I finally took the plunge and booked a cheap flight on a budget airline that consistently ranks as one of the worst in the US. Here's why I'd do it again.

Frontier AirlinesA Frontier Airlines Airbus A320. Not the exact plane I flew on.


As this was my first year living out of my home state, I needed to get home to Texas for Christmas, and I knew from the start that I’d be looking at an expensive flight home.


I wasn’t thrilled, since the holidays are typically one of the most expensive times to fly in the US.

Source: Kayak


Since I was on a budget, I looked into some budget airlines, which allow thrifty passengers like yours truly to book a flight for less than what other big airlines offer.


One of these ultra-low-cost airlines is Frontier.


Read more:
A US budget airline is asking passengers to tip flight attendants when they serve refreshments


Flying on an ultra-low-cost airline entails not paying much for the flights themselves …

Source: Frontier


… but paying for literally everything else, like carry-on bags, seat selections, and in-flight Coca-Colas.

Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Source: Frontier


Frontier has also on several occasions been ranked as one of the country’s worst airlines.

Source: Forbes,Business Insider, Business Insider, MarketWatch, MSN, Wall Street Journal


Reports of poor customer service and on-time performance are just some of the factors plaguing the airline, though it appears to have made improvements recently.

Source: TripAdvisor


The airline site The Points Guy ranked Frontier the fifth-best US airline out of nine in 2018, up from the second-worst airline in 2017.

Steve Nehf/The Denver Post

Source: The Points Guy (2018), The Points Guy (2017)


But all that aside, it’s still a budget airline — and a viable option for those looking to fly in a specific price range.


We’re talking $US20 one-way ticket specials throughout the year, though I wasn’t lucky enough to snag one of those.

Source: Travel + Leisure


But I still managed to snag a well-priced ticket when I decided to fly Frontier home to Texas for Christmas.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderThe Frontier ticket counter at San Francisco International Airport.

I punched in my destination details in the Frontier app to look for flights.

Frontier/Business InsiderThe Frontier app’s home screen is on the left.

These were my search results. I opted for the one-way flight for $US178.80.

Frontier/Business Insider

The itinerary required a four-hour layover in Denver, which I wasn’t thrilled about.

Google Maps/Business Insider

But the ticket was cheap for the busy and expensive holiday season.

Source: Business Insider, Kayak


But Frontier is a no-frills airline with a big focus on an “a la carte” payment system, meaning you pay extra if you want to select a seat, check a bag, or bring a carry-on.

Frontier/Business InsiderYou can purchase a bundle package and save some money if you’d like.

Source: Frontier


Paying for baggage online well before your flight is cheaper.


You’ll pay $US38 for a checked bag or a carry-on bag if you purchase the baggage between the time you book the flight and 24 hours before checking in.

Frontier/Business Insider

If you wait until you get to the airport ticket counter, you’re looking at a $US50 charge for either. Also, “elite” frequent flyers get a free checked bag and a free carry-on bag per flight.


Since it was the same price for both, and I was going to be home for two weeks, I chose to purchase a checked bag for $US38, sending my total flight costs to $US216.80.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

This was my baggage situation: a large suitcase that I would check, and a small (and free!) “personal item” holding my laptop and other things.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

I checked in 24 hours before departure, and my mobile boarding passes appeared in my Frontier app.

Frontier/Business Insider

The airline also stresses the need to get to the airport at least two hours before departure. Reminders pop up in the emails for your flight reservations and are displayed on the airline’s website and on signs at the airport.

Source: Frontier


So I showed up to San Francisco International Airport at 10 a.m., about three hours before my scheduled departure.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

I found a row of Frontier self-service kiosks when I walked in.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

I had my mobile boarding pass …

Katie Canales/Business Insider

… but I was curious whether Frontier charged passengers for printed ones at the airport, as its fellow budget airline Spirit is said to have done at one point.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

Source: Inc., TripAdvisor


But the kiosk spat my boarding passes out at me without asking for payment.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

I collected my boarding passes and headed to the ticket counter to check my suitcase.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

To my right I could see the ticket counter for Southwest Airlines …

Katie Canales/Business Insider

… and to my left was Delta’s. Even from afar I could see the counter decked out in Christmas decorations.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

My airline’s counter was a tad less festive. It was about 10:30 at this point, and the counter was unstaffed.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

But I figured that since I was told to show up two hours ahead of departure, someone would arrive by 11. So I waited patiently.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

Others weren’t as patient. Some began angrily calling Frontier customer-service phone lines, and one woman went to an information center in the airport to find some answers.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

Another woman said she had even missed her flight because the Frontier ticket counter had been unstaffed for so long.


