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Another $200? Airlines Keep Charging More to Avoid Basic Economy to Europe

Want to get a free checked bag and ensure you aren't randomly assigned a middle seat between two strangers on your way to Europe? You'll need to pay up to avoid the strictest basic economy fares – and airlines keep forcing passengers to fork over more and more to do so.

What was once a flat, $120 extra roundtrip to bump up to a standard main cabin fare across the Atlantic has steadily risen as travel demand soared since the pandemic. Just in time for the summer 2024 travel season, major airlines are now charging an additional $200 (and in some cases, $220 or more) to avoid basic economy flying to Europe. 

This is what basic economy was designed to do: Lure you in with a cheap fare to compete with the low-cost budget airlines, then hit you with a bunch of restrictions to upsell you to a better, more expensive fare. As that upgrade gets more expensive, it means the transatlantic fare you really want keeps getting pricier and pricier – even if you like the price you see at first glance.

It's a terrible (yet predictable) trend for travelers. Here's what's happening – and why.

 

Main Cabin Upgrades Cost $200 (or More…)

You might not clock the differences between basic economy and main cabin airfare, but our team of flight deal analysts at Thrifty Traveler Premium does. And a clear, industry-wide pattern has emerged.

From the major U.S. carriers to their international partners, they're all generally charging at least $200 to avoid basic economy across the Atlantic Ocean now. Flying with Delta and its SkyTeam partners, you might see even higher upcharges of $220.

In either case, that's up from $150 just a few years back and $170 just last summer, the last time we saw a similar increase. You can always count on airlines to squeeze more money out of you, right? 

Let's say you want to fly from Seattle (SEA) to London-Heathrow (LHR) this summer. When you head over to Google Flights to begin your search (as you always should), you might find this Delta fare: $855 roundtrip. 

 

seattle to london delta

 

That's not the cheapest fare to London you'll ever find, though it's far from the worst for a nonstop fare in late summer. But dive into what you'll actually get and you'll see that's for a basic economy ticket that only gets you a free carry-on bag.

A main cabin fare – the ones that include free seat selection, a free checked bag, and the ability to change (or cancel for a Delta eCredit) without fees – costs much more: $220 more, in fact, pushing the final price over $1,000 total.

 

delta basic seattle main

 

Those $200-plus upgrade charges also apply to one- and two-stop itineraries, too. For example, Delta is charging an additional $220 roundtrip to upgrade to main cabin between Fargo (FAR) and Reykjavik (KEF) as well. 

 

Fargo to Iceland

 

Lest you think I'm just cherry-picking Delta examples here, let's see what American and United are up to. Sure enough, it's $200 more to avoid basic economy across the board.

That includes these nonstop fares from Raleigh (RDU) to London this summer. 

 

Raleigh to London

 

And the same is true with United if you want to fly Newark (EWR) to Amsterdam (AMS) … or pretty much any other transatlantic United fare. 

 

Newark to Amsterdam

 

That basic economy price is a solid deal to fly nonstop across the Atlantic! But once you get to the checkout page, you realize that the fare you actually want – and the fare United is going to try to convince you to buy – is $200 more. 

 

united basic economy warning

 

 

The same holds true for flying these major U.S. airlines' international partners like Air France, British Airways, and Lufthansa. They might have different names like “Economy Light,” but the price differences are just the same as their U.S. partner airlines: You'll now generally pay an extra $200 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).

 

chicago flight to london british airways

 

It's a painful realization that thousands of travelers are encountering every day. And airlines know that by the time many customers make it to this page, their mind is made up: They're going to book – even if costs significantly more than what they first saw. 

You might still find some slightly cheaper upgrade rates, particularly when transatlantic fares are cheapest from East Coast hubs. Flying one of JetBlue's relatively new transatlantic routes, you might get charged an extra $180 roundtrip to avoid the worst “Blue Basic” fares.

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.

Still, this just underscores the value of redeeming airline miles instead to fly across the pond.

 

national cheap flight day

 

In 999 cases out of 1,000, any time you book with miles, you're getting a standard economy ticket with free seat selection and free cancellation, leaving the painful restrictions of basic economy behind. So if you're weighing using miles versus paying cash, this could swing you toward using your miles instead.

