Earlier this spring, I did something pretty brave in my travels. To be fair, I’m already brave when it comes to air travel. After all, I fly with babies and toddlers. (Often! And voluntarily!). But this trip required even more of a leap of faith. I flew for the first time aboard one of the U.S. domestic ultra-low cost carriers, Frontier Airlines.
I’ve warned readers about the many traps for the unwary aboard ultra-low cost airlines. These airlines charge for everything: checked bags, carry on bags (!), drinks on-board, seat assignments, and much more. Frontier used to be an airline not unlike Southwest. It was known for being inexpensive and simple, but it was not bare bones either.
A few years ago, however, Frontier started adopting many of the features of the bargain basement airlines like Spirit and Allegiant. These other two airlines are sometimes a bit notorious for stranding passengers – often for days – because their small fleets have no room for error if a plane has a mechanical problem. Frontier seems to still be a step above but still avoided by most in the frequent flyer community. I’ve certainly heard a few horror stories from friends. But to be fair, I’ve personally experienced horror stories on many legacy airlines too (being stranded in Dallas by American at Christmas time a few years ago comes to mind). Stuff goes wrong in modern air travel no matter who you fly. Many of the complaints I’ve heard about Frontier are really a result of passengers not doing their research to understand the fees and (lack of) amenities before they book.
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So what made me consider Frontier for the first time? I was headed to Orlando for my annual conference at Walt Disney World with TravelingMom. Due to limited babysitting back home, my trip needed to be as quick as possible. This meant I really needed to take a redeye to minimize time away. Frontier is the only airline that flies redeye flights from SFO to MCO.
And it was cheap. Like less than half the price of United which is the only other airline that flies non-stop from the Bay Area to Orlando. Money talks.
I was traveling solo with just a carry on bag. If there was ever a time to give the airline a try, this was it.
The Booking Process on Frontier
I booked my flights on Frontier.com a few months in advance. (By the way, I always recommend booking directly with the airline and not with third party middlemen – much safer if something goes wrong). Booking was quick and easy. I also joined Frontier’s EarlyReturns frequent flyer program at the same time. You should never leave a frequent flyer mile on the table!
While booking, I paid for a seat assignment on my first flight (a $12 upcharge) to make sure I would have a window seat for more comfortable seating on my redeye. I decided to live dangerously on the return, opting not to pay for a seat assignment then. I also pre-purchased a carry on bag each way for an additional $60 ($30 one-way). My total roundtrip cost plus these extras? $268.40 – a total steal for a cross-country trip.
Communication from the airline before my trip was helpful and more than adequate compared to many airlines I’ve experienced. I received one email from Frontier several weeks after I booked informing me of a slight schedule change (that ultimately worked even better for my travel plans, so no problem). I also received an email a few days before my flight, prominently noting that paying for bags in advance would be cheaper if done online rather than at the airport – a nice reminder for passengers who might not have pre-booked bags as I had done. Then I also received a check-in reminder email 24 hours prior to my departure.
SFO to MCO on Frontier
On flight day, I got an email from Frontier before I left home (about 6 hours before flight time) telling me that my flight was delayed. Sounds like the start of another Frontier horror story, right? Perhaps, but the reality was that this delay was entirely the fault of San Francisco International Airport and weather. Every flight on every airline at SFO was delayed that day due to the all-too-common problem of low ceilings (basically: fog which affects how many flights can take off and land and delays the very busy airport quite regularly). This is why I avoid SFO when I can. I give credit, however, to Frontier for keeping me informed of delays at the very least.
I headed to the airport on time anyway since evening rush hour traffic had already cleared. I figured I could get some work done while I waited. I used my CLEAR cut-the-line service to speed through airport security (Frontier also added TSA Pre-Check participation as of last fall so you can now use that service too if you have it). Then I set up shop at the gate and waited while I worked.
Frontier staffs at airports pretty leanly so there was no one at the gate. Often smaller airlines have their staffs move from the check-in counters to gate agent positions so I suspect that was what was going on. But since all of us had been informed of the delay via email and it was listed on the board at the gate area, people were not too anxious.
We ended up leaving SFO over 2 hours late which I knew would eat into the very short time I had at Disney World. But we lucked into a seriously strong tailwind and pilots who were determined to make up as much time as possible on our trip. We were on the ground in MCO less than 1.5 hours late and I had crazy-good luck with the Magical Express which had me to my Disney hotel in record time.
