Basic Economy vs Economy: A Beginners Guide

Here’s hoping every travel site will be proactive in differentiating between "basic economy" and "economy" soon—because if you’re going to be relegated to Group 9, you’ll want to mentally prepare.

At first, Basic Economy doesn’t seem like a bad thing. If your primary objective is to get from point A to point B, why worry about frills of any kind? But the problem arises when you’re unaware of just how minimal some of these offerings can be.

Between limited or fee-only seat assignments, no group or family seating, being last to board, baggage and overhead bin restrictions, here are some tips if you choose to try to save money and have more time:

The brief:

Delta was the first U.S. airline to launch basic economy, in 2012, and United and American came out with their own versions more recently.

Basic Economy, in a nut shell, is if prices sound too good to be true, they usually aren’t true. So, it’s essentially about embracing the process not about embracing the price.

Basic Economy class fares, which usually don’t come with seat assignments:

When airlines promote they are making basic economy flights available worldwide, it’s more of a defensive product than it is an offensive product, as they know that it is bait to spark interest upon prospective travelers and allows them the competitive edge they need in comparison to ultra-low-cost carriers with no-frills fares.

The ability to collect loyalty points that can’t be changed:

◦ Elite status and co-branded Airline Credit cards are the best remedy for a painful economy flight.

◦ You only have to have an airline specific co-branded credit card or elite travel card to benefit when flying basic economy, but you don’t have to necessarily purchase your ticket with the card all the time to get perks.

◦ Specifically, these passengers who have access to co-branded cards maintain the baggage allowance and boarding zone provided by their elite status or eligible credit card. Some cards provide the first bag checked free on domestic flights, preferred boarding and a carry-on bag.

◦ Be wary, in addition to fuel charges and airport fees, some airlines will charge you just to use the miles. According to Airfare Watchdog, Continental and Delta charge $75 to book a flight with miles if it’s too last-minute (3 days on Continental, 22 days on Delta).

The best ways to spot these stripped-down fares and avoid them:

◦ Always read the fine-print when looking to see what potential upgrades may be. Time is money and money is time. Take the time to do this to save more money. I suggest you do what I do. For example, when I fly with airlines such as Delta, I arrive 2 hours prior to take off, rather then 60-90 minutes. With that said, wearing a blazer or looking somewhat professional while asking an airline representative if they have any volunteer opportunities to give up my seat for $XXX puts you on their radar and when you end up boarding, they will offer that you get on the next flight for the amount you offered to give up your seat (if the flight is overbooked and the price you volunteered was competitive to other passengers who also volunteered to give up theirs) or they may even bump you to Comfort Plus, and one time, I even was bumped to Business Class — for no additional cost.

◦ Always consider the time of day, season, holidays, carrier and airlines in competition with one another when comparing the best flights. Use Google Flights or Hopper to track the best timing that may work for purchasing a basic economy flight.

◦ There is a sweet spot between 3-6 months of your prospective date of flying that your flight is usually the most affordable and there is more flexibility for the best rates.

◦ Subscribe to online travel magazines or your favorite airline of choice. Often times, you may get an update such as that an Airline has recently changed their policies. For example, last fall American Airlines announced their basic economy revenue wasn’t meeting expectations and to stay competitive with Delta Air Lines, they were allowing passengers to bring a free carry-on bag as well.

◦ For flights within the US, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, you can choose a specific seat within 48 hours of departure, for a fee. For flights between the US and Europe, you can choose a specific seat at any time for a fee. American Airlines, for example, allows passengers to pay for seat selection within 48 hours of the flight’s departure on basic economy flights.

◦ Sometimes, to avoid extra hidden fees and have more peace of mind, book directly from the airline after comparing airline prices online through third-party sites.

Does avoiding them always mean paying more for air travel?

Not necessarily. For example, those of “elite status” or often have an airline specific credit card the restrictions of baggage fees, seating, boarding order and eligibility to change or upgrade at no cost may be waived.

Are there any new strategies that air travelers have used to get around some of the restrictions that “basic” fares impose?

◦ If you see somewhere a fair, grab it. Don’t wait. The probability of the price increasing by waiting is a lot higher. There are more mistake fairs than you may think. Setting price alerts and flight trackers also help, if time is in your corner before booking a Basic Economy flight.

◦ When you pay attention to the fine print you can avoid hidden airport fees. Major airports are known for including this in many flights that land there and also adding booking fees. Most charge fuel surcharges; however, Southwest is one of the airlines that doesn’t.

