Should You Book a Basic Economy Flight? Here's What to Consider

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Should You Book a Basic Economy Flight? Here’s What to Consider

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If you've been planning a family vacation for this summer or fall, odds are you're seeing flight prices all over the map (literally). And even though there's been a noticeable decrease in average airfare pricing since last year, it's still the most significant line item of most family trips.

Given the cost of airfare, it's justifiable to try and save any way you can – and that's what makes booking a basic economy ticket so enticing.

Basic economy tickets are the most restrictive fares that airlines sell and they come with hardly more than transportation from point A to point B. If you're accustomed to things like picking a seat near the front of the plane or next to your travel companion, boarding early for that coveted overhead bin space, or having the option to cancel your flight for a voucher when your plans change, you can forget about it with these tickets.

In most situations, it's not in your best interest to book a basic economy fare. In fact, we almost always recommend purchasing at least a main cabin ticket. With all additional fees and restrictions, the savings you get with basic economy often aren't worth it in the long run.

But if you know what you're getting yourself into, there are some instances in which it might make sense to buy the cheapest fare. Let's break it down.

 

What You Get with Basic Economy

Exactly what's included and how much you'll save by booking a basic economy fare depends on the airline. But at the end of the day, it will get you to your destination the same as any other ticket – and that's the most important thing.

Here's a quick rundown of what to expect when you book a basic economy fare on some of the major U.S. airlines.

 

American Airlines

American Airlines initially offered one of the strictest basic economy fares of all the big U.S. airlines by not allowing either carry-on bags or advanced seat assignments. But the airline has since relaxed its carry-on baggage restriction and even made it easier to pick a seat in advance – if you're willing to pay for it.

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.

 

American Airlines upgrade to main cabin

 

Here's what you get with American basic economy.

  • Baggage: Get a carry-on bag and personal item for free; pay $30 each way for a checked bag (or $75 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 at check-in.
  • 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 is one of the few airlines that allow travelers with elite status to get an upgrade even on a basic economy ticket.

Read our full guide to American Airlines basic economy!

Delta

Delta – always an industry leader – was the first U.S. airline to offer these basic economy fares way back in 2013. These days, Delta's basic economy offering is a bit of a mixed bag – more restrictive in some ways, while offering travelers flexibility in others.

In order to get customers to spend more, the Atlanta-based airline now regularly charges an additional $80 roundtrip to avoid basic economy and move to a more-inclusive main cabin fare. On international routes, that upcharge is $150 or higher Just like other airlines, those prices vary.

 

Delta upgrade to main cabin

 

Here's what you get with Delta basic economy.

When it comes to mileage earning, Delta went farther than almost any airline when it comes to basic economy: As of early December 2021, Delta basic economy fares no longer earn SkyMiles nor credits toward elite status with Delta. On top of that, Delta elites aren't eligible for complimentary or paid upgrades when flying on a basic economy fare.

In many ways, though, Delta basic economy is much more generous than what you'll get flying its competitors. Unlike United, you can bring a full-size carry-on bag onboard with your basic economy ticket. Delta also now allows basic economy flyers to cancel their flights for a Delta eCredit … for a price: You'll forfeit $99 on most fares or $199 on long-haul international flights.

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!

 

United Airlines

United has perhaps the most restrictive basic economy offering of all the big U.S. airlines.

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. In fact, you can't even check in online with a United basic economy fare.

In order to avoid these minimalist fares, you can expect to pay an additional $70 on roundtrip domestic itineraries or as much as $170 on roundtrip flights to Europe.

 

United upgrade to main cabin

 

Here's what you get with United basic economy.

  • Baggage: Get a personal item for free; pay $30 each way for a checked bag (or $75 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.

If there's one plus to United's basic economy fares, 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 in offering that option.

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

 

Questions to Ask When Booking Basic Economy

There are a variety of factors to consider when booking your travel, and whether or not to upgrade to a more expensive main cabin, first or business class fare is certainly one of them.

