Frontier vs Spirit: which airline will make you curse less?

Frontier Airlines A320neo strectch seats

As I sit here in the second month of self-isolation due to Covid-19, I’ve got to admit that I’m really looking forward to getting back in the air again. As a matter fact, the feeling is so strong that even Spirit Airlines sounds really good to me right now. Heck – maybe even a seat in the very last row (next to a lavatory with a broken door) on Frontier sounds pretty good too. Anyway, since I don’t think I’ll be able to act on those desires for at least another two months yet, I figured I’d do the next best thing: an in-depth Frontier vs Spirit comparison.

I’ve got loads experience on both of these airlines, and believe me – there’s a lot I can say about each. For the sake of simplicity and organization though, I’m going to keep this to a few key categories:

  • General Similarities and differences
  • History
  • Seating
  • Food
  • The booking process
  • Bang for the buck
  • Liveries

Is frontier better than spirit? Which airline is worse? I’m going to answer all of these questions (and more), so I do hope you’ll stick around for the entire comparison.

Frontier versus spirit: a brief summary of all the major differences

Something occurred to me as I was sitting here trying to think of all the differences between Frontier and Spirit: I guess I never really thought about it before trying to organize my thoughts, but these two airlines are more similar to one another then they are different. Check this out:

Similarities

  • Both are classified as ultra low-cost carriers (ULCCs)
  • Both operate a point-to-point network system – foregoing the structure of a traditional hub-and-spoke network (such as how other US airlines like Delta, United, and American operate)
  • Both have horribly uncomfortable seats in the main economy cabin
  • Despite having the most uncomfortable seats in economy, both offer a surprisingly decent premium seat option
  • Both Frontier and Spirit operate a fleet of Airbus narrowbody aircraft (A319, A320, A320NEO, A321, A321NEO)
  • Both offer a food-for-purchase option – which isn’t all that bad actually
  • The pricing structure of both is similar: they “bundle” their fares, which means that customers have to pay extra for every little thing (such as checking bags, choosing a seat, being allowed a carry-on bag etc.)

See? When you look at it like that, you’d think that the these two airlines are basically run by the same corporate entity. However, this Frontier vs Spirit comparison wouldn’t be complete without looking at a few major differences between them as well:

Differences

  • Frontier actually started out as a”traditional” airline in the sense that they had a hub-and-spoke network based out of Denver Colorado (DEN). On the other hand, Spirit’s route network has been point-to-point right from the beginning.
  • Frontier is focused primarily in the western United States, while Spirit is focusing on the east.
  • At the time of this writing, Spirit is a much larger airline than Frontier – and is growing at a faster rate. However, with this whole COVID-19 situation going on, airlines are taking drastic measures to stay alive. Who knows what the situation is going to be like once this all plays out?

Once you zoom out to look at all the similarities and differences, you start to understand that these are two nearly identical airlines. They are so similar as a matter of fact, that I have to go as far as to say that they are ideal merger candidates. Will we see frontier and spirit merge eventually? Doing so would help them both in their fight against taking marketshare away from the major airlines, and I don’t think it’s all that far-fetched to assume that it may happen. Eventually.

Cruising along at 36,000ft on Frontier Airlines. That’s a good lookin’ Otter!

History of both airlines

Before going any further with this comparison, I think it’s really important to understand the history of both of these low cost airlines. It’s far too easy to get stuck in current times and to judge these airlines based solely on what they are today.

Of course that’s a perfectly way to judge an airline if your only goal is to figure out which one is better for your trip to Omaha to visit grandma next month. But to truly appreciate the similarities and differences of these airlines, you need to understand how it all began.

Spirit airlines a320 LAX
I wonder how loud the laughter in the boardroom was when someone first suggested they paint the planes yellow?

Anyway, one of the most interesting things about Frontier and Spirit is the fact that they both feel like relatively new airlines. The average age of aircraft in each respective fleet is relatively young, and both have experienced major growth over the past several years. However, it goes a lot deeper than that.

An oversimplified history of Spirit Airlines

Did you know that Spirit originally started as a trucking company? I didn’t. Anyway, founded in 1964 as Clippert Trucking Company, the air service didn’t actually begin until 1983. Back then, it was called Charter One and was based out of Macomb County, Michigan (Detroit-ish). Scheduled operations began on April 2, 1993.

An oversimplified history of Frontier Airlines

Compared to Spirit, Frontier is just a baby still. Founded in 1994 by an ex-United pilot (Fredrick W. Brown), scheduled flights began with a small fleet of 737-200 aircraft serving regional destinations out of Denver, Colorado. There’s a lot more to it than that though – there was another “Frontier” that launched way back in 1950, which went out of business in 1986. The Frontier we have today is not the same Frontier of old.

I’d actually recommend reading about the history of the Frontier Airlines over on Wikipedia. Start with the original Frontier, and then read about the current Frontier. Fascinating!

Anyway, both Frontier and Spirit have fought long and hard to get to where they are today. These aren’t evil companies that popped up just a couple years ago that were built to suck your wallet dry (and give you ulcers in the process). Believe it or not, they were started by real (compassionate) human beings with the best of intentions.

