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On a recent trip, I gambled on buying an American Airlines Basic Economy fare. These are the lowest-priced coach fares which do NOT include seat selection, checked bags, or carry-on bags that don’t fit under the seat in front of you. And you’re in the last boarding group.
Because I have the CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Mastercard®, which gets me a free checked bag and priority boarding regardless, I wasn’t worried about paying for checked luggage or getting on the airplane early. It was only a ~1.5 hour regional jet flight with no middle seats, so I wasn’t terribly fussed about where