||$76.59|
|New Orleans, LA (MSY)||$109||$81.59|
|Orlando, FL (MCO)||$109||$88.59|
|Philadelphia, PA (PHL)||$141||$87.59|
|Tampa, FL (TPA)||$109||$87.59|
|Austin, TX (AUS)|
|Atlanta, GA (ATL)||$149||$87.59|
|Cancun, Mexico (CUN)||$384||$129.62|
|Fort Lauderdale, FL (FLL)||$139||$86.59|
|Las Vegas, NV (LAS)||$173||$118.59|
|Los Angeles, CA (LAX)||$173||$100.59|
|Orlando, FL (MCO)||$163||$128.59|
|Baltimore/Washington, MD (BWI)|
|Atlanta, GA (ATL)||$141||$90.59|
|Boston, MA (BOS)||$109||$86.59|
|Cancun, Mexico (CUN)||$314||$277.62|
|Chicago (O’Hare), IL (ORD)||$129||$103.59|
|Detroit, MI (DTW)||$109||$82.59|
|Fort Lauderdale, FL (FLL)||$144||$111.59|
|Las Vegas, NV (LAS)||$206||$171.59|
|Los Angeles, CA (LAX)||$381||$219.59|
|Miami, FL (MIA)||$152||$81.59|
|Montego Bay, Jamaica (MBJ)||$382||$274.79|
|Myrtle Beach, SC (MYR)||$99||$81.59|
|New Orleans, LA (MSY)||$163||$87.59|
|Orlando, FL (MCO)||$119||$88.59|
|San Juan, PR (SJU)||$180||$101.79|
|Tampa, FL (TPA)||$173||$122.59|
|Boise, ID (BOI)|
|Las Vegas, NV (LAS)||$104||$85.59|
|Boston (Logan), MA (BOS)|
|Baltimore/Washington, MD (BWI)||$109||$86.59|
|Burbank, CA (BUR)|
|Las Vegas, NV (LAS)||$44||$92.59|
|Cancun, Mexico (CUN)|
|Austin, TX (AUS)||$351||$145.78|
|Baltimore/Washington, MD (BWI)||$297||$233.14|
|Chicago (O’Hare), IL (ORD)||$217||$237.30|
|Fort Lauderdale, FL (FLL)||$241||$176.98|
|St. Louis, MO (STL)||$358||$128.10|
|Chicago (O’Hare), IL (ORD)|
|Baltimore/Washington, MD (BWI)||$129||$82.59|
|Cancun, Mexico (CUN)||$252||$267.62|
|Fort Lauderdale, FL (FLL)||$260||$96.59|
|Fort Myers, FL (RSW)||$173||$121.59|
|Las Vegas, NV (LAS)||$313||$126.59|
|Orlando, FL (MCO)||$260||$148.59|
|Tampa, FL (TPA)||$163||$114.59|
|Cleveland, OH (CLE)|
|Atlanta, GA (ATL)||$141||$82.59|
|Columbus, OH (CMH)|
|Fort Lauderdale, FL (FLL)||$144||$98.59|
|Las Vegas, NV (LAS)||$234||$140.59|
|Orlando, FL (MCO)||$163||$87.59|
|Tampa, FL (TPA)||$144||$104.59|
|Denver, CO (DEN)|
|Houston (Bush-Intercontl), TX (IAH)||$163||$138.59|
|Las Vegas, NV (LAS)||$110||$82.59|
|Los Angeles, CA (LAX)||$99||$89.59|
|Detroit, MI (DTW)|
|Baltimore/Washington, MD (BWI)||$109||$82.59|
|Fort Lauderdale, FL (FLL)|
|Atlanta, GA (ATL)||$99||$64.59|
|Austin, TX (AUS)||$139||$66.59|
|Baltimore/Washington, MD (BWI)||$144||$81.59|
|Cancun, Mexico (CUN)||$229||$159.62|
|Chicago (O’Hare), IL (ORD)||$149||$96.59|
|Columbus, OH (CMH)||$144||$98.59|
|Indianapolis, IN (IND)||$139||$61.97|
|Nashville, TN (BNA)||$109||$66.59|
|New Orleans, LA (MSY)||$99||$115.59|
|Orlando, FL (MCO)||$109||$65.59|
|Pittsburgh, PA (PIT)||$139||$66.59|
|Punta Cana, DO (PUJ)||$176||$182.09|
|San Juan, PR (SJU)||$139||$107.79|
|St. Louis, MO (STL)||$139||$92.59|
|Tampa, FL (TPA)||$109||$61.97|
|Fort Myers, FL (RSW)|
|Chicago (O’Hare), IL (ORD)||$173||$91.59|
|Indianapolis, IN (IND)||$163||$66.97|
|Hartford, CT (BDL)|
|Orlando, FL (MCO)||$216||$157.59|
|Houston (Bush-Intercontl), TX (IAH)|
|Denver, CO (DEN)||$163||$138.59|
|Las Vegas, NV (LAS)||$173||$106.59|
|New Orleans, LA (MSY)||$109||$82.59|
|Orlando, FL (MCO)||$163||$138.59|
|Indianapolis, IN (IND)|
