Basic Economy Fares: What You Get (And Why You May Want to Avoid Them)
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Basic Economy Fares: What You Get (And Why You May Want to Avoid Them)

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Like it or not, basic economy fares are here to stay.

Airlines launched these no-frills fares over the last decade to compete with budget carriers like Spirit and Frontier. Whether you’re flying domestically or heading to the Caribbean or Europe, these fares are unavoidable unless you want to pay extra for the main cabin treatment.

Basic economy prices might look good on paper – and you’re still getting a normal economy seat and service. But it’s important to keep in mind these fares come with some restrictions from baggage to boarding.

And one restriction sticks out more now than ever. Basic economy fares cannot be changed nor canceled. With uncertainty still clouding travel, that may mean it’s best to pay a bit more for a standard economy fare for some additional flexibility – just in case your plans change.

Read more: How to Book Travel Smarter as Pandemic Uncertainty Looms

But every airline handles these fares a bit differently. Here’s what you need to know about basic economy fares on major U.S. airlines.


Alaska Airlines Basic Economy

Alaska Airlines was among the last of the big U.S. carriers to roll out a basic economy offering. And it even has a different name: Alaska calls them Saver Fares.

It may be different in name, but these fares are quite similar to what you’ll find flying other major airlines – with a few bonuses.

  • Baggage: Get a personal item and carry-on bag for free; pay $30 each way for a checked bag.
  • Seat Selection: Available only at the back of the plane; upgrade to a different seat for a fee.
  • Boarding: Final boarding group.
  • Earning Alaska Mileage Plan Miles: Yes.
  • Earning Status: Yes.
  • Upgrades: Not eligible for complimentary upgrades.
  • Ticket Changes and Cancellation: Not allowed, except for within 24 hours of booking.

Buying a Saver Fare rather than a main cabin fare will typically save you $15 to $30 each way. And naturally, Alaska Airlines does its best to convince travelers to opt up for the main cabin economy fare. Airlines measure the success of basic economy based on how many passengers pay to avoid it.


alaska airlines basic economy warning


But Alaska is more generous with seat selection than many other airlines. Most airlines don’t allow basic economy flyers to pick a seat at all: they’re automatically assigned, or you can pay an extra fee to pick one. With an Alaska saver fare, you can freely pick the best seats remaining at the back of the plane –  or pay a bit more for a seat closer to the front.

Read more about Alaska Airlines basic economy fares!


American Airlines Basic Economy

When American Airlines first rolled out its Basic Economy offering years back, it was incredibly restrictive. So restrictive that, like United, you were not able to bring a carry-on bag on board with you, and you didn’t receive an advance seat assignment.

Luckily, that changed back in 2018 when American relaxed their carry-on baggage restriction and started allowing them on Basic Economy tickets, following Delta’s lead. And American has even made it easier to pick a seat in advance – if you’re willing to pay for it.

  • Baggage: Get a carry-on bag and personal item for free; pay $30 each way for a checked bag (or $60 each way to Europe).
  • Seat Selection: Available for a fee at time of booking, starting at $9 or 10 each way. Otherwise, seats are automatically assigned.
  • Boarding: Final boarding group (Group 8 or 9 depending on route).
  • Earning AAdvantage Miles: Yes.
  • Earning Status: Yes, but you’ll earn half the Elite Qualifying Miles and Elite Qualifying Segments as a standard economy fare.
  • Upgrades: Yes.
  • Ticket Changes and Cancellation: Not allowed, except for within 24 hours of booking.


American airlines basic economy warning


As you can see, American practically begs you to skip a basic economy fare and instead opt for a standard main cabin fare. This kind of upsell effort is common across the major airlines. And while the price tag can vary, you can typically count on paying roughly $35 each way to avoid basic economy on a domestic flight – and much more when traveling internationally.

On the bright side, American recently made basic economy slightly less painful by allowing travelers to purchase a seat assignment right away. Previously, you had to wait until seven days before your flight. Now you can pay for a seat assignment when you’re booking your flight.

And American is one of the few airlines that allows travelers with elite status to get an upgrade even on a basic economy ticket.

Read our full guide to American Airlines basic economy!


Delta Basic Economy

Long a leader within the airline industry – in good ways and bad – Delta started the slide into basic economy by rolling out these no-frills fares way back in 2013.

While there’s no question basic economy on Delta has restrictions, it’s more generous than what most other airlines offer.


delta basic economy


Let’s start with the bad news. After going farther than most airlines with free change and cancellation throughout the pandemic, Delta basic economy fares can no longer be changed nor canceled. And Delta has begun charging even more than its competitors to avoid basic economy: The Atlanta-based airline now regularly charges an additional $80 roundtrip to avoid basic economy and move to a more-inclusive main cabin fare.

