Basic economy fares have spread like wildfire to every major airline in the country, allowing them to compete with the likes of Spirit and Frontier with slightly cheaper fares in exchange for offering fewer frills. But just how painful these fares can be varies from airline to airline … and Alaska Airlines basic economy has long been the best of the bunch – until now.
On most airlines, free seat assignment is a no-go with a basic economy fare: You're either rolling the dice on getting assigned a middle seat stuck between two strangers or paying an extra $15 to $30 fee to pick a seat. So Alaska stood out for years by offering travelers who bought its so-called Saver fares the option of picking some seats (typically at the back of the plane) for free – or pay a bit more for a seat closer to the front.
No more. The Seattle-based airline's Saver fares quietly axed free seat selection as an included benefit this week. And it appears there's no option for travelers buying their cheapest fares to pay an extra fee to select a seat, either.
Ouch. It's just another reminder that the entire point of basic economy is to lure travelers in with a cheaper fare, then convince them to pay up more for benefits they once got free. And with the ability to pick a seat free now gone on Alaska Airlines' cheapest fares, that $30 upsell on a one-way fare just got much more potent.
Check out how Alaska Saver fares stack up against all the basic economy tickets on other airlines!
Alaska Airlines did not announce the change but confirmed to Thrifty Traveler it had changed the seating rules on its Saver fares effective Wednesday, July 6. An archived version of the airlines' fare restrictions from May 12 made clear that some seats were still available for free.
Today, that same page makes it clear: No more free seat selection. Travelers who buy these cheapest fares will be assigned a seat at check-in.
It's unclear if, after the check-in window opens 24 hours before departure, Saver fare travelers will be able to select the best of any open economy seats. That's a great workaround to pick a free seat with Delta basic economy fares.
But seeing as most planes are going out 100% full right now, it's not a safe bet these days. And that might be part of Alaska's motivation for this change: Planes are simply selling out and offering free seat assignment, even at the back of the cabin, is no longer feasible.
Alaska says they'll do their best to keep traveling families who purchase Saver fares seated together.
“Minors under the age of 13 can be seated with at least one adult in their party in advance by calling our contact center,” the airline said in a statement.
Why, Alaska? Why?
From the time Alaska Airlines introduced its “Saver” basic economy fares back in 2018, the ability to snag a seat for free has been generous. And even as other airlines downgraded their own basic economy offerings, that remained true.
In fact, Alaska was the only major U.S. airline to give its basic economy passengers a chance to pick a seat for free.
United basic economy and American basic economy both allow flyers to pay a fee for a seat assignment at check-in – typically $10 or so for a middle seat and $15 or more for a window or aisle assignment. Delta charges much more for seat assignments starting seven days before departure, otherwise you can wait until check-in opens and move to the best remaining seats available … if anything. JetBlue basic economy automatically assigns travelers a seat, though you can also move around the cabin for free after check in opens.
Now, Alaska has matched them – and in some ways, Alaska basic economy is even worse. Here's a look at what you'll get buying an Alaska Saver fare today:
- Baggage: Get a personal item and carry-on bag for free; pay $30 each way for a checked bag.
- Seat Selection: Assigned at check-in.
- 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.
Making these fares more painful is the entire point. By removing the ability to pick at least some seats for free, Alaska is hoping more flyers will pay that extra $30 or so each way to get a free seat assignment and free change and cancellation. And they're not even the first U.S. airline to ratchet up restrictions on their cheapest fares as travel demand has climbed back to normal.
Back in late 2021, Delta dealt its penny-pinching flyers a serious blow with an unprecedented change: Delta basic economy fares no longer earn redeemable SkyMiles nor credits toward Delta Medallion status. That's farther than even ultra-low-cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier have gone.
Once the most generous basic economy fares on the market, Alaska Airlines has taken a hatchet to its Saver fares.
The ability to pick from some free seats made Alaska stand out for years in the brutal world of basic economy. Now, Alaska basic economy fares are just like all the rest – if not worse.
Lead photo courtesy of Alaska Airlines