A Frontier representative showed up around 11, as I had expected.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

But I wasn’t sure whether it was because airport staff members had been notified of the counter staffing or because that’s when the attendant had planned to arrive at the desk.


The attendant was also snide and rude, dismissing passengers who complained to her about the lack of staff members.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

The attendant said that Frontier employees who work the ticket counter also double as gate agents.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderGate 22, where I later boarded my Frontier flight.

Frontier’s website advises passengers that the check-in period closes 45 minutes before departure. So if the woman who said she missed her flight showed up to check her bag past that time, it would make sense why she missed her flight.

Source: Frontier


The attendants at the ticket counter would have had to move to the gate counters to assist passengers there.


A Frontier Airlines representative later told me in an email that staff rotation in an airport, from the ticket counter to a departure gate, was “industry standard.”


Since I had been at the counter at least two hours before my scheduled departure, I was fine. I made it through security and to my gate with plenty of time to spare.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

But the whole incident left me frazzled. Did this happen often with Frontier passengers? I charged my phone and read a book until boarding started.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

I had the lowly “Zone 3” stamped on my boarding pass, so I waited my turn to queue at the gate.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

This was only the beginning of the wait time I’d endure throughout the day.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

Onward to the cabin!

Katie Canales/Business Insider

From San Francisco to Denver, I’d be flying on an Airbus A320, one of Frontier’s 84 aircraft in its all-Airbus fleet.

The airline’s average fleet age is about four years old.

Source: Air Fleets


I made my way toward my seat, which reminded me more of a lawn chair than an aeroplane seat.

Katie Canales/Business InsiderHere’s a row of seats toward the front of the cabin — not where I was sitting.

Here’s a side view of seats on a separate Frontier flight. They were thin, with hardly any backing — and unlike the more cushioned seats I’ve encountered on other flights, these were tough.


They’re actually “slimline” seats, which airlines around the world have been using in recent years to save weight and create space for additional rows.

Katie Canales/Business Insider


Read more:
These seats are the worst innovation airlines have come up with, and I spent 15 hours suffering in them


I didn’t pay to select my seat, so I was assigned 27B, a middle seat. But I got lucky: A passenger was to my left, but no one sat to my right in the aisle seat. I scooted over to claim it before we took off.

Frontier/Business Insider

As usual for flights of this length, there were no pillows or blankets waiting for me at my seat. However, the tray tables were not what I’ve usually found on other airlines.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

They were dirty and small, and they didn’t slide out toward you so you could eat over your plate if you were to buy food.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

I did have plenty of legroom, though my legs are short. The seat pitch — the amount of room between two rows of seats — for the standard-economy section was 28 to 29 inches.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

Source: Frontier


That’s less than what you’d find on most major carriers, where seat pitch is usually north of 30 inches. There weren’t any first-class or business-class seats, only “stretch” seats, where passengers can pay to get up to 38 inches of pitch.

Source: Business Insider


My personal item fit under the seat in front of me. I was worried about having to shell out an extra $US38 to upgrade it to a carry-on if a flight attendant deemed it too big, but no one even checked to see if it was within the proper dimensions.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

I looked up to find familiar aeroplane features like no-smoking signs and other indicators.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

There also weren’t any back-of-seat TV screens — the airline did away with them in 2015 to save weight on its aircraft. I usually keep busy on flights by watching movies, so I was a bit peeved that I couldn’t do that.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

Source: Business Insider


Luckily, I had the menus to entertain myself.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

Here’s another aspect of Frontier’s no-frills experience …

Katie Canales/Business Insider

… nothing is complimentary except water. Snacks and nonalcoholic drinks are $US2.99 a pop. Cocktails and spirits are $US7.99. I vowed to wait until we landed to find food.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

The approximately two-hour flight was uneventful and boring. We landed on time at Denver International Airport, where Frontier Airlines is based.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