Comparing the seats

Ok. Enough with the history lesson. The biggest question (by far) when people want to know the difference between Frontier and Spirit? How comfortable are the dang seats? 

The answer that question is both good and bad. It’s good because both airlines offer a fairly decent premium seat option which rivals anything you would find on the major US airlines. However, it’s bad because the basic economy seats are pretty much the worst in the sky.

Which airline has the better premium seat?

Based on my own personal experience, I tend to like the premium seats on both Spirit and Frontier equally. However, it’s for two very different reasons:

  1. The Spirit Airlines premium seat (officially referred to as “Big Front Seats“) is large and spacious. As a matter of fact, they are very similar to what you’ll find in the first class cabin on other airlines. They’re comfortable too! My most recent experience in Spirit Airlines Big Front Seats came on a flight from Fort Lauderdale to San Diego with an intermediate stop in Houston. While I didn’t write a trip report for that specific flight, it did inspire me to write an article which asked the question of whether or not Spirit Airlines is actually as bad as everyone says they are. Spoiler alert: No. They are not bad at all.
  2. Frontier Airlines, on the other hand, doesn’t use a different seat for their premium seating option (officially referred to as “Stretch Seats“). They are the exact same seats you’ll find in basic economy, but they are spaced out much further and the legroom is quite generous. Additionally, where the seats lack in overall space and padding, they make up for in style and design. The new Frontier Airlines seats are nothing short of beautiful with black leather and diamond stitching like you would find in a decently priced car nowadays.
big front seats
Wait. Is this first class on Alaska Airlines? Nope – it’s actually the Spirit Big Front seat looking all squishy and “Alaska Airlines first class” like.
Frontier Airlines A320neo strectch seats
The Frontier method of “premium seating”? Take the basic economy seat, and just add leg room. Laugh all you want, but…it’s actually not that bad!

Which airline has the better basic economy seat?

I can’t help but chuckle when thinking of an answer to this question – because it’s kind of like asking: which proctologist gives a better colonoscopy? Quite frankly, I’ve found the basic economy seats on both Frontier and Spirit to be incredibly uncomfortable.

Both airlines have adopted the “slim” style of economy seat. This means that the padding is minimal, and it’s likely that you’re going to end up with a sore derrière and / or a sore lower back once you reach your destination. Yes, I know I just praised Frontier Airlines for having a decent premium seating option using these exact same seats, but trust me. The extra legroom makes all the difference since it will allow you to squirm around a lot more in order to find a comfortable position.

ultra slimline A319 seats spirit airlines
Spirit Airlines basic economy seats. Don’t let the look of that “padding” fool you. You’re going to have a sore butt by the end of the flight. Guaranteed.
Frontier Airlines stretch seats
The Frontier basic economy seats. All you clever detectives out there will realize that these are actually the exact same seats you’ll get on Spirt (notice the seat shape and the arm rests). The only difference is that Frontier went all fancy-like with the diamond-stitching.

Don’t expect a lot when it comes to innovative seat features on either airline either. Tray tables are tiny, and recline is extremely minimal.

Comparing the food

Frankly, there isn’t much to talk about in the Frontier vs Spirit competition when it comes to mealtime. Both airlines won’t give you anything but water for free, and you’re going to have to pay extra if you want anything with anything more than just a wee bit of substance and flavor. Here’s a quick look at the in-flight menus on both airlines:

spirit airlines menu
The Spirit Airlines in-flight menu. Offering everything you’ll need to arrive at your next destination carb-loaded (and ****-faced drunk).
Frontier Airlines snack menu
The Frontier Airlines in-flight menu. Pretty much the same fare as what Spirit is offering, with the only major difference being that they have a better graphic designer.

As you can see, there really isn’t all that much difference in both the food (and the prices) on either airline. I know very little about the business of airline food, but it actually wouldn’t surprise me if they get their food from the same source and it’s all run by the same company. It’s just got that feel to it.

Since the airline industry changes so fast, it’s likely that the food options that you will be presented with will be different than the food options I had on my most recent flights. For the latest information do be sure to check out the following links:

Comparing the booking process

Personally, one of the best things I like about the airline travel experience is the booking process. I’ve flown well over 100 different airlines up until this point in my life, and believe me – I’ve experienced a whole heck of a lot of airline booking portals. And you know what? Both Frontier and Spirit are two of the most consistently memorable experiences.

Spirit Airlines

Booking a flight on Spirit almost feels like a game of sorts. The first thing you notice when you get to the website is that it’s extremely bold and colorful. The second thing you’ll notice right off the bat is that they’ve got a sense of humor. And if you know me, you know that jives with my overall personality. Why we gotta be all serious all the time?

spirit airlines website
Yellow. Yellow everywhere! Love it or hate it, they beat you over the head with it right from the beginning.

Anyway, the process of booking a flight is broken down into individual steps, and the constant up-sell’s will hit you fast and furious. They start off by offering what is called a “base fare”, meaning that it’s just cost of the flight itself. It’s usually extremely cheap, and you’ll feel awesome for being able to think that you’ll be able to fly from New York to Los Angeles so cheaply.

