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You Win, Delta: Why I’ll Never Buy a Delta Basic Economy Ticket Again

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Yes, I was one of them: A loyal Delta flyer who still bought the airline's cheapest basic economy fares.

Over the last few years, I rarely paid up for the more expensive (and more generous) standard economy fares on my preferred airline. Delta basic economy fares were more generous than what you get on most airlines – including a sneaky way to select seats for free that almost always paid off. That case was even stronger throughout much of the pandemic, with largely empty planes and free change and cancellation on every fare.

But Delta has admitted that it doesn't really want flyers like you and I to buy basic economy. In reality, they're designed to lure people in with a cheap price, then convince travelers to pay more to avoid all the restrictions.

“Really, the success of that product isn't how many people buy it, in our mind, but how many people don't buy it and choose another product,” President Glen Hauenstein told investors a few years back.

I have to hand it to Delta: They've succeeded. Here's why.


No More SkyMiles or Status

As the old saying goes, this was the straw that broke the camel's back.

Earlier this month, Delta went where no other airline has gone. As of Dec. 8, basic economy fares on Delta no longer earn Delta SkyMiles. Delta's cheapest fares also will no longer earn towards Delta Medallion Status.

delta basic economy 

Before, a $300 Delta basic economy ticket would earn at least 1,500 Delta SkyMiles – or even more if you'd managed to earn Delta Medallion Status. Today, that same ticket would earn you 0 Delta SkyMiles.

The move generated understandable outrage. Other airlines have barred basic economy flyers from earning status, but even the likes of Spirit and Frontier still award redeemable miles on all tickets. After billions of dollars in bailouts over the last two years, taking away the ability to earn SkyMiles from their most budget-conscious customers felt like a slap in the face.

For me, it's a bit different. While it might have been the final push, this wasn't the driving factor in my decision to spring for standard economy tickets going forward.

From a business perspective, there's no question it makes sense for Delta to do this. It's yet another pain point that will convince travelers to pay more for the benefits they once got free. Still want to earn Delta SkyMiles or work your way toward status? You'll have to pay Delta $50, $70, maybe even $150 more for a main cabin fare now – and that's the point.

Believe it or not, there were plenty of travelers out there who were happy to save $70 or more in exchange for boarding last and entering the seat selection lottery. I was one of them. But another change to Delta basic economy goes even farther.


A Hefty Fee to Cancel

If there was one silver lining to the pandemic, it was the unprecedented flexibility airlines gave travelers to book tickets worry-free. For more than a year, even the cheapest basic economy fares could be changed or canceled for free.

But that change and cancellation free-for-all is over now. While most U.S. airlines did away with change fees for good, basic economy fares weren't included in that policy change. Delta went a bit farther than most airlines, giving free change and cancellation to any basic economy ticket with travel through the end of 2021. But as the year drew to a close, Delta threw basic economy another bone to make up for taking away SkyMiles.

Going forward, you can now cancel Delta basic economy fares and get a Delta eCredit … for a fee. Canceling a flight within the U.S. or to Mexico, the Caribbean, or Central America will cost $99. That's not unprecedented – JetBlue has done something similar. It gives some option to cancel even the cheapest tickets as plans change without losing all your money. Before the pandemic, these fares could not be changed nor canceled, period.

But for travelers whose main goal is traveling on the cheap, forking over $99 to cancel a domestic ticket is still quite steep. With our Thrifty Traveler Premium flight deal alerts, I can't remember the last time I paid more than $200 for a domestic roundtrip flight – in fact, I frequently pay closer to just $100 or $150 total.

So let's say I book this $127 roundtrip flight from Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) to Denver (DEN) in basic economy. If I wind up needing to cancel, I'd get a Delta eCredit of just $28 after subtracting. By paying $50 more for a main cabin fare, I'd get the full $177 back as a Delta eCredit.

delta basic economy 

Sure, getting $28 back is better than nothing, as was the norm prior to the pandemic and before Delta made this change. But the uncertainty that has shrouded travel for the last two years isn't going away anytime soon.

That makes paying $50 to $70 for a main cabin fare a no-brainer, if you ask me. If your plans change, it'll save you from losing $99 down the road.


