When you think of the most premium options for crossing the U.S., a few usual suspects come to mind: American Flagship first and business class, Delta One, United Polaris and JetBlue Mint.
Until recently, Spirit Airlines hadn’t even been on my radar — flying an ultra-low-cost airline across the country didn’t seem to make much sense with full-service carriers offering tickets that include carry-on bags, seat assignments and free changes at a comparable rate.
Sprit has a slight edge over every other U.S. carrier, however: extra-large seats in the first few rows. The airline’s Big Front Seat is comparable to what you’ll find in domestic first class, but priced at a significantly lower rate — you can score what’s effectively a first-class recliner (minus the recline) on the cheap.
Now, with the launch of JetBlue’s brand-new Mint Studio, and premium-cabin airfares regularly pricing above $1,000 for one-way flights, I decided to pair my JetBlue booking with a Spirit Airlines flight home, to see if the airline’s no-frills premium seat could actually be as great of a deal as it seemed.
First, and most importantly, Spirit is only a relevant option if the airline’s flying where and when you need it. In the premium transcon market, for example, you can currently only book Spirit flights between New York LaGuardia (LGA) and Los Angeles (LAX) on Saturdays, when LGA’s “perimeter rule” does not apply.
Spirit doesn’t fly between the NYC area and San Francisco (SFO), though you can book flights five days per week between Newark (EWR) and Las Vegas (LAS). You might consider driving or taking the train for a great fare, too — Spirit flies to L.A. twice a week and to Las Vegas daily from nearby Philadelphia (PHL), which was my destination on this particular trip.
Related: Reviewing the transcon champ, JetBlue’s new Mint Studio biz
JetBlue, on the other hand, offers multiple daily Mint flights between the New York area and LAX and SFO, along with Las Vegas, Palm Springs (PSP), San Diego (SAN) and Seattle (SEA).
If you’re looking for flexibility and nonstop travel, JetBlue is by far your best option for transcon flights, though Spirit has the advantage of offering Big Front Seat on most of its fleet, while you’ll only find Mint on a handful of JetBlue routes.
Fares and fees
This, here, is the crux of this entire experiment. JetBlue Mint is often very expensive; Spirit Big Front Seat is not. In no other way is Spirit’s product better than JetBlue’s — it’s all about the fare.
On this particular trip, I paid just under $1,200 for a one-way Mint flight from JFK to LAX. I had booked the flight and selected 1F, a Mint Studio, before the airline updated its seat map, so I was able to avoid the usual $199 upgrade fee. I wouldn’t expect that to happen for your trip.
On Spirit, my grand total came to $410, including a $224 base fare, $91 for a Big Front Seat on my first flight and an exit row assignment on my second, a $59 change fee and about $36 in government taxes.
On nonstop flights between New York and the West Coast, I encountered an $88 fee to assign a Big Front Seat, though other routes cost considerably less. On my LAX-ATL flight, for example, Big Front Seats were available for 60 bucks, or a roughly $40 buy-up from Spirit’s other seats.
Your Big Front Seat payment includes the seat itself, plus Zone 2 boarding — you may be flying in a first-class seat, but you’re definitely not getting a first-class product. Everything from larger carry-on bags ($44) to bottled water ($3) carries an extra fee.
Notably, JetBlue doesn’t apply change fees on all fares except basic economy. On Spirit, changes are only free if you modify your reservation at least 60 days before departure. I made a change a bit over a week in advance, hence the $59 charge.
Both airlines will apply a difference in fare — if your new flight costs more than your old one, you’ll be responsible for paying the difference.
And then there are the bag fees. I traveled with a backpack for this trip, which qualifies as a “personal item” on Spirit, so I was able to bring it onboard for free. Had a brought a larger carry-on, I would have had to pay $34 at booking, $44 at check-in, or a whopping $67 at the gate.
Two checked bags came bundled with my JetBlue Mint fare — had I checked the same amount on Spirit, I would have been looking at an additional $130, just for a one-way flight.
On the redemption front, JetBlue prices Mint awards far higher than coach — you’ll get a roughly 1-cent value for each TrueBlue point when booking a premium seat, far below TPG’s 1.3-cent valuation. As a result, you can see some pretty astronomical awards — we’re talking 125,000 points and up for a one-way flight.
Spirit offers a marginally better redemption rate with its refreshed Free Spirit program, but since the airline’s fares are priced so much lower, you can travel farther on your points.
A nonstop award from New York (LGA) to Los Angeles costs 21,000 points on the same date, for example, plus a $50 redemption fee for flights within 28 days that’s waived for elites and select credit card holders.
Once you’ve booked your awards, you’ll need to buy up to premium seats on both airlines — $199 for JetBlue’s studio, or well under half that amount for Spirit’s Big Front Seat, depending on the route.
Plane and cabin
For now, JetBlue is only flying its Mint Studio on a single plane: N2105J, a brand-new Airbus A321neo. A second aircraft will soon join the fleet — as will a dedicated A321LR fleet for flights between the U.S. and London — but for now, your options are incredibly limited.