The On-Board Experience on Frontier Airlines
How about the flight experience itself?
Seats. Once I boarded my flight, the first thing I noticed were the seats on Frontier. They are ultra-slim line. What does that mean? Minimal cushioning. I was worried they were going to be extremely uncomfortable. Surprisingly, I found them totally adequate for economy flying. I brought two travel pillows with me so I was able to get fairly cozy with little bit of extra space I had against the window. I actually got a bit of sleep on the short flight.
Tray Table. The only thing that was slightly laughable about Frontier was the tray table. It was big enough for a drink but that was about it. There was definitely no room to use a laptop on it and even an iPad would have been a stretch. Since my first flight was a redeye, it didn’t matter because I was planning to sleep. On the return flight, I used one of my two travel pillows as a lap desk to work on my laptop.
Fellow Passengers. Because of Frontier’s reputation as a budget airline, you are not likely to be flying with the frequent flyer crowd. Depending on your perspective, that might be good or bad. I found the clientele to be fairly similar to what I see on Southwest, with a lot of budget-conscious leisure travelers and some families. There was a big group of high schoolers headed to a dance team competition on my first flight but that was probably more a function of our Orlando destination than the airline. They weren’t perfectly behaved at the gate area but I didn’t notice them at all on board as a problem. I sat next to a nice gentleman headed to Orlando for a work conference. In short, the passengers were not as much of an issue as I feared.
Service. For the most part, I found the service aboard Frontier Airlines as good if not a bit better than many domestic airlines. The pilots on both of my flights to and from Orlando put on a bit of a comedy routine over the loudspeaker that was cute and made everyone laugh. The flight attendants were friendly and kind (not Southwest level, but certainly a significant improvement on the surly service I often encounter on United). Of course, the service can be good when flight attendants have less to do. Because Frontier charges for snacks as well as all beverages except water, most passengers turn down beverage and snack service. The flight attendants arguably don’t have as many duties as they might on a mainline carrier.
Other Amenities. Looking for amenities on-board your flight? You won’t find them on Frontier. There is no in-flight entertainment. There’s also no WiFi for purchase. Drinks and snacks (other than water) cost extra. There’s no in-seat power ports. As long as you know all that in advance as I did, the experience isn’t so bad. There are cheap and easy ways around all of these issues. Bring your own food and drinks. Buy a portable battery pack for your iPhone or tablet to recharge it and pre-load it with a few movies or games. Frankly these are things my family does already when we travel with kids because you never know when an airline amenity will be unavailable or broken or when food will sell out.
My Return & the Final Verdict
My return trip on Frontier from MCO to SFO was very similar to my first flight experience. We had about a 2 hour delay but this time it was due to scheduled runway construction at SFO (I swear, that airport is going to be the death of me). Again, Frontier kept me well-informed of the delay. Frontier is located in a terminal at MCO that has a “The Club” lounge which takes Priority Pass memberships, so I spent the delay comfortably consuming free snacks.
My final verdict? I’d fly Frontier again if the schedule worked for me as it did this trip. I’d even do it with kids. It saved me a ton of money and it was just fine in terms of the on-board experience. That’s about all I ask for in domestic economy flying today.
Tips for Flying Frontier Airlines
If you are thinking about flying Frontier Airlines too, here are a few tips for the best experience.
1. Do Your Research: Make sure you know what you are getting into when flying a budget airline like Frontier. Think about whether you will check bags, how many carry ons you need, etc. Calculate the cost of all the extras to get a fair price comparison with other airlines. Know what amenities you will have (and more likely not) so you can take steps to prepare.
2. Pack Smart: Since you have done your research, prepare accordingly. Pack plenty of snacks for you and your kids and buy any drinks you might want in the airport beforehand to save money. Load up your devices with any in-flight entertainment you might needs and bring an external battery charger to make sure your smartphone or tablet never runs out of juice.
3. Buy all Bags in Advance: If you are going to check a back or bring a carry on larger than an personal item, pay for them at least 24 hours in advance online. You’ll save money.
4. Consider Paying for Seats: While solo travelers like me might be willing to chance it without pre-selecting seats, if you are traveling with kids, consider paying for seat assignments. The stress of perhaps being separated is not worth the cost savings.
5. Download the Frontier App: Having airline apps on your phone is always helpful for tracking delays and for checking in for your flight while on the go. Frontier’s is basic, but I used it for flight notifications as well as for my mobile boarding pass.