Delta was the first of the major U.S. airlines to introduce basic economy way back in 2013, launching these no-frills fares that come with fewer perks or benefits in order to compete with budget airlines like Spirit, Frontier, and Sun Country. While every other airline from American to United eventually followed suit, Delta basic economy fares stood out as more fair and generous … until now.
After a quiet yet brutal change last week, Delta basic economy tickets no longer earn any SkyMiles nor credits toward elite status – the first major U.S. carrier to make such a move. Plus, these basic fares are almost unavoidable: You’ll find them flying domestically, heading to the Caribbean, Central America, Europe, and some destinations in Asia. They’re even available on many award tickets booked with SkyMiles now.
But it’s not all bad news. While you can no longer change or cancel these fares for free (after a pandemic-driven flexible policy ended in 2021), you can pay a fee to cancel for an eCredit. Plus, Delta basic economy fares still allow you to bring a carry-on bag onboard – and there’s even a way to pick a seat for free when flying Delta basic economy.
Let’s take deeper dive into what’s included and everything you need to know about Delta Basic Economy: what you get, what you don’t, and how to beat these no-frills fares.
What’s Included with Delta Basic Economy?
While there’s no question Delta basic economy has some tough restrictions, it’s more generous than what other airlines offer in other respects.
- 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: Seats are typically assigned at check-in or at the gate, but you can also pay for seat selection on many flights or pick your own for free after check-in opens.
- Boarding: Boards last in Delta’s new boarding order.
- Earning SkyMiles: No.
- Earning Delta Medallion Status: No, basic economy flights no longer earn Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs), Medallion Qualifying Segments (MQSs) and Medallion Qualifying Dollars (MQDs)
- Upgrades: Not eligible for complimentary upgrades if you have Delta Medallion Status or paid upgrades, either.
- Ticket Changes and Cancellation: Free within 24 hours of booking. Otherwise, you can pay $99 to cancel a flight within the U.S. or to the Caribbean, Mexico, or Central America. Long-haul international flights cost $199 to cancel for a Delta eCredit.
Like most airlines, Delta practically begs you not to book basic economy – you have to specifically opt in by checking “Accept Restrictions” and proceed with your basic economy fare. In fact, a top Delta official once wondered aloud: “What are people willing to pay” to avoid basic economy?
And that shows. While it varies by route, Delta now regularly charges an additional $50 to $70 roundtrip to avoid basic economy and move to a more-inclusive main cabin fare on a simple domestic flight. Traveling internationally? Expect to pay $150 or more roundtrip.
The entire point of basic economy is to lure you in with a cheap price, then convince you to pay more to avoid additional restrictions. And that upsell is only getting stronger.
In December 2021, Delta went where no other airline has gone: Its basic economy fares no longer earn Delta SkyMiles nor credits toward earning Delta Medallion status. While some airlines stop flyers who buy their cheapest tickets from earning status, Delta is the first to deny them redeemable SkyMiles.
Previously, you’d earn at least 5x SkyMiles per dollar spent on your Delta basic economy ticket. Now, you’ll earn zero SkyMiles on the exact same fares unless you’re traveling before the end of 2021.
If there’s an upside to Delta basic economy, it’s that these fares still aren’t as restrictive as their competitors in other respects. Unlike other fares like United basic economy and JetBlue basic economy that only allow you to bring a personal item, you can bring a full-size carry-on bag with Delta’s skimpiest fare.
While you don’t get free seat selection with basic economy, Delta gives you a few ways to ensure you won’t get stuck in a random middle seat. For starters, you can pay for a seat assignment starting seven days before departure when flying basic economy, with fees that typically run about $29 a seat. And as you’ll see, there’s even a sneaky way to get a seat for free…
Delta also threw travelers who book basic economy a bone when it comes to canceling flights. These fares could not be changed nor canceled, period, prior to the pandemic. Now, basic economy tickets purchased from Dec. 9, 2021 and onward can be canceled for a fee of $99 to $199, depending on where you’re going. You’ll get a Delta eCredit for the leftover amount after subtracting the cancellation fee.
That’s a far cry from the days of free change and cancellation even on basic economy fares from the pandemic, but it’s better than nothing.
What Routes Have Delta Basic Economy Fares?
