Ultra low-cost airline carriers, such as Spirit Airlines, hook you in with really cheap fares like $19 one-way flights. Its not a scam, you really can fly miles above the earths surface from around just $19 each way per person (or perhaps even cheaper with a kids fly free deal tacked on if youre flying Frontier).
But, as you likely know, the total price to fly can also easily go up dramatically from there with ancillary fees. One way the true total cost to fly can jump up in a hurry is if you start paying for checked or carry-on bags. These fees to even just bring your own full-sized carry-on bag on the plane can easily top $37 to $40 or more per person, per direction of travel.
But you dont have to pay those fees. If you can pack just the essentials using a backpack or similar, you can enjoy the heck out of your inexpensive airline ticket and leave the fee-paying to other passengers.
Related: Everything you should know before flying Spirit Airlines
Now to be fair, I love stuffing my Rimowa carry-on and personal-sized purse or backpack to the brim when bags are included in my airline ticket. However, Ive also learned to forgo my regular full-sized carry-on in favor of a free Spirit Airlines-approved carry-on when necessary.
When you fly Spirit Airlines, you can bring on a personal item up to 18 x 14 x 8 inches on board for free while a full-sized carry-on will cost you $37 to $65, depending on when and where you purchase the right to bring the bag on board. (Prices slightly less for $9 Fare Club members.)
If its just me for a short trip and Im flying Spirit Airlines, Im not paying for a bag if I can help it. Instead, Im going to pack for a Spirit Airlines free personal carry-on. Heres how.
For more TPG news and travel tips delivered each morning to your inbox, sign up for our free daily newsletter.
Related: Avoid bag fees with these credit cards
Choose the right bag
First things first, you need the right bag to avoid Spirit Airlines bag fees. I have used my much-loved Sole Society Tote with regularity, but a regular backpack can work, too, as long as it is within the set parameters.
Ive found that small traditional backpacks, such as the one an average middle schooler might take to school, are pretty good about staying within those size guidelines. Many of the fancier and larger backpacks are technically too large. However, Spirit Airlines doesnt have a reputation for being overly strict with requiring passengers to stay exactly within the size guidelines.
Wearing my trusty Samsonite Modern Utility Double Shot Backpack (sized at 12 x 8 x 18 with a laptop compartment) has worked wonders when avoiding carry-on bag fees. Ive even been known to use a Mickey backpack from time to time which works especially great if you are heading to a quick trip to Disney World.
Related: Just how small is the free Spirit Airlines carry-on
Going over the stated measurements an inch here or there with a bag you are wearing or carrying probably wont be a big deal with Spirit. However, straying too far from the stated maximum sizes for a free personal carry-on item may cost you, so we dont recommend that approach. If you arent sure where to start, heres a look at some of our favorite carry-on backpacks.
Now that you have your Spirit Airlines-approved personal carry-on bag identified, you get to stuff it full with your absolute essentials. And I mean, the absolute essentials.
For me, this often means a laptop, wallet, a tightly rolled change of clothes and then several smaller bags that will each hold specific items. I have one bag for my computer cords, one for my smaller clothing items like pajama shorts, underwear, etc., a bag for make-up and a final bag for toiletries.
I dont want any of those items loose in my small personal carry-on item, nor do I want them mingling with each other. If you dont need special toiletries or make-up, then youll have more space for clothes than I usually do.
When you are packing for a free Spirit Airlines personal carry-on, you probably are only going to bring one pair of shoes the ones on your feet. Occasionally I can also sneak a pair of extra flats into my bag, but thats about it. Youll also want to carry your coat on board, if needed, even if its warm where youre starting from.
Diaper bags fly free
Its OK to skimp on how many shoes or hair products you travel with, but you dont want to skimp on supplies for your young kids. Fortunately, an infant diaper bag can also come aboard for free assuming you are flying with a baby.
You never want to run out of formula, kid-friendly snacks, diapers, wipes and a change of clothes for a little one on a flight. Kiddos can also bring a car seat and stroller along for free.
Consider paying for one bag for the family
Only you know your budget but if you are flying Spirit without little kids for a short weekend trip, it can be realistic to avoid Spirit bag fees and pack everything in a free Spirit carry-on especially if youre going somewhere arm. If youre flying with little kids or are heading on a longer trip, I think its worth it to pay to check or carry-on at least one bag for the family.
Everyone can still have their free personal item, but then pack additional items in the shared larger bag that you pay to bring. Just book the bag in advance online to pay the lowest rate. If you have a credit card with an annual travel credit, this could be a good way to use some of that credit. In fact, Im switching my Amex airline fee credit selection to an ultra low-cost carrier for this very reason.
Related: A look at the affordable Amazon Basics luggage line
The one downside to be aware of when loading up a free Spirit personal item to the max is that it might get really heavy. I was able to bring most everything I would have brought along if I packed in my regular roller carry-on on a recent two-night trip, but the difference was I was carrying all of that weight on my arm instead of rolling it behind me.
I would guess my bag ended up weighing close to 20 pounds, and after a while of carrying that on your arm, it starts to get uncomfortable. It would have been easier if I had gone the backpack route on that trip, rather than the tote.
Just be sure and factor in the weight you will be carrying to the equation, especially if you have any physical limitations, are managing young children or simply have to walk a very long distance before you get somewhere where you can unpack.
In many cases you dont need to pay to bring bags on board a Spirit Airlines flight, you just need to know how to pack for the free Spirit Airlines carry-on bag.
Featured image courtesy of Airbus