Source: Frontier


I got a better look at the lawn-chair-looking seats on the way off the plane.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

I couldn’t get over how strange and outdated they looked. They also were far from comfortable and didn’t recline. My backside grew numb midway through the flight. And even if I’d been tired, sleep was out of the question.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

I disembarked from the first leg of my journey around 4:30 p.m. MT.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

The assigned gate for the next leg, A40, had passengers for other flights.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

I scoped out the area of the airport where I’d be spending the next four hours, give or take.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

I’ve never had such a lengthy layover while flying.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

My total travel time, from baggage drop-off in San Francisco to baggage claim in Austin, was about 10 hours.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

Four of those hours were spent wandering around the airport in Denver keeping myself busy.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

It’s not the worst airport to be stuck in though.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

The Wall Street Journal named Denver International Airport the best large airport in the country in 2018.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

Source: Denver Post


I grabbed a glass of wine at the Denver Chophouse & Brewery …

Katie Canales/Business Insider

… had way too much fun on those moving-walking-path things …

Katie Canales/Business Insider

… and meandered to an upper level with the airline lounges.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

I looked up to see passengers lounging comfortably in the exclusive airline clubs. Lucky ducks.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

I chose a row of cold, hard-lined seats instead …

Katie Canales/Business Insider

… and settled in for a long winter’s nap.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

But it was difficult to snooze with bright fluorescent lights shining down on me and with people walking by so often.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

So I watched Netflix to pass the time. I highly recommend Ellen Degeneres’ latest standup special.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

I grabbed some snacks from an airport shop before finally making it to my gate.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

This time my destination was displayed below the gate number. I was weary and tired at this point.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

I was again one of the last to board, since I was Zone 3.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

This plane was a 14-year-old Airbus A319. My seat this time was the window seat in row 23.

Frontier/Business Insider

Source: Air Fleets


I was looking at a seat pitch of 28 to 29 inches again, and seats were arranged in a 3-3 layout like before.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

Source: Frontier


The lawn chairs were back …

Katie Canales/Business Insider

… as were the microscopic tray tables.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

The legroom was the same …

Katie Canales/Business Insider

… and like last time, my personal item fit snugly under the seat in front of me without incident.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

Finally, at 11:02 p.m. CT, about 10 hours after I checked my suitcase in San Francisco, we landed in Austin. Home at last!

Katie Canales/Business Insider

Frontier had recently switched operations to the South Terminal of the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. I walked across the tarmac toward baggage claim, passing other Frontier aircraft.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

Source: KXAN


I didn’t have to wait long for my giant green suitcase to appear on the conveyor belt.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

And so my first experience flying Frontier came to an end.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

In short, it was … mediocre. Painfully mediocre.

Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Simply put, I got what I paid for.


Flying with a budget airline like Frontier seems to be the best option when you don’t have any bags to check or carry on …


… if you don’t value being served complimentary food and drinks on the flight …

Katie Canales/Business InsiderA complimentary cup of wine I got on a Hong Kong Airlines flight in 2018.

… and if you don’t mind long layovers.


Basically, if you’re all right with sacrificing the bells and whistles of flying, Frontier is an adequate, affordable option.

Source: Biz Journals


The airline of course doesn’t want you to sacrifice those things though. It tries to get you to pay for add-ons from the time you book to when you’re on the plane.


I could see flying with the airline as a good option for a quick trip, one that would entail maybe even being able to pack all of your belongings in a personal item.


That way, the only cost would be the base ticket.


If you have to check a bag or carry one on, as I had to, the cost of flying Frontier can equal or even surpass that of the full-service airlines.


My travel philosophy when it comes to booking is to fly whichever airline is offering the best deal or price, so these ultra-low-cost airlines are appealing.


They have made such a splash that major airlines like American, United, and Delta have adapted to cater to low-cost travellers, often by adding basic-economy fares to their flights.


Read my colleague Benjamin Zhang’s recent review of a Delta basic-economy experience »


I would fly with Frontier again, as long as the airline offered a good deal and I could travel light, with only a small personal item.


If you do the same, just be prepared for the compromises you have to make when you fly on an ultra-low-cost airline. And if you want to take full advantage of those benefits, don’t be tempted along the way by all the add-ons like paying to select your seat.

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