Assuming you’re able to get onboard, you’ll find a total of 16 Mint suites, spread across eight rows in a 1-1 configuration. Every seat has its own sliding door and similar finishes and amenities, but the two suites at the front row are considerably larger — those are the Mint Studios I keep talking about here.
My Spirit flight was operated by a similar aircraft, the Airbus A320neo, but with a vastly different interior. There are 182 seats onboard, compared with 160 on JetBlue’s A321neo — even though it’s a longer plane.
As with JetBlue’s neo, Spirit’s most premium seats are located at the very front of the plane, just behind the lavatory and galley. You’ll find eight Big Front Seats on most aircraft, while the airline’s limited number of Airbus A319s have a total of 10.
Studio and seat
JetBlue’s Studio is hard to beat — if privacy and space is what you’re after, you won’t do any better on a flight within the U.S. In his detailed review, TPG’s Zach Griff said “there’s no better product flying the domestic skies,” and I’d have to agree.
While the sliding door isn’t quite flush with the wall, it definitely makes the studio feel more private, especially with the 22-inch pop-out display extended as well. In just a few seconds, you can convert your seat to a lie-flat bed, measuring just over 82 inches from top to bottom. An integrated mattress and Tuft & Needle bedding helps improve your inflight sleep.
While JetBlue’s seat can recline to a fully-flat 180 degrees, Spirit’s Big Front Seats come “pre-reclined,” in that they’re permanently fixed at a slight angle. I found the recline to be barely noticeable — while the fixed design means the passengers in row 2 won’t have a seat back end up in their lap, it’s certainly not ideal if you’re hoping to get some sleep.
While the first row doesn’t include under-seat storage, it does offer a bit more legroom — I had no problem getting in and out from the window seat, without waking my neighbor from her seemingly deep sleep.
Wi-Fi and entertainment
On JetBlue, the options are literally endless. The airline offers its speediest Fly-Fi on this particular plane, with free gate-to-gate service. HD streaming is supported, so you can watch whatever you want, though I still recommend downloading content before your flight just in case you run into some spotty coverage, as I did on my trip.
You certainly don’t need to use your own device if you don’t want to, though. Studios include a 22-inch pop-out display, loaded with HD movies, television shows and over 100 channels of live DirecTV. JetBlue also provides Master & Dynamic headphones, but they aren’t noise-canceling — if that’s important to you, I’d recommend bringing your own.
On Spirit, entertainment is an entirely do-it-yourself affair. There’s no seat-back or streaming entertainment, no power outlets and no Wi-Fi, though the airline has begun working to roll that out. The tray table was large enough to accommodate my 13-inch MacBook Air, but there’s not much to note beyond that.
If you want to stay entertained on Spirit, be sure to load up your device before your flight. I was also fortunate enough to be using a MacBook Air with Apple’s new M1 chip, which has remarkable battery life — even after some work in the airport and nonstop playback on back-to-back Spirit flights, my battery had only dropped to 77% by the time I landed in Philly.
Food and beverage
JetBlue has long offered phenomenal food in Mint, and my flight to Los Angeles was no exception. This actually happened to be the first day of the airline’s new menu, designed by New York City restaurant Pasquale Jones.
Passengers get to choose three main dishes, plus a dessert, along with a large selection of beer, liquor and wine. For a bit more excitement, you can order a cocktail, mixed by a flight attendant at your seat.
While Spirit’s options are very much “economy,” I was still quite pleased with my $8 snack box and Bloody Mary. I didn’t realize I’d be paying separately for the miniature of vodka ($8) and the Bloody Mary mix ($3), but a-la-carte pricing is the name of the game here. At least the cup of ice and napkin were free!
JetBlue Mint is an experience — Spirit’s Big Front Seat is little more than a spacious transportation option, getting you from A to B on the cheap. If you book with those expectations in mind, you’re more likely to enjoy your flight.
As much as I’d love to fly Mint every time, spending upwards of $2,000 round-trip just isn’t in the cards. Assuming fares are similarly expensive for lie-flat products with American, Delta and United, I’d book Spirit Big Front Seat again, as long as the price is right.
Where things might get a little dicey is in the event or irregular operations. JetBlue offers a handful of transcon flights every day, while Spirit may only have one nonstop — in the case of LaGuardia to Los Angeles, you’re looking at just one flight per week.
If Spirit cancels your flight, you’ll end up connecting — at best. If seats are limited because of high demand or following a string of cancellations on a stormy day, you could end up getting stuck for days, or forced to book an expensive alternate flight.
With a JetBlue ticket, you’re likely to have many more options, especially if you’re willing to fly coach. Thanks to the airline’s new partnership with American Airlines, an agent might even be able to put you on an AA flight. I’d be willing to take my chances with Spirit on a sunny summer day — during a busy winter travel period, not so much.
Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy
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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.
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