As a Southwest devotee and generally unpicky flier, I'm of the opinion that these days there is little distinction between most "budget" or "low cost" airlines and their more expensive legacy carrier counterparts. Accordingly, I was all about giving new kid on the block Allegiant Air a fair shot. A plane's a plane, right?
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Know Before You Go
Allegiant Air offers rock-bottom prices on a variety of infrequently scheduled leisure flights between tourist destinations and, well, non-tourist destinations. Endpoint airports include Orlando Sanford, Las Vegas McCarran, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood, and Phoenix-Mesa and service continues to expand. Start point airports can be found all across the United States but are concentrated in the northern half, pretty much wherever it gets cold in winter. Allegiant flies almost entirely to and from small regional airports as opposed to major international ones. We paid about $200 for our round-trip fares which is the definitely the high end for Allegiant. I've browsed around on the website on multiple occasions and regularly seen prices as low as $29 each way.
Allegiant has adopted the unusual business model of flying to and from each destination only once or twice per week at undesirable times of the day. Our flight, for example, was scheduled to depart from South Bend, Indiana on 11:10 a.m. on a Friday and return from Florida on 8:00 a.m. on a Monday. If we hadn't been willing to come back so soon our only option would have been to wait for the subsequent Friday morning. This erratic schedule is likely used because Allegiant has only forty planes in its fleet. From what I've heard this means if your designated plane has technical difficulties or a weather delay, you're out of luck for getting a new one any time soon because there simply aren't aircraft to spare.
Like many other airlines these days, Allegiant Air charges a fee for the first checked bag. At a whopping $35.00 for a single suitcase, most folks will want to avoid this expense. Additional fees also apply for advance seat selection and priority boarding, neither of which seems to be worth it since guests are assigned a seat at check-in.
Check-In and Boarding (AKA "My Own Personal Hell")
Oh boy. To be fair, the mess was not entirely Allegiant's fault. Judging from the conversations and mass chaos around us, it appeared that many of our fellow travelers were on their first flight, which always contributes to a mess at check-in and boarding.
Most of the blame for my nightmare, however, does go to Allegiant. On our outgoing flight, the check-in desk didn't even open for the day until after 9:00 a.m. which resulted in long lines for checking luggage and obtaining seat assignments. The incompetent gate staff could barely read the pre-boarding announcement and placed absolutely no restrictions on who could pre-board. This meant that approximately 50% of the plane decided to pre-board, including solo adult travelers and families with kids in their upper teens, thereby completely undermining the point of pre-boarding. Worse, the pre-boarders were asked to line up when the plane was 25 minutes away, so legitimate pre-boarders with canes and walkers were forced to stand in the middle of the terminal for a half-hour.
When the time finally came for the rest of us to pile on, we learned that the plane was being boarded simultaneously through the front and the back with no real plan or strategy. We were escorted outside in the twenty degree cold (South Bend has exterior boarding) only to encounter a fifteen minute queue to actually get on the plane. Because seats are assigned, folks were boarding in the back and trying to get to Row 1 or boarding through the front to get to Row 40. Due to the exorbitant rate for bag-checking, overhead space was non-existent which increased the delay. All told, boarding the airplane took an astonishing hour and twenty-five minutes. Good thing they didn't have any other flights to get out that entire day.
To be fair, I should note that our embarkation at Orlando-Sanford was handled more efficiently as the gate attendant boarded the plane several rows at a time. Still, though, the process moved slower than on any other commercial airline I've flown in recent years. People (not me) complain about Southwest's boarding process, but at least they have a system, as pretty much all other major carriers. In contrast, Allegiant seems to have given literally no thought whatsoever as to the best way to get folks on and off an airline.
Our planes, as are all of Allegiant's, were MD-80 aircraft with a five-across configuration. Allegiant's fleet is on the older side, and we could tell that both our planes had seen better days. They were noticeably noisier than the average commercial plane, to the point that I thought there was a problem until I got used to the dull roar. Allegiant's planes aren't all that well maintained, either. I noticed immediately upon boarding that our fjrst aircraft was much dirtier than the Southwest planes I have grown accustomed to. There was dust in the overhead compartments and sticky residue on the carpet. The seats, thankfully, were leather or some imitation thereof, which rarely seems too dirty. Overall, I felt dingy and ready for a shower after spending time with Allegiant.
Anything or anything one wants to obtain in-flight will come with an extra charge. I mean everything. Expect to pay at least $2.00 for your coke, $4.00 for your bag of pretzels, and $5.00 for your snack pack. I don't really mind this system since I tend to carry my own snacks, although it would be nice to receive a bottle of water. The lack of a free beverage service did keep the aisle blissfully clear of the obtrusive beverage cart for most of the flight. Unlike the gate staff, the flight attendants seemed at least minimally competent.
One thing that passengers will either love or hate is Allegiant's in-flight lottery. My mom loved it, I found it irritating. Flight attendants hawk tickets in $5.00, $10.00, and $20.00 increments and raffle off destination-related trinkets along with a fairly substantial cash prize. To be fair, I'd probably think the raffle concept was great if we'd won even so much as a keychain.
Both our outgoing and returning flights departed late, thanks primarily to the sloooow boarding process. We made up time in the air each way and ended up about an hour late to our destination and a half hour late on the return trip. This isn't bad, but it is irritating that the delay seemed to result totally and completely from incompetence and not from, for example, bad weather or heavy airport traffic.
So apparently all low-cost airlines are not created equal. I rarely say this, but my general Allegiant Air experience was so stressful I probably won't be flying with this airline again despite how cheap it is. If you're a laid-back traveler on a very flexible schedule, give Allegiant a try. For me, though, the savings offered simply don't justify dealing with oddly timed flights, remotely located airports, dirty planes, and the most chaotic boarding process I've ever experienced.
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