Basic economy fares stink, plain and simple – and airlines know it. They exist for one reason: to lure you in with a cheaper price, then hit you with a bunch of restrictions designed to upsell you to normal economy fare.
Want to avoid getting stuck in a middle seat on an eight-plus-hour flight across the Atlantic? Get a checked bag for free instead of paying an extra $75 each way? Be able to change your flight if plans change – or when prices drop to pocket the difference? Now you'll have to pay even more when heading to Europe.
For years before the pandemic, major U.S. and international carriers charged an additional $120 roundtrip to avoid basic economy on these long transatlantic fares. In the last few years, that crept up to a flat $150 more for main cabin fares. But over the last few months, we've seen that increase yet again to an extra $170 surcharge to avoid basic economy.
Our Thrifty Traveler Premium flight deal team has searched hundreds of routes and it's clear: No matter what airline you're flying or where you're going, you can safely expect to fork over an extra $170 to avoid basic economy on flights to Europe.
Flying American Airlines from Philadelphia (PHL) to Paris-Charles de Gaulle (CDG) this fall? Basic economy starts at $1,077 while a main cabin fare on the same flight (with free seat selection, a free checked bag, and the ability to change or cancel your flights) costs $1,247 – a $170 upcharge.
Flights with connections are priced much the same, like this United fare from Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) to Munich (MUC). Yet again, you'll pay an extra $170 for a main cabin fare with all the fixings.
The same trend holds up with international carriers. They might have different names like “Economy Light,” but the price differences are just the same as their U.S. partner airlines. So you'll pay an extra $170 roundtrip to avoid basic economy flying British Airways from Chicago-O'Hare (ORD) to London-Heathrow (LHR) or Lufthansa from Boston (BOS) to Frankfurt (FRA).
There may be exceptions but the overall trend is crystal clear: Airlines are hoping to make more money from passengers eager to pay up to avoid the pain of basic economy. After all, they've done it before with domestic flights, where U.S. travelers can now generally expect to pay an extra $50 to $70 or more roundtrip for a main cabin fare and avoid basic economy.
From baggage fees to seat select surcharges to the fares themselves, maximizing revenue is the name of the game for airlines. And after giving up on change fees altogether during the worst of the pandemic, squeezing price-conscious travelers for more money to avoid basic economy was likely a simple swap. While an extra $20 may seem trivial, that adds up fast – especially when transatlantic travel demand is soaring to record levels.
Fortunately, the restrictions on some airlines' basic economy fares heading over to Europe aren't quite as nasty as they are here in the U.S. While JetBlue basic economy and United basic economy both ban bringing carry-on bags on short-haul flights, they're allowed on long-haul flights overseas.
Major airlines began rolling out these stingy fares a decade ago, hoping to better compete with budget airlines on price when travelers search somewhere like Google Flights or an online travel agency like Expedia. They've steadily spread all across the world on routes to Europe, Asia, and even Australia. And they've gotten even worse over time, none more than Delta, which no longer lets basic economy tickets earn SkyMiles or build toward Delta Medallion Status.
Airlines have made clear they don't actually want customers to buy their cheapest fares. Late last year, Delta celebrated the fact that just 5% of customers were buying Delta basic economy tickets – down from 15% pre-pandemic.
The allure of paying more to avoid basic economy may be biggest on big trips abroad. Most major airlines now charge an extra $75 each way to check a bag with a basic fare, a perk that's still included on standard economy fares. And flexibility could be even more powerful: Airlines charge hefty fees to cancel your flight for a voucher if you purchased a cheaper basic fare – and American Airlines doesn't allow it, period.
Oddly, many major airlines are still charging $150 (or less) roundtrip to avoid basic economy on even longer flights to Asia and beyond. But it's likely only a matter of time before we see an increase on those ultra-long-haul fares, too.
Avoiding basic economy on a big trip overseas will cost you even more now.
Over the last few months, both international and U.S. airlines have begun charging an additional $170 roundtrip to book a main cabin fare – one that comes with a free checked bag, free seat selection, and the ability to change or cancel your trip for a voucher.