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Tampa/St. Pete via Allegiant from Greenville, SC (LCC TRIP REPORT)

Tampa/St. Pete via Allegiant from Greenville, SC (LCC TRIP REPORT)

Old Apr 22, 09, 2:25 am
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Tampa/St. Pete via Allegiant from Greenville, SC (LCC TRIP REPORT)

In my continuing quest to provide fairness and balance to all these TRs to exciting destinations, here's another in what's bound to be a series of more-mundane trips brought on by pinched incomes and the bad economy.

In a previous installment I did a same-day RT on Spirit Airlines from Atlanta to FLL, spending 10 or so hours in FLL before flying back. I got to the beach and downtown entirely on public transit, cutting my total transit outlay there to $3.

This time Allegiant Air was the LCC. They don't fly out of ATL, but they do serve Greenville, SC, and Chattanooga (about 165 miles and 120 miles, respectively, from where I am).

Booked far enough in advance to secure $19 each way from GSP (Greenville) to PIE (St. Pete/Clearwater) on a Friday-to-Sunday trip. That seems to be at or near the floor, barring some extraordinary sale. If you want Friday-to-Sunday you generally need a sale, a low volume month and some lead time on your booking to get $19 on both legs.

All-in total came to $68.20, including their totally bogus $13+ "convenience fee" for online bookings. They're trying to imitate TicketMaster "logic" and say that, because there's some "free" option (an airport ticket counter), booking online should have a "convenience fee." As if helping them to save on labor costs by doing something on the Internet should command a premium rather than a discount. That's backwards, of course, but they know that and do it anyway. Adding the amount to the fare instead would be too straightforward.

It was also an obstacle course online to book without optional add-ons, not unlike Spirit but maybe even more so.

In trying to check in online within the 24-hour window I found that that's only do-able if you've bought a reserved seat. If you want an unassigned one you have to wait in the check-in line, even with no bags to check. No kiosks either, at least in GSP. I can understand if kiosks aren't affordable to them yet, but not having online check-in for everyone in the 24-hour window is a deficiency they ought to work on. As is now, it's lose-lose for both the customer and the airline.

GSP is undoubtedly one of the country's best-landscaped airports and an unhurried delight compared to ATL. It looks like one of Allegiant's more successful markets, but the check-in operation there is still pretty primitive. For unassigned seats they print the boarding passes ahead of time and hand them out at the counter, with separate lines for separate flights and seat assignments done on whiteboard or paper and written on the boarding pass for those who check in with an unassigned seat. Reminds me of how Philippine Airlines did their domestic flights some 15 years ago.

The trip on the way down was near 100% full. The aircraft was an MD-80, a hand-me-down from Finnair. Compared to the newer A319s Spirit flies, I'd rate Allegiant as far better on the seats but far worse on the bins. The seats were pretty well padded under the blue leather, much more so than Spirit's. Seat pitch was frugal but, notably, the seat design had the lower pockets taken out and any materials put in a slot in the UPPER part of the seatback behind the tray. This helped greatly in keeping the seat off my knee. Also, none of the seats reclined, which was also helpful under the circumstances. Seat reclines are not designed for the frugal seat pitches that LCCs have.

Bins were another story and another big ding against Allegiant, at least for the MD-80. They were old-style, lacking in both height and depth. A standard rolling bag that fit the sizing unit could not go in lengthwise and had to be turned sideways, and if you overstuffed it the height would be a problem, too.

For every 2 rows (10 total seats using the 2-3 config on the MD-80) there was room for only FOUR rolling bags that would all have to be turned sideways, plus a jacket or two. Much worse than Spirit, which could hold at least 6 and probably more with the A319.

Add to that the possibility of having to pay a $35 "gate check fee" (announced by the gate person) if you don't get bin space before it fills and you have a perfect recipe for an uncivil boarding process reminiscent of the Southwest cattle calls of old. Their fee structure encourages the frugal to take a carry-on, but then they don't have enough space and it's like lifeboats on the Titanic. Fortunately the folks in Greenville were a generally mellow bunch and included some families who had just gone ahead & checked bags. That costs $15 in advance and $25 at the airport.