Planes Are Filling Up

Look at this graph tracking load factors (how full planes are, on average) in the U.S.

airlines for america load factor graph 

After bottoming out at the start of the pandemic and slowly climbing back up, planes are generally just as full as they were pre-pandemic – and in many cases, they're completely full. We've warned travelers repeatedly throughout 2021: If you're flying these days, you should assume your next flight will be full.

One advantage of flying Delta basic economy – and one of the primary reasons why I was fine flying basic economy over the years – was the ability to pick seats rather than get stuck in a dreaded middle seat. It's not something Delta really advertises, but I used it to great effect.

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.


delta basic economy seat selection


Before the pandemic, I had this trick down to an artform. Out of probably 20 Delta flights, I managed to avoid a middle seat in all but one of them. Even when traveling with my wife or a friend, we were frequently able to snag seats together.

But this isn't a slam dunk: It only works when your flight isn't full. As airlines ease their way out of the pandemic, they're still not back up to 100% capacity – and Delta has been slower than most in ramping flights back up. That's a recipe for full flights, and therefore fewer seats to pick from.

In my experience over the last six-plus months, Delta flights are routinely completely full. I've lost confidence I can win the free seat lottery when flying Delta basic economy. And that's just another reason to pay a bit more to get free seat selection.


Bottom Line

Flyers everywhere are doing the mental math and voting with their wallets after Delta's latest move. In some ways, I'm the case study of why Delta decided to axe SkyMiles and status from basic economy fares.

I enjoy flying Delta over their competitors – and seeing as I'm based in their Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) hub, I don't have much of a choice. I'll pay more for the sake of getting free change and cancellation, a free seat assignment, and a few thousand SkyMiles on  – most of which were benefits that came with any fare not too long ago.

I'm not thrilled about it, but I'm paying more. And that's exactly why Delta is doing it.


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.

39 Responses

  • Hi, I haven’t been able to confirm this with Delta: If I purchased my basic economy ticket in early November, with the ticket stating I had until 12/31/21 to cancel for a voucher, do the new changes to basic economy tickets affect me (my ticket) as well? Do I now have to pay to change or cancel it, or upgrade to main?

  • As a #3500 flight person, who just before the pandemic took a minimal travel position, I still NEVER buy Basic for all of the reasons you state. When I travel on business I am doing so for the company’s benefit. I have never been a cheap traveler but have always been a value traveler. Combination of time away from working, arrival and departure times, etc can be far more expensive than paying $100 more for a flight. Traveling for work mostly now sucks so getting on early, being able to stow my bag, etc are well worth it.

  • I wonder why Delta dosent offer Sky Miles with Delta Vacations it was a bit disappointing finding this out while booking my flight from NY to Hawaii

  • I used to work for Delta and still have access to their standby lists that nonex-employees do not have. I can see by the standby code which customers are basic economy vs any other standby or upgrade. The number of passengers flying as basic economy for Delta is significant and likely beyond their expectations when BE was launched. It was done to stimulate the non-traveler to fill up planes. No longer. Fare creep has made it so a lot of the back of the airplane is now BE. Thus the switch D just rolled out. Couple this with Delta now monetizing upgrades on even international routes (which Hauenstein firmly opposed for years) by allowing people to purchase Delta One vs an automatic upgrade for certain medallion levels means many silver, gold, and likely platinums will no longer have the inventory open to them for their miles/status-driven upgrades to F and Delta One. This will further alienate loyal customers. Airlines have treated their passengers like cattle for years and now they’re tightening the screws. Watch revenues/yields crater compared to pre-pandemic levels. And the airlines will only have themselves to blame.

    • A once proud employee who gave each paycheck to buy a plane to save the business we believed in, I cant agree more. The ‘family’ will need to bring ‘it’ back to keep from being an additional cattle car line. Delta’s honor and character will show up in the bottom line. Like many my family and I can only afford so much. Preplanning by many months there may be exceptions, and just taking Delta is one. I am thrilled when we are capable of riding again with old family.

