- Frontier Airlines is one of many ultra-low-cost airlines in the US offering passengers cheaper flights than what major carriers charge.
- But are some catches to flying on a budget airline, especially one that has often been ranked as one of the worst in the country.
- I recently flew from San Francisco to Austin, Texas, aboard a Frontier flight.
- Here’s why it was a painfully mediocre experience – and why I would still most likely do it again, under certain conditions.
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.
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.
Flying on an ultra-low-cost airline entails not paying much for the flights themselves …
… but paying for literally everything else, like carry-on bags, seat selections, and in-flight Coca-Colas.
Frontier has also on several occasions been ranked as one of the country’s worst airlines.
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.
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.
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.
I punched in my destination details in the Frontier app to look for flights.
These were my search results. I opted for the one-way flight for $US178.80.
The itinerary required a four-hour layover in Denver, which I wasn’t thrilled about.
But the ticket was cheap for the busy and expensive holiday season.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I checked in 24 hours before departure, and my mobile boarding passes appeared in my Frontier app.
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.
So I showed up to San Francisco International Airport at 10 a.m., about three hours before my scheduled departure.
I found a row of Frontier self-service kiosks when I walked in.
I had my mobile boarding pass …
… 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.
But the kiosk spat my boarding passes out at me without asking for payment.
I collected my boarding passes and headed to the ticket counter to check my suitcase.
To my right I could see the ticket counter for Southwest Airlines …
… and to my left was Delta’s. Even from afar I could see the counter decked out in Christmas decorations.
My airline’s counter was a tad less festive. It was about 10:30 at this point, and the counter was unstaffed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The attendant said that Frontier employees who work the ticket counter also double as gate agents.
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.
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.
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.
I had the lowly “Zone 3” stamped on my boarding pass, so I waited my turn to queue at the gate.
This was only the beginning of the wait time I’d endure throughout the day.
Onward to the cabin!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I looked up to find familiar aeroplane features like no-smoking signs and other indicators.
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.
Source: Business Insider
Luckily, I had the menus to entertain myself.
Here’s another aspect of Frontier’s no-frills experience …
… 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.
The approximately two-hour flight was uneventful and boring. We landed on time at Denver International Airport, where Frontier Airlines is based.
I got a better look at the lawn-chair-looking seats on the way off the plane.
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.
I disembarked from the first leg of my journey around 4:30 p.m. MT.
The assigned gate for the next leg, A40, had passengers for other flights.
I scoped out the area of the airport where I’d be spending the next four hours, give or take.
I’ve never had such a lengthy layover while flying.
My total travel time, from baggage drop-off in San Francisco to baggage claim in Austin, was about 10 hours.
Four of those hours were spent wandering around the airport in Denver keeping myself busy.
It’s not the worst airport to be stuck in though.
The Wall Street Journal named Denver International Airport the best large airport in the country in 2018.
Source: Denver Post
I grabbed a glass of wine at the Denver Chophouse & Brewery …
… had way too much fun on those moving-walking-path things …
… and meandered to an upper level with the airline lounges.
I looked up to see passengers lounging comfortably in the exclusive airline clubs. Lucky ducks.
I chose a row of cold, hard-lined seats instead …
… and settled in for a long winter’s nap.
But it was difficult to snooze with bright fluorescent lights shining down on me and with people walking by so often.
So I watched Netflix to pass the time. I highly recommend Ellen Degeneres’ latest standup special.
I grabbed some snacks from an airport shop before finally making it to my gate.
This time my destination was displayed below the gate number. I was weary and tired at this point.
I was again one of the last to board, since I was Zone 3.
This plane was a 14-year-old Airbus A319. My seat this time was the window seat in row 23.
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.
The lawn chairs were back …
… as were the microscopic tray tables.
The legroom was the same …
… and like last time, my personal item fit snugly under the seat in front of me without incident.
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!
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.
I didn’t have to wait long for my giant green suitcase to appear on the conveyor belt.
And so my first experience flying Frontier came to an end.
In short, it was … mediocre. Painfully mediocre.
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 …
… 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.
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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