Drink prices didn't seem too bad as long as they maintain the $2 tier for soft drinks and bottled water. Beer/wine was $5 and mixed drinks looked like the profit center at $7, though the standard FA spiel included warning that BYOBooze wasn't allowed and they couldn't serve to anyone who looks intoxicated. Not likely an issue for a 70-minute GSP-PIE flight, but I know they've got longer routes out west to Vegas where it's more likely to come up.

The flight was pleasant enough, though the approach to PIE seemed to follow an odd, quick-descent pattern that might've been mandated for the sake of noise abatement. The PIE airport is small enough and quaint enough to make GSP look high tech, as boarding is via stairs on the front and back (the front ones being a portable zig-zag ramp), and then you walk outside to the door for the gate. No frills.

But it's quick to get in and out, and Allegiant is trying to make it a "hub".

Smaller airports can be much more pleasant to use. But I still had to keep my own financial imperatives in mind, and the critical thing that's often a deal-breaker on planning the trip is car-rental costs. Thankfully the Alamo $10-per-weekend-day deal was available at PIE, and I had booked 48 hours in a compact at $29.20 all-in after taxes & junk. The car-rent counters are right in the baggage-claim area, and they hand you the keys, you go across the street and just drive it off the lot. Very convenient there.

I had probably stayed in Pinellas County (St. Pete or Clearwater) every time for the last 7 times in that general area. But this time, ironically, with the first time flying into Pinellas I was staying over in Tampa. Had been following betterbidding.com and looking at prices and had decided to bid Priceline at 4* and 3* level for a few more bucks before dropping down to my usual 2*-for-$30-ish strategy that usually lands an extended-stay place, if lucky.

The bid strategy paid off, getting the 4* Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay on the bay near the airport at $46 bid, or $111 all-in for 2 nights. It was the first 4-star I'd ever gotten via Priceline. The building was easy to spot, but the roads, thanks to construction, were tricky to navigate to get in. Which might have a lot to do with getting the price.

Amazingly, they even assigned a room on the bay view side on the 7th floor, looking out over the sunsets and all. (Another personal first: getting a "view" room via Priceline when non-view ones were available) The hotel had a swampy nature preserve with a boardwalk and a gazebo that were nice. The jacuzzi outdoors was too small in proportion to the hotel size, but the popular pool area was about right.

I won't go into too much detail about all the activities out and about, since the main goal of this is to report about flying Allegiant Air for a first time and relay the observations there. Was happy to see that the original Shells Seafood on Dale Mabry in Tampa still lives on, despite the chain going out of business. They have the clammiest clam chowder anywhere, IMO, and it's a fave.

Rays baseball tickets seemed to have increased (winning an AL championship has a way of doing that) and $13 looked to be the cheapest. But I'm sure attendance is way up, and certainly the free-parking deal is now just a memory.

The annual "record store day" allowed indie record stores (those that are left) to try to do something special. Bananas Records in St. Petersburg is a real sleeper of a place, being tucked away in a warehouse area and in a nondescript building, but holding some 3 million or so LPs, more even than the much more famous and visible Amoeba Music in California. For an LP like a Beatle record, they might have 10 different copies in their stacks. They do a big Internet business but are very low-visibility for walk-ins. Unfortunately their pricing is according to guidebooks that tend to be way too high for bargain hunters' liking, so generally you have to really, really want the item. But they may have more vinyl records in one place than anywhere in the world.

Oldsmar Flea Market in Oldsmar is another shopping experience unique enough for a visit, as it has tons of booths in a converted set of warehouse rows. The whole thing is sprawling and grew up haphazardly, but the tattiness is key to keeping up a motley retail mix that can produce bargains that other, higher-rent and more controlled settings can't.

On beaches I favor Manatee County just to the south, as parking is free, facilities are good and the beach is "competitive" now that they've re-done it (Anna Maria Island used to be very eroded).

Anyway, the flight back was around 95% full, but thankfully on time. Overall I'd say Allegiant Air was not without its problems, but had some good things going for it as well. The business model of targeting underserved airports and leisure travelers might have some potential, especially in markets like GSP with some proximity to bigger cities.

Last edited by RustyC; Apr 22, 09 at 2:45 am
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Old Apr 22, 09, 2:58 am
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Thanks for the review - I've always wondered what the PIE experience was like but never had any compelling reason to investigate. It's odd, it seems most everyone who flies frequently at TPA knows it exists but the tiny number of cities serviced keeps it well under the radar when searching for flights.
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