◦ On Basic Economy flights: For more value, buy a roundtrip ticket with an open leg. For example, on international flights, buy multiple tickets that are direct where you see there would normally be a layover, rather than purchasing one ticket with a connection. For the most competitive rates for this, try Google Flights and access who the most dominant carrier/alliance relationship the airline is using. Most airlines subcontract and there are extra hidden fees when major airlines do this. This strategy gets you more miles and points.

◦ When a passengers flies on airlines such as JetBlue, Delta, and British Airways – they are testing biometric boarding gates, where information gained during the security screening process is used to automate boarding and passengers can simultaneously scan their boarding pass to save time.

Tips and Tricks:

  • Fly a plane with no middle seats. When you are working on your booking, check the seating chart on the flight to see if the seats are configured so there are no middle seats (usually four seats per row, with two window and two aisle seats); in this case it won’t matter as much that you can’t choose your seat.
  • Put your miles or elite status to work. It’s probably not that often that elite-level flyers purchase basic economy fares, but if this description fits you, look into whether your status will entitle you to any additional benefits. For example, United allows Premier members a regular carry-on without paying the $25 gate fee.
  • Put your credit card to work. Similarly, many airlines will waive specific restrictions for passengers who hold and use that airline’s credit card at the time of purchasing. If your airline credit card grants you the right to priority boarding, for example, you don’t lose that benefit because you purchased a basic economy fare.
  • Check to see if the basic economy fare is actually your cheapest option in the end. On some airlines, the cost of adding on any one component (a carry-on, a seat assignment) might cost more than the difference between basic and regular economy.
  • Use the mandatory 24-hour cancellation period. Since many basic economy fares severely restrict changes of any kind, you’ll want to work out any concerns or regrets before the federally mandated 24-hour cancellation period runs out.

Basic Economy — Airline Comparison

Alaska Airlines

Alaska announced its “Saver Fare” in April 2018, and it’s basic economy in everything but name. Though Alaska’s version of the no-frills ticket gives you a seat assignment as soon as you book and your carry-on won’t cost you extra, your seat will always be in the back of the plane, and you’ll be the last to board. Once the 24-hour cancellation period (a federally-mandated rule for all flights booked in the U.S.) passes, you won’t be able to cancel or change your ticket. You won’t even be able to upgrade your seat, so if you’ve got buyer’s remorse, tough luck.

Allegiant Air

You have to pay for seat selection (up to $80 if you want extra legroom), a carry-on ($10-$75 each way, depending on distance), changing or canceling your ticket ($75), and even printing your boarding pass at the airport ($5). So, unless you put out for the fees and additional perks, you’re flying basic economy.

American Airlines

In September 2018, American Airlines’ basic economy started to include a free carry-on bag in addition to a personal item. You won’t get a seat assignment until you check-in, unless you want to pay $10-$40 to choose your own seat 48 hours before your flight. Regardless of your seat, you’ll be in the last boarding group, but since you won’t have to fight for bin space, it’s not the worst feature.

Delta

Delta may have been the first U.S. carrier to introduce basic economy, but its fares have gotten more bare bones each year. Today, you can’t pick your seat (it’ll be assigned at check-in) nor can you change, cancel, or upgrade your ticket after purchasing, even if you have elite Medallion status. You will get a free carry-on, though, and your first checked bag will cost the usual $25 each way on domestic flights.

Hawaiian Airlines

Hawaiian doesn’t have basic economy—yet. Stay tuned.

JetBlue

JetBlue does not currently offer basic economy.

Southwest Airlines

Southwest does not offer basic economy.

Spirit Airlines

Its normal base fares are stripped down, and any additional services will cost you. A personal item that will fit under the seat in front of you (18 x 14 x 8 inches) is free, a carry-on costs between $21 and $65, and checked bags start at $30. Seat assignments start at $5 if you want to choose it for yourself, or are free at check-in. Changes to your itinerary, or cancellations, cost $90.

United Airlines

Like American, you can select your seat within 48 hours of departure in basic economy class—for a fee between $5 and $10, of course. You’ll also get the same amenities as other passengers, like complimentary food and beverages and in-flight entertainment. You’ll have to board in the very last group, but since you can only bring a personal item that’ll fit under the seat in front of you (17 x 10 x 8 inches), it’s not too much of a hassle. If you dare bring a carry-on for the overhead bin, you’ll have to pay $25 at the gate. (If you’re a MileagePlus Premier member, you can bring a full size carry on, though, even in basic economy.) Checked bags cost between $25 and $40. Plus, you can’t change or cancel your flight.

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