However, as you move onto the booking process, you’ll be forced to make options. You know, things like baggage and seating. Luxuries such as checking bags, selecting seats, and even bringing on a carry-on bag will cost you dearly. At the time of this writing, it costs $30 to bring a carry-on bag onto a Spirit Airlines flight. Ouch.

Frontier Airlines

It’s been a while since I’ve booked a flight on Frontier Airlines (my last flights with them were from San Diego to Austin and then from Austin to San Diego back in 2018). A brief look at their website just now revealed to me that not much has changed since then.

frontier airlines website
A screenshot of flyfrontier.com. Just the basics.

Frontier Airlines offers a nearly identical booking process to Spirit Airlines – minus the bright colors. There’s definitely a bit of humor sprinkled in, and they will hit you with the up-sell’s as you move through the booking process. But really – can you really consider it an “up-sell” when it’s basically things that you need anyway?

That’s exactly where these ultra low-cost carriers will get you. You may think that you’re getting an ultra cheap fare at first, but then by the time you finish the booking process you’re looking at a price comparable to what you pay on nearly any other full-service airline.

For what it’s worth, I slightly prefer the Spirit Airlines booking experience. Both their website and mobile app is littered with humor and good fun, and to me, that makes it an experience that I am likely to remember in the future. Heck – I can’t even remember what it was like to book my last Delta or United flight.

Bang for the buck

At the end of the day, the Frontier vs Spirit debate comes down to the following question: which airline offers the better value for the money? In other words, Do you get a better bang for your buck on Frontier than you would on Spirit? Or is it the other way around?

Honestly, in my personal experience, it all depends on the route(s) you’re flying. Both airlines offer incredibly cheap base fares. They also offer pretty much the same basic service.

However, Spirit is a much larger airline, and therefore, you get the perks that come with that. Things such as more flight options (especially if a flight gets canceled), and better gate space at major airports. That second points is debatable, I know, but my experience has been that the Spirit Airlines corporate office has deeper pockets and thus has the ability to spend more to get better gate space.

On the other hand, there are many airports around the country where Frontier is relegated to the “not-so-nice gates” way at the far end of the concourse.

All of that being said, I still believe that the bang for the buck is quite good both on Spirit and Frontier. There isn’t clear winner in this category.

Which airline has the better livery?

I know. Most people generally fall into two camps when it comes to airline liveries:

  1. The camp that thinks that airline liveries don’t matter and anything more than just a logo and some color painted on the aircraft is a waste of money for the airline.
  2. The camp that believes that liveries are important because they will help them stand to out in the crowd.

While I do realize that nearly nobody chooses an airline based solely on it’s livery, can we all agree that It’s still relatively important? I may be biased since I’ve been illustrating airline livery illustrations for nearly 8 years now, but I am solidly in the camp of people who thinks that this kind of thing is important.

The Spirit Airlines livery

Love them or hate them, you’ve got to hand it to Spirit Airlines: they know how to draw attention to themselves. Painting their entire fleet of airplanes neon yellow was brilliant in my opinion. Even though it’s far from being my favorite airline livery in this world, I do have to give them major props for daring to be so bold.

Spirit Airlines livery
The neon-yellow Spirit Airlines livery: making airport employees hungry for bananas since 2104

I should also note that Spirit Airlines has a long history of beautiful livery design. Their management team understands the value of branding and marketing, and it’s nice to see an ultra low-cost carrier put so much time and effort into the paint that is slathered on the airplanes.

The Frontier Airlines livery

Compared to the obnoxious “slap me across the face and then tell me you love me” Spirit livery, the Frontier livery is the polar opposite.

frontier airlines livery
The Frontier Airlines livery: I’m not exactly sure where they were going with the light blue “cheatline” element, but…that Flamingo! Her name is “Flo” btw.

Instead of obnoxious colors that scream “LOOK AT ME”, they decided to go with the ultra-low-key “awwww…that’s cute” approach. Every aircraft in the Frontier Airlines fleet has a cute animal painted on its tail which, just like the Spirit Airlines neon yellow, was a brilliant decision.

It’s unique, fun, and memorable. It is not, however, bold and obnoxiously all-up-in-your-face.

To me, comparing the liveries and how both airlines chose to approach the same problem is the perfect way to end this Frontier vs Spirit analysis. Both airlines chose a livery which helps them to be unique and stand out from the crowd, but the approach for each was significantly different. Each livery represents the respective management team perfectly:

  • The “conservative and cute” Frontier strategy says a lot about their management team and how they have traditionally run their business. They’ve been thoughtful. Careful. More importantly, they have been a firm believer of never letting go of their roots.
  • Spirit Airlines, on the other hand, chose a livery which best represented their corporate culture. It’s bold. It’s “in-your-face”. Daring. Some may even call it ugly, but I have to give credit where credit is due. They are not afraid to take chances, and that’s one of the reasons why they’ve grown to be such a dominant player here in the US.

Finally, if you enjoy these types of airline comparisons as much as I do, do you be sure to check out my recent American Airlines vs Delta comparison. If you haven’t already read it, the results of that head-to-head battle might be surprising…

Comments (11)

  1. Randy Preising

    May 20, 2020
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