      • I blame you for helping to buy the plane. I said not in my lifetime. If you haven’t, wait til you retire & then see what Delta thinks of you. The decades I spent thousands of dollars on insurance for my spouse when I die has gone down 50% and will keep going down every 5 years. All that money down the drain once you hit 65. Care about their employees? I think not. All they care about is keeping the unions away.

  • There’s no cheating the system in many ways. At some point, you’ll have to pay up, and now DL wants its money. If there’s something to be taken away, they will eventually take it away. For that reason, I fly purely WN now, with a few AA exceptions. Points are easy to earn and burn, and you’re virtually guaranteed an aisle seat if you check in on time and board with your group. DL has the highest redemption costs, the highest fares and the most rules to break. And in return for nothing but “premium snacks” and perhaps a TV screen. The widget no longer serves a purpose.

  • I’ve always loved Delta, as I personally feel that their employees are truly genuine and extremely polite in comparison to American and United hands down. My mom was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer the exact same time COVID really hit here in the states March 2020. I flew delta once to twice a month from DCA to MEL (Melbourne, Fl) to accompany my mom to chemotherapy for every month for 14 months straight. I choose the basic economy fare being every single flight I took was only 5 to 10 percent occupied (if that). I watch the staff evolve from no mask to masking to extremely limited service. Also it didn’t make monetary sense to purchase a full price ticket being flights we’re barely occupied. I also decided to join their frequent flyer program because of their staff (particularly) on board being I was dealing with cancer/COVID at the same time. I say it again, about how I felt the staffs genuine concern for the few that were flying and appreciated that concern with dealing with this double whammy. I had decided that when things got back to normal, there would be no question, Delta would be my go to carrier. And then this (rabbit out the hat) decision of stripping any and all perks of earning miles PLUS the penalty for cancellation on basic economy fares, after our tax dollars that gave them billions to stay afloat. To me, it seems like a stab in the back. I’m disappointed that Delta has taken this stand and I really liked Ed Bastian and the words he spoke about Delta, until now. If you want to increase your revenue, decrease the amount of basic economy seats for sale. Better yet, decrease the amount of points one would earn on the purchase of basic economy purchase. But to strip basic economy down to mere marbles is not just wrong, it’s a huge calculus in the wrong direction and leaves a terrible taste and bad impression of a company I’ve thought so highly of. I’ve spent quite a bit of time transferring in ATL and look at delta’s logo and staff as a sign of a professional and quality group of people. I still think that of the front line people. But Bastian and folks making the decisions to punish the folks whom they make the least amount of money on, to me, is a downright betrayal for such a brand. I find it simply, quite pathetic.

  • All of you do understand that Delta Airlines is a business, don’t you? Not a public utility that you’re entitled to. You have every opportunity to fly a different airline, or drive, or stay home…

    • Sure agree with this. Flying is cheap, cheap as compared to the” golden” years people are yearning for. If you can’t afford it, don’t go!!

    • Yeah and they are not entitled to our money and will hurt themselves. Doesn’t matter if they are a business’s they still need to get customers. They need us more than we need them

  • Unless you change your travel plans frequently your point on flexibility misses the math.
    A $100 cancel fee vs $50 more a flight means you plan to change every other flight.

    • It may change – and hopefully soon – but for now, my assumption is going to be that my plans absolutely will change. Giving myself that wiggle room is worth the extra cost.

  • On December 16, 2021 I had a terrifying experience on Delta flight between Atlanta and Harrisburg, PA. Mechanical issue requiring quick descent back to Atlanta, questionable we could make it back (the crews’ words). I was in Economy. Delta’s response was dumping 3,000 Sky Miles into my account. I am retired and fly once or twice a year. And now they’re eliminating the program for Economy. I am terrified to fly with any airline again. Already booked for a New Year flight on Delta, I called, waited 3 hours, escalated and was told absolutely NO refund can be issued for the future flight due to Delta’s “policy.” I am very very upset and don’t know what to do

  • I find this hoopla over Delta’s BE changes to be pure silliness. Give it a rest and move on TT. I really don’t want to read about this anymore.
    They are a business and a damn good business. They have the highest brand loyalty of any airline by a mile and you get what you pay for. Delta has successfully separated itself from the pack. Their product allows them to make this differentiation.
    Fly another airline if you don’t like the way Delta does business. There are plenty of us who do. I guarantee you’ll be back and be happy to pay for main cabin.