Sadly for loyal Delta flyers, SkyMiles are the exception to this rule. Delta was the first airline to roll out basic economy awards when using miles – and as of publication, they're still the only airline to do it. Worse yet, these pesky basic economy award tickets have now spread worldwide.

Delta uses dynamic award pricing, so SkyMiles rates follow the cash cost. So as the price to avoid Delta basic economy increases, you'll need to fork over more SkyMiles, too.

 

msp to paris delta skymiles

 

Why is This Happening?

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. And transatlantic travelers are paying the steepest price.

They've done it before with domestic flights, where U.S. travelers can now generally expect to pay an extra $70 to $80 or more roundtrip for a main cabin fare to avoid basic economy. Delta has taken that to an extreme with $200-plus surcharges even within the U.S. – but only from one airport: Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP).

Why punish us even more? Because airlines don't actually want you to buy a basic economy fare – not unless you're actually the most cost-conscious customer who might fly Spirit or Norse Atlantic instead. And when airlines see an opening to charge customers more, they do it.

From baggage fees to seat selection surcharges to the fares themselves, maximizing revenue is everything for airlines. And after giving up on change fees altogether during the worst of the pandemic, squeezing price-conscious travelers for more and more money to avoid basic economy was likely a simple swap.

While paying an extra $20 or $50 may seem trivial, that adds up fast – especially as transatlantic travel demand continues booming. 

 

Checked baggage

 

Major airlines began rolling out these stingy basic fares more than a decade ago, hoping to 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. Delta is the poster child, going further than even the likes of Spirit or Frontier: Their cheapest basic economy tickets no longer earn redeemable SkyMiles or build toward Delta Medallion Status. And even with a $700-a-year credit card that comes with complimentary lounge access, you can't get into Delta Sky Clubs with a basic economy ticket anymore.

Oddly, many major airlines are still charging $150 – and sometimes even less – roundtrip to avoid basic economy on even longer flights to Asia and beyond. 

 

LAX HND

 

 

Demand flying to Europe from the U.S. has hit record highs over the last year, giving the airlines a little plenty of cover to raise prices on those routes. As travel demand to Asia and other parts of the world increases, it wouldn't surprise me to see main cabin upgrades on those routes catch up.

 

Bottom Line

Want to avoid the pains of basic economy flying abroad, like paying $75 for a checked bag or getting stuck in a middle seat? Prepare to pay up. 

Across the board, major airlines are now charging at least $200 extra to escape basic economy. It's the highest price disparity between basic and main cabin fares we've seen.

But given what we've seen lately, these upcharges show no sign of stopping there.

4 Responses

  • The beatings will continue until moral improves.

    This is why we need government regulation. The full price including checked bag, basic seat assignment in advance, and online check-in should be the published fare, not the barebones ‘enshittified’ experience.

    When I get flight deal emails now from any of the services I subscribe to I always add $250 now to the price to see if it is a real value. So most deals aren’t even actually deals any more. On top of that the DOT bases their price index on basic economy so it looks like airfares are steady or lowering and writers frequently use those statistics in articles without mentioning that. In the last year the jump from basic to main has increased anywhere from 20%-50% and the greedy airlines aren’t going to stop there.

    Finally let’s not forget the airlines pay taxes, airport fees, etc. on the base fare, so this increases their bottom line even further.

  • Welp!! I hope everyone’s happy. I knew it then and it’s rearing it’s even uglier head now… No basic economy seats are needed. Main cabin/economy seats was enough. The rest of us who already pay extra to select a seat, now have to pay extra for the ppl that want to drag a bag onboard, and pay zero for anything. There’s nothing fair about this. I check a bag and have medallion status, why in the hell do I have to pay even more to fly than the person who spent less and then wants to flip seats midair bcuz they want to ‘upgrade’ for zero cost or bump up a 2nd traveler for zero cost to them!
    Main or economy should be the lowest fare… Period! Just like it used to be.
    This is ridiculous

  • What do you mean, “the fare I really want”? Speak for yourself, the basic economy fare IS the fare I really want

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