Right now, Delta Basic Economy has been rolled out on all routes heading to the following locations:
- U.S. domestic flights
- Mexico and Central America
- The Caribbean
- South America
There is currently no basic economy offering on Delta flights originating out of the U.S. heading to the following locations:
Any economy ticket you book on these routes will be a main cabin fare including advanced seat assignment, carry-on bag, ticket changes, and subject to upgrades for Medallion members (depending on the destination).
Finally, Delta is an oddity in one way: Delta is still the only major carrier currently selling basic economy award tickets. Delta basic economy awards first cropped up in late 2018, slowly expanding to more and more routes.
How to Beat Delta Basic Economy
Even the most restrictive basic economy fares don’t have to be so painful. And there are a few great ways to get ahead even with Delta’s cheapest fares.
Carry a Delta Credit Card
Carrying one of the co-branded Delta credit cards offered from American Express helps you beat Delta basic economy fares. This is the key to making these fares less painful.
As a benefit of holding one of the Delta American Express cards (with the exception of the Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card), you will receive a free checked bag and priority boarding. And you get these benefits even when flying on a basic economy ticket.
So while flying on a Delta basic economy ticket would normally mean you board last, holding one of these cards allows you to board in the Main Cabin 1 group.
Without early boarding, finding a spot for your carry-on bag once onboard the aircraft could be a challenge as you will be the last to board. So even though you are allowed a free carry-on, it may end up getting gate-checked.
Additionally, all of the cards also offer a free checked bag – at least a $30 value every flight. That means you could check a bag for free and not worry about stowing it overhead at all. You don’t even need to pay for your ticket with the card to receive these benefits. Read up on how this benefit works.
For example, the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card has an introductory annual fee of $0, and then just $99 each year after that (see rates & fees.) Even in your second year with the card, it takes just two roundtrip flights with a checked bag each year to come out ahead.
Click Here to learn more about the Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card.
Pick a Seat for Free
Like most airlines, Delta gives you the chance to pay for a seat assignment if you want to avoid that dreaded middle seat. We’ve seen seat assignments on domestic flights as cheap as $19 each way – or as much as $59.
But there’s another, little-known way to potentially get a seat for free.
Starting when the check-in window opens 24 hours before your flight, Delta allows you to move about the cabin to any open seats … at no cost. That’s your chance to check the seat map and pick the best of whatever seats are left.
This isn’t a slam dunk by any means. If your flight is full, you’ll be stuck with whatever seat Delta assigns you. But it’s worth checking, double-checking, triple-checking, and quadruple-checking after the check-in window opens to see if you can snag a better seat as your flight draws closer. You can change your seat selection up until boarding begins.
Read our guide to picking your seat when flying Delta basic economy.
How Do Delta Basic Economy Fares Stack Up?
Delta basic economy fares are a mixed bag. There’s both good and bad news.
Let’s start with the good news. For starters, these fares are more generous than what you get with other competitors in terms of the inflight experience.
You can bring a carry-on bag on board. Delta also offers two ways to pick a seat even when flying basic economy. Starting seven days before departure, you can log into your reservation and pay for a seat assignment, which typically costs $29 per seat. If you’re feeling lucky, you can wait until the check-in window opens 24 hours departure. Once that happens, Delta allows you to move to any remaining open seats for free.
Then there’s the bad news. If you strike out with picking a seat, you’ll likely be assigned a middle seat at check in. When traveling with a companion or a child, there’s no guarantee you’ll sit together. While Delta says it tries to seat children with a family member, it won’t always happen. It depends on how full your flight is, and on the agent working at the gate.
Finally, Delta has degraded basic economy more than any airline by removing the ability to earn SkyMiles or towards elite status. That’s a massive, unprecedented change that automatically makes Delta basic more restrictive than any of its peers.
That’s why we recommend you consider paying the upcharge for a main Cabin fare if you want the best experience: Earning miles, ensuring you can sit next to a companion, and getting the ability to change or cancel your flights without a penalty.
Above all, Delta basic economy fares are just like every other airline. Airlines act like these are lower-priced fares for budget-conscious travelers. In reality, they’re charging the same amount a main cabin economy ticket once cost and giving you less. It’s the airlines’ way of getting more money out of you in fees.
Basic economy has transformed the airfare world. By offering these bare-bones fares, Delta can compete with budget carriers on price while pitting flyers with new restrictions – largely in hopes that they’ll pay up to upgrade.
Even as the pandemic fades away, it’s clear that basic economy isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s more likely to expand – and continue to get worse.