Bay Area holiday travelers beware: Ticket prices have surged by nearly 40% compared with last year as airports brace for their busiest holiday season since the pandemic brought travel to a standstill.
But passengers looking to score a cheaper flight for their vacation might need to pack their carry-on with a change of clothes and an extra supply of patience.
Across the region’s three major airports, low-cost airlines consistently rank among the worst for severe delays and consumer complaints, while lacking passenger protections afforded by other major carriers, according to federal transportation data. These delays can lead to mad dashes through terminals, missed connections or worse.
Among the top delay-ridden carriers serving the Bay Area: Frontier Airlines, JetBlue, Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air.
For San Jose flyers, the worst culprit, JetBlue, saw a staggering 22% of departing flights delayed by 30 minutes or more from the start of the year through September. Passengers departing from San Francisco International Airport and Oakland International Airport saw 15% of Frontier flights delayed.
Last week, Colin Casserd saw a three-hour layover for a Spirit Airlines flight balloon into an 11-hour wait at the Las Vegas airport filled with angry passengers and delay announcements blaring over the intercom. He said Spirit pinged him about every 40 minutes with the news his flight would be postponed another hour.
“People were just scrambling, and I was just watching all of this madness unfold,” said Casserd, who hosts a podcast and studies psychology in Portland. “I started to have an anxiety attack. It had been six hours at this point.”
It’s no secret that these low-cost carriers are known for their bare-bones amenities and packing travelers into skimpy seats — although JetBlue is a rare exception offering ample legroom for economy passengers. But there are always surprise cost-saving measures like Frontier recently axing its entire customer service call center just in time for the holiday travel rush. Spirit charges $4 for water.
While severe delays are still in the minority, social media is full of complaints from Bay Area travelers. Some are enduring nearly missed connections. Other passengers talk of clamoring for answers from customer service or even being abandoned at the airport.
“I’d never fly Spirit or Frontier,” said Andy Koe, who was traveling from Oakland to Seattle last Friday. On Alaska Airlines, his preferred airline, Koe said he gets a free checked bag and other perks due to his customer loyalty. “They upgrade me almost every other time I fly,” said Koe, as he lounged in the Oakland airport with his feet perched on some luggage.
But many frugal travelers are willing to forgo inflight movies or free drinks to snag the low price. Looking to spend a long Christmas weekend in Las Vegas? A round trip from Oakland is around $200 on Spirit — that is, for a seat on the plane — about half the price of a similar flight from Southwest. But Southwest lets you check in two bags and carry on another as part of its ticket price. Spirit and Frontier charge upward of $100 to bring a single carry-on depending on the route.
So do the math, says Kathleen Bangs, a former airline pilot and spokesperson for the flight tracking company FlightAware.
“It’s not always cheaper when you add in the seat selection, boarding priority and checking in a bag,” she said. “Sometimes when you add up all the fees, you could get just the same thing going on a regular main airline.”
Still, the allure of an increasingly rare bargain has increased this holiday season as the era of cheap pandemic flights officially ended earlier this year with domestic fares finally topping pre-pandemic costs. Domestic airfare has now averaged about 39% higher than last year, according to Hopper, a flight-booking app.
The low sticker price often pencils out for passengers traveling with little more than a backpack. For these passengers willing to take the risk, Bangs has a key point of advice to lower the odds of landing a delayed flight that leaves you stranded in the airport.
“Always take that first flight, even if it means getting to the airport at 5 a.m. You have such a better chance of not having a cancellation,” she said. As the day progresses staffing issues and bad weather can snowball as airplane availability is stretched thinner. “The earlier you fly the less chance of delays.”
When air travel disaster does strike, budget airlines often lack passenger protections like free hotels and speedy rebookings that could ease your travel pain. Frontier is the only major U.S. airline that does not promise hotel accommodations in the case of a preventable overnight delay, according to a dashboard compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Frontier also trounces the competition when it comes to customer complaints. The company boasts a complaint rate 186% greater than American Airlines, according to nationwide federal data. Spirit Airlines comes in at number two in customer complaints, followed by JetBlue.
It’s not all travel disasters. Even with higher delays, the majority of trips on low-cost airlines are uninterrupted, leaving many passengers with a smooth flight and extra change in their pocket — especially if you’re the type to roll with life’s uncertainties.
“Just flew Spirit Airlines back from Oakland to LAX and here’s my horror story,” Brett Snyder, an air travel blogger, said on Twitter in October. “There isn’t one. Seats were comfy, legroom is fine, people were friendly, and we landed a few minutes early. All that for just under $26.”