Flying the Frugal Skies

My mom has a knack for stirring the pot. This year she decided to rally family from around the country to celebrate her birthday… in Florida. A state none of us actually live in.

So you can imagine my (and my mom's) delight when I discovered a non-stop flight to Orlando on West Michigan's newest budget carrier, Allegiant Air, on which I was quoted a mere $78 round trip.

My trip last month opened my eyes to the world of cut-rate air travel -- where the airline may hold 50/50 raffles during the flight so one lucky passenger can recoup his or her fare before landing, suggests travelers bring their own snacks and beverages on board to save a few bucks, and asks passengers to pitch in on a few light housekeeping duties to keep operating costs low.

It's not for everybody, but it seems to have hit the right note in West Michigan. Next month Allegiant Air will launch its fifth non-stop route from the Gerald R. Ford International Airport, not too shabby having started operations only nine months ago.

Allegiant Air initially chose Lansing over Grand Rapids as the site for their Michigan operations but decided to relocate here because of "a little too much competition" from other airlines in the capital city, says Sabrina LoPiccolo, Allegiant's public relations/promotions manager. The airline, a subsidiary of Las Vegas-based Allegiant Travel Co., tends to shy away from competition, because it reduces the company's ability to control pricing.

"Even before they were in Lansing, we talked to them about the possibility of service in Grand Rapids," says Phil Johnson, deputy executive director at the airport. "We always got a polite welcome, but not a lot of interest until the last few years."

Since 1997, Allegiant Air has been steadily carving a niche in the domestic leisure travel market, connecting nearly 70 small and mid-size cities to "world-class destinations."  During the past nine months in West Michigan, Allegiant has steadily increased the number of destination cities, now offering direct flights from Grand Rapids to Orlando, Tampa, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and beginning November 13, Ft. Lauderdale.

"Not only are we getting you to places you want to go, but we're getting you low fares," LoPiccolo says. "We've had an overwhelming response. It really says volumes that we announced service to two destinations and since then have at least doubled."

The real mystery is how Allegiant can afford to offer rock-bottom fares and stay airborne in one of the nation's toughest economies.

"We are no frills," LoPiccolo says. "Customers can choose to pay for things they want. You only pay for the things you want." But the cost of flying Allegiant can start to creep up steadily if you don't think ahead. Take it from me because I paid about 40 percent more for my trip by not planning.

It starts with how you buy your ticket. After searching various airlines for mom's birthday celebration in Orlando, I decided Allegiant was the hands down favorite with a round-trip base fare of $78 and non-stop flights running nearly every day. No weird standby schedules or blackout periods.

Unfortunately, anyone who travels by air has to pay additional fees. Together federal tax, passenger facility charge (PFC), segment fee, and 911 fee – all unavoidable – added $24 to my fare.

But Allegiant also tacks on an extra $14 for tickets purchased online. If you buy your tickets over the phone, this fee plus an additional $10 per "segment" – defined as one take-off and one landing – is assessed. The only way to get around the convenience fees is to visit the airport and buy your ticket in person.

I opted out, but customers can also choose their seat online for another $14 and elect priority boarding for $5.
Thinking about checking a bag? Don't. LoPiccolo's advice holds true: "If you check a bag, you pay for it." Customers can take one carry-on under 9" x 14" x 22" and one personal item – purse, briefcase, laptop or diaper bag – 9" x 16" x 19" or smaller on the plane.
After years of flying indirect routes, I only travel with carry-on luggage. So I was a little peeved when a mysterious website glitch made it impossible for me to deselect the "check bag" option, incurring a $30 fee. Allegiant could not refund my money because I did not call within 24 hours, though it did credit me the $30 for a future Allegiant Air flight. 

Flight Day
I like to live on the edge, so I ill-advisedly arrived at the airport just an hour before take-off. Allegiant officially recommends checking in two hours prior to departure, and there is an advantage to following this advice: you may score the exit row for free, which I did on my return flight.

Still stung by that $14 convenience fee, I wasn't about to pay for parking, so my friend dropped me at the terminal.  After impressing security personnel with my 3-1-1 kit, purchased at Meijer, and powdered mineral make-up ("I see somebody's flown before!"), I buy a bottle of water and settle in at the gate.

"The passengers do some of the work," a fellow passenger informs me as we queue up to board, and then we are all invited to tear our own board passes.

I find my seat on the 150-passenger MD-80 series jet. Stowing my bag under the blue plastic, non-reclining seat in front of me, I settle in for my flight. It's then that I notice the smart passengers brought their own snacks and beverages, just like at the movies, except they weren't sneaking them through the door. Allegiant encourages passengers to bring their own food and drink, within reason.
Sadly, I didn't plan ahead, and the only reading material on the plane was a brochure with brightly-colored snacks. Ever susceptible to advertising, I drop $5 on a Snack Pack that, surprisingly, turns out to be a lot better than most airline food. Vegan "butter" cookies notwithstanding, I recommend anyone with dietary restrictions to pack his or her own food.

Get Ready to Raffle
With 45 minutes left of the 2 1/2-hour flight to Orlando, I am roused from my nap by the roar of an Amazon flight attendant, crackling over the loudspeaker WWF-style: "Are yooooouuuu reaaaaadyyyyyy??!!" She's answered by the hoots and cheers of Allegiant flyers who, unlike me, know what's coming: the 50/50 raffle.

Tickets cost $5 for 10, or $10 for 30. A neighboring passenger and I each put up $5 and split the 30 tickets. Half the money collected pays for Allegiant logo merchandise, which some passengers win as prizes, and the rest is given away as cash. "No frills" to the end, the flight attendant draws the winning ticket from a crumpled plastic Meijer bag. The winner on my flight takes home $120 and a free mini bottle of booze. 

Other than the raffle, my flight to Orlando is fairly uneventful, just the way I like my air travel.

After touchdown, the crew politely asks us to buckle our seatbelts before leaving and pull down the shades. By asking for assistance from travelers, the crew is able to deplane and board the next flight in just 40 minutes, LoPiccolo says.

With no back-of-seat pouches to "accidentally" leave trash or magazines in, the crew doesn't have to spend much time tidying up the plane for the next flight. The airline does not overnight crews, which further reduces costs.

Serving a Niche
Despite Allegiant Air's limited amenities, local travelers have warmly embraced the budget airline.

In less than one year, the company has transported 81,000 passengers, lowered average fares paid by West Michigan flyers by more than 35 percent, and saved the community more than $3 million through low fares, LoPiccolo reports.

"West Michigan has welcomed them in," says Johnson. "From what we can tell it's been a tremendous success."

In addition to low cost flights, Allegiant offers bundled vacation packages on their website, a one-stop-shop  where customers can book hotels, rent cars, and arrange activities.
"We consider ourselves a travel company, not just an airline," LoPiccolo explains. "If you're going to Las Vegas, you can get your show tickets from us. If you're going to Florida you can get amusement park tickets . We package everything."

This translates into affordability and added value for the customer, LoPiccolo says. It's also a way for the company "to rise above the rest and shine." 

Stationed at the company's Las Vegas headquarters, LoPiccolo says she can see why Allegiant Air has taken off so quickly in West Michigan. 

"I know how cold it gets. I've been there in February, so I can see the appeal."

Ruth Terry is a freelance writer living in the East Hills neighborhood. She also works as a grant writer for an international nonprofit organization.


Ruth Terry freelance writer

Grand Rapid International Arport

Allegiant Air (2)

Grand Rapids International Airport

Photographs by Joshua Tyron -All Rights Reserved
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