    • If you read the full story, you’d see that I acknowledge it’s absolutely a good, strategic business decision for Delta’s bottom line and that I will, in fact, continue to fly Delta. The entire point of the story is that my decision to buy main cabin fares going forward is illustrative of why Delta has done what it’s done.

      If you don’t want to read about this anymore, you’re in control of where you click, Eric! But as always (and I mean this sincerely), I appreciate your feedback.

  • Can I go on standby for an different flight time on the same day with Basic? It seems their rule says no. But if the plane isn’t full, why not?

  • Delta is going through an identity crisis. It once stood up as a premium airline and also stood behind their premier customers. I was willing to pay more to fly Delta previously but they have stripped their customer focus and benefits down to a level that budget airlines offer. You can still be profitable and show value to your loyal customers. Come up for air Delta and decide if you are a premium airline with premium service or the budget airline you are showing up as.

  • You should never not economy plus tickets on Delta, either. These last time I paid extra for a seat, the middle seat was occupied by a kicking, screaming, and crying toddler, plus his mother. It was a miserable five-hour flight.

  • Just another casualty from the lack of competition in the industry domestically. Until we have multiple carriers or a rail industry that’s a viable alternative the consumers will continue to be squeezed.

  • I hate this, we are not completely out of the pandemic so canceling a flight should not have a penalty. It will cause some people to fly even if they have Covid symptoms which is bad for everyone. They need to rethink if they want to retain their customers loyalty.

  • Who cares! I am done with Delta.

    If you don’t want to sell discount seats, don’t. Cancel the basic economy seats altogether.

    I will fly cheapest, seat every time, comparing apples to apples and don’t care the brand.

    I hope Delta loses so much business with this lame brain steerage class passenger bullshit that they come to 5heir senses.

  • This is essentially a paid advertisement for Delta posing as a blog post.

    No wonder it’s bookended by “Yes, I’m being paid for this” disclaimers.

  • I’ve got about 300,000 miles racked up since the beginning of the covid saga.
    Made diamond organically, it’ll be interesting to see how 2022 will pan out.
    It could be my last year in the air and an early retirement seems likely….there will be more like me, and with no replacements down the line the future in many fields will be grim, timing is everything I guess.
    Good luck out there 🤞

  • I only fly Delta these days. I saw the loss of miles on basic economy. That was how I used to book my trips to Vegas, but there was one to many times that they were looking for volunteers to change flights. Overbooked, but I have never been able to take advantage of this. I always seem to have something planned that just doesn’t work out. I am now booking regular main cabin so I can get miles for travel to Guatemala.

  • Hi. I just flew Delta to Atlanta, Georgia and it was one of my best experience flying. No delays, no hoax, no issues, smoothest landing I’ve had in a very long time. I give Delta airlines 5 stars.

  • I recently flew with Delta u ssd’s ing a basic economy ticket after years of using southwest. Delta have ne a direct flight for a cheaper fare while southwest required a transfer for a ticket with a higher price than delta. I only fly once or maybe twice a year. I’m not really flying enough to accrue reward miles that I can use. So my concerns are best fare and ease of travel and delta delivered. I’m not happy with only being able to use a carry on but it did make my trip easier because I could skip baggage claim. I like the fare offered by delta. It works for those who rarely fly and are only concerned about price. Another benefit of the carry on policy with the basic fare . . . I can skip the long line of people who are checking their bag.

  • I think this is a fair account of the pros and cons of upgrading (with perhaps a click-inducing title, but no harm in that). This is the game lots of airlines have to play nowadays. With search engines like Googleflights and Kayak that will do lots of cost comparisons relatively easily for you, it’s pretty simple to do the math of what you need and how much a ticket will cost in the end. Sometimes (like in a pandemic), flexibility and upgrades will be worth the premium. Other times (like a short trip in the near future in non-pandemic times), it might not. In some ways, it’s nice to have that flexibility.

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