What You’ll Sacrifice in Basic Economy on U.S. Airlines

PHOTO: Shutterstock/Guido Benedetto

The price is nice, but at what cost?

In a shift to appear more competitive, many U.S. airlines (and a few international ones) have added basic economy as a choice for canny travelers. A basic economy ticket is exactly what it sounds like: a basic ticket with no boarding priority, seat selection, or frills.

U.S. carriers used the introduction of basic economy as a way of competing with low-cost airlines like Spirit that advertise low ticket prices then charge extra for add-ons, such as carry-on luggage, seat selection and in-flight meals. Unfortunately, while basic economy makes it seems like tickets are cheaper, that isn’t the case. Basic economy tickets cost what main cabin ticket used to cost, minus the in-flight amenities that used to be included. Only now, you have to decide which of them you’re willing to pay extra for.

But what exactly are you sacrificing by declining the upsell and choosing basic economy fares at checkout? It depends on the airline.

Alaska Airlines

Basic economy tickets on Alaska Airlines are disguised as Saver Fares and come with certain restrictions. For example, you don’t get to choose your seat, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll get one next to your travel companions. Additionally, Saver fares can’t be changed, upgraded or refunded. In other words, pay up for a main cabin seat or forever hold your peace.

American Airlines

By purchasing a Basic Economy ticket on American Airlines, you give up the privilege to check luggage at no cost, even on international flights. This means you can’t pack 17 pairs of your favorite shoes on a trip to Paris this summer, at least not for free. You are, however, allowed to bring one carry-on and one personal item, but because you board in either Group 8 or Group 9, good luck finding an empty overhead bin.

Although elite members get to keep most of their benefits, including checked-luggage benefits, when flying Basic Economy, Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) and Elite Qualifying Segments (EQSs) are awarded at a reduced rate. To be more specific, they’re cut in half on flights marketed by AA.

Delta Air Lines

Delta Air Lines is the pioneer that introduced Basic Economy to flyers and is the reason we’re in this mess. Having said that, the Atlanta-based airline is the most forgiving when it comes to these fares.

The downside of Delta’s Basic Economy fares is not receiving a seat assignment until boarding time. However, if the plane is full, you might get lucky and be placed in a Comfort+ seat instead. The other side of the coin is that there’s a chance of getting separated from your travel companions. You do get to carry on a small suitcase and a personal item, but you can’t upgrade or cancel your ticket.

JetBlue

Although JetBlue hasn’t officially begun selling basic economy tickets, the airline has announced it would join the ranks of other domestic carriers and start doing so at some point in 2019.

Southwest Airlines

If you’ve ever flown Southwest Airlines, you know that the low-cost airline doesn’t assign seats and lets you check up to two bags with no extra hits to your wallet. Nothing is changing. The airline doesn’t split up its cabin into first, main or basic economy, and you get to keep the familiar policies as well as your money.

United Airlines

United Airlines is no stranger to Basic Economy fares and will make you think twice about booking such cheap tickets. The carrier offers the strictest basic fares on the domestic market. As a basic economy passenger, you get no seat selection, no carry-on in the overhead bin (except one small personal item) and no upgrades. Yes, you have to pay extra to carry a bag onboard if you want to use an overhead bin. Additionally, elite flyers earn just half of Premier Qualifying Miles (PQMs) and half of Premier Qualifying Segments (PQSs) toward status requalification. How much is a seat in regular economy again?

How to Avoid the Anguish Associated With Basic Economy Fares

If you’re not on board with the evil rules of basic economy, there’s a way to escape some of its wrath by holding a co-branded credit card with one of the airlines. You still won’t be able to cancel your fights or select seats, but you will receive a better boarding position, which in turn will increase your chances of finding space and stowing a bag up top. Airline credit cards also let you check a bag for free on domestic routes, which eliminates the headache altogether.

Depending on how far you fly, sacrificing conveniences might not be worth $30 to $50. When the flight is just a couple of hours long, it’s not a big deal. However, do you really want to risk sitting in the middle seat on a flight to Europe or worry about having to gate-check your bag because you’re last on board? Sometimes buying cheap means buying twice.