Now that we've covered what you get (or don't get) with each airline's basic economy fares, let's take a look at some of the questions you should be asking yourself when deciding which fare type to book. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it should leave you with some things to think about when planning your next trip.

 

How Much Can You Save?

As the great philosopher Lil' Wayne once said, “money is da motive.”

Simply put, cost will always be a part of our decision-making process – whether it's a travel-related decision or not.

If the price difference between basic economy and a main cabin fare is the deciding factor for whether or not you take a trip, always choose the basic economy fare over not going. While $70 might not seem like a huge upcharge for one person, it can be a significant expense for family travel. Having to pay an additional $350 for a family of five might just be the difference between going on vacation and staying home.

Additionally, booking basic economy fares might allow some families to take multiple trips per year when they could otherwise only afford one.

If saving money is a priority, basic economy is probably for you. Just beware of what you're getting yourself into.

But remember: With most basic economy tickets, you forgo the option to change or cancel your ticket for free. So if flight prices drop after you book, you won't be able to rebook and get the fare difference back as a credit or a voucher without paying a fee. That's worth factoring into your cost analysis, too.

 

Can You Avoid the Restrictions?

With some airlines, you can beat many of the most restrictive rules that come with basic economy fares, simply by holding one of their co-branded credit cards. While these cards are generally a terrible option for regularly spending money on, they're great to have for the added perks and benefits you get when flying with the airline.

With the right credit card, you'll get things like free checked baggage, priority boarding, and additional mileage earning that other basic economy passengers won't. This can make these no-frills fares feel a bit less suffocating.

 

delta credit card offers

 

Another big reason travelers are willing to pay to avoid a basic economy fare over the fear of not being able to sit with their traveling companion for their flight, a fear that is exacerbated for families traveling with young children. Families either have to pay up or risk being assigned seats that aren't together.

But before you book that more expensive main cabin fare, check your airline's family seating policy. The federal government has been pressuring airlines to let families can sit together for free, regardless of the kind of ticket they bought, and a handful of airlines will now guarantee that children are seated with at least one adult on the same reservation.

Another way to beat basic economy is to hold elite status with the airline. While going out of your way to get elite status is never a good idea, having it can take some of the sting out of a basic economy ticket depending on which airline you're flying with. Some airlines like American will recognize elite benefits (even when flying basic economy) and this alone will wipe away many of the restrictions – like allowing checked luggage and an advanced seat assignment.

Need help finding the right travel credit card? Check out our top 10 list of all the best offers right now! 

 

Are Your Plans Solidified?

One positive to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic is the ability to make free changes and cancellations to airline tickets – but not if you booked basic economy.

It's no shock that the airlines have started using free changes as another tool for getting customers to upgrade to main cabin economy tickets, but this is perhaps the biggest reason of all to upgrade your ticket. Think of it as an insurance policy in case your plans change.

On the flip side, if you don't need the option to cancel – either because it's a close-in booking or just an obligation that you really need to be in attendance for – having solid plans in place can take some of the risks out of booking a basic economy fare.

 

Which Airline are you Flying?

Depending on the airline you're planning to fly with, the restrictions on basic economy tickets can range from “Ooooff” to “Meh”.

When deciding whether or not to upgrade to main cabin, consider how long the flight is and which airline you're flying.

Sitting in a middle seat between two strangers is never fun, but it's certainly more tolerable on a short flight. And on airlines like Delta, you can avoid it altogether by paying a nominal amount for an advanced seat assignment – even on a basic economy ticket.

 

swiss economy seats

 

If you're flying JetBlue or United, a basic economy ticket will also limit you to packing only a personal item. This might not be an issue if you're only going to be gone for a short weekend getaway, but if your trip is much longer than that it's another reason to upgrade out of basic economy.

 

Bottom Line

With a basic economy ticket, you get just that: The basics, no extras. From not being able to pick your seat to having to cram all your clothes into a personal item, it's often worth paying more to upgrade to a main cabin fare and avoid the restrictions that come along with a basic economy ticket.

But for some travelers, the cost savings can more than justify the limitations that come with a basic economy flight.

 

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.

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