But it’s not all bad news. In many ways, Delta basic economy is much more generous than what you’ll get flying its competitors. Unlike United and JetBlue, you can bring a full-size carry-on bag onboard with your basic economy ticket. You’ll still earn Delta SkyMiles and work your way towards Delta Medallion Status flying basic economy, too.

And few airlines are better when it comes to picking a seat than Delta. That’s because Delta gives you two ways to pick a seat with a basic economy fare – including one way to do it for free!

Read our full guide to flying Delta basic economy.

JetBlue Basic Economy

After more than a year of planning and teasing, JetBlue finally unveiled its version of basic economy called “Blue Basic” in late 2019.

JetBlue was among the last of the major U.S. airlines to offer basic economy. And as promised, the restrictions on these fares weren’t quite as punitive as you’d find on other airlines – at least initially. But that has changed.

JetBlue recently took a page out of United’s book and now bans travelers with a basic economy ticket from bringing a carry-on bag on board. That means you can only bring a small personal item like a purse or backpack.

  • Baggage: Get a personal item and a carry-on bag free (until July 20, 2021); pay $35 each way for a checked bag
  • Seat Selection: Pay for advance seat selection, free within 24 hours of departure
  • Boarding: Boards last
  • Earning TrueBlue Points: Yes, but only 2x per $1 spent (compared to 6x points per $1 on other fares)
  • Ticket Changes and Cancellation: You can pay $100 to change or cancel a domestic JetBlue basic economy – or $200 for international flights. Free cancellation within 24 hours of booking.


jetblue basic economy fare


JetBlue basic economy is clearly a mixed bag. The downside of not being able to bring a carry-on bag is enormous. It’s one of the most punitive restrictions you’ll find with these fares. And JetBlue will charge you a whopping $65 penalty if they catch you trying to sneak one onboard.

On the plus side, JetBlue allows basic economy flyers to pay for a seat selection – or pick the best of what’s left within 24 hours of departure. And JetBlue is the only airline that allows basic economy tickets to be changed or canceled. You’ll have to pay $100 to do it (or $200 for an international ticket), but that could easily be worth it.

Read more about JetBlue basic economy – aka Blue Basic fares!


Southwest Airlines Basic Economy


Southwest Airlines doesn’t offer basic economy. And the airline’s top executives have repeatedly said they never will.

“That’s not what we do,” Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said during a quarterly earnings call a few years ago. “We’re not going to charge for bag fees.”

That means Southwest flyers will continue to get two checked bags on every flight. Their novel boarding process means you’ll get to pick your seat – at least the best of what’s left by the time you get on board. And you’ll still be able to change or cancel your reservation without a fee.


United Airlines Basic Economy

Despite the constant battle for U.S. domination, United’s basic economy fares are a step below both Delta and American.

A basic economy ticket on United means you can only bring a personal item – no carry-on bag – and you also won’t earn elite status on domestic flights. You can’t even check in online with a United basic economy fare.

That’s why United was the clear loser in our Battle of Basic Economy.

  • Baggage: Get a personal item for free; pay $30 each way for a checked bag (or $60 each way to Europe). No carry-ons allowed unless flying to Europe.
  • Seat Selection: Available for a fee, starting at $10. Otherwise, seats are automatically assigned.
  • Boarding: Final boarding group.
  • Earning United MileagePlus Miles: Yes.
  • Earning Status: You’ll earn Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) but not Premier Qualifying Flights (PQFs)
  • Upgrades: Not eligible for complimentary upgrades with United status.
  • Ticket Changes and Cancellation: Not allowed, except for within 24 hours of booking.



united basic economy


Let’s not spin this one. United basic economy is clearly the worst of the bunch.

No carry-on bag unless you’re flying to Europe. You can’t even check-in online – you’ll have to finalize check-in at the airport so an agent can verify you don’t have a carry on.

That’s pretty brutal. If there’s one plus to United basic economy, it’s that you can buy a seat assignment for a fairly reasonable fee from the moment you buy your ticket. But these days, United isn’t alone offering that option.

Read our master guide to flying (and beating) United basic economy.


Bottom Line

Basic economy has shaken up the airfare world. By offering these bare-bones fares, airlines are trying to compete with budget carriers on price while pitting flyers with new restrictions – largely in hopes that they’ll pay up to upgrade.

And these days, basic economy is more dangerous than ever. With just one exception, no airline allows you to change or cancel a basic economy ticket. With all the potential hiccups in travel as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, that may simply be too risky.


Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

3 Responses

  • Why anyone would not choose Southwest Airlines for their trip when it’s an option is beyond me. The miles and status are just not worth it anymore and the credit cards are a scam to make you feel like you’re saving money off bag fees. Southwest is SO easy to fly and no fees for anything. Great legroom seat pitch too. Free streaming entertainment. And I’m amazed how easy, quick and efficient it is to board and deplane their flights.

  • I have a co-branded American Airlines card that will get me free checked bags to Europe and priority boarding but doesn’t do anything about seats?

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