|Fort Lauderdale, FL (FLL)||$139||$82.59|
|Fort Myers, FL (RSW)||$163||$87.59|
|Las Vegas, NV (LAS)||$195||$156.59|
|Orlando, FL (MCO)||$163||$128.59|
|Kansas City, MO (MCI)|
|Las Vegas, NV (LAS)||$173||$116.59|
|Los Angeles, CA (LAX)||$309||$129.59|
|Orlando, FL (MCO)||$173||$189.59|
|Las Vegas, NV (LAS)|
|Albuquerque, NM (ABQ)||$109||$75.59|
|Atlanta, GA (ATL)||$216||$135.59|
|Austin, TX (AUS)||$173||$107.59|
|Baltimore/Washington, MD (BWI)||$260||$151.59|
|Boise, ID (BOI)||$154||$65.59|
|Burbank, CA (BUR)||$44||$61.97|
|Chicago (O’Hare), IL (ORD)||$281||$126.59|
|Columbus, OH (CMH)||$234||$140.59|
|Denver, CO (DEN)||$110||$61.97|
|Houston (Bush-Intercontl), TX (IAH)||$173||$106.59|
|Indianapolis, IN (IND)||$195||$156.59|
|Kansas City, MO (MCI)||$173||$116.59|
|Los Angeles, CA (LAX)||$49||$61.97|
|Milwaukee, WI (MKE)||$206||$136.59|
|Nashville, TN (BNA)||$195||$151.59|
|New Orleans, LA (MSY)||$234||$126.59|
|Oakland, CA (OAK)||$49||$61.97|
|Orange County/Santa Ana, CA (SNA)||$44||$61.97|
|Phoenix, AZ (PHX)||$39||$61.97|
|Pittsburgh, PA (PIT)||$234||$195.59|
|Portland, OR (PDX)||$163||$71.59|
|Reno/Tahoe, NV (RNO)||$39||$65.59|
|Sacramento, CA (SMF)||$79||$61.97|
|Salt Lake City, UT (SLC)||$49||$61.97|
|San Diego, CA (SAN)||$39||$61.97|
|Seattle/Tacoma, WA (SEA)||$79||$71.97|
|St. Louis, MO (STL)||$184||$122.59|
|Los Angeles, CA (LAX)|
|Austin, TX (AUS)||$173||$100.59|
|Baltimore/Washington, MD (BWI)||$313||$219.59|
|Denver, CO (DEN)||$99||$68.97|
|Kansas City, MO (MCI)||$260||$129.59|
|Las Vegas, NV (LAS)||$49||$87.59|
|Nashville, TN (BNA)||$195||$198.59|
|New Orleans, LA (MSY)||$159||$148.59|
|Oakland, CA (OAK)||$84||$66.97|
|Salt Lake City, UT (SLC)||$79||$68.59|
|St. Louis, MO (STL)||$313||$198.59|
As you can see, while both of these airlines can save you money they are very different.
Southwest is a much larger airline that serves many more passengers and flies to more destinations.
It offers a more comfortable experience for standard economy passengers with more legroom and seats that recline. They also offer free movies and TV for in-flight entertainment and are more generous with free baggage and change fees.
I also feel like Southwest stands out in a major way from Spirit with the Companion Pass and the different credit card options available, to mention being a Chase partner.
Meanwhile, Spirit can offer you cheaper fares in the majority of cases.
You just need to be mindful of the fees that you may have to pay for carry-on bags, checked bags, and seat selection. If you don’t need to spend extra on those things, the savings can beat out Southwest easily in a lot of cases.
Also, if you’re willing to spend a little bit extra, Spirit can offer you more legroom and allow you to enjoy a wider selection of snacks on your flights than Southwest. So oddly enough, you can get a more premium experience with Spirit.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time credit card rewards/travel expert and has earned and redeemed millions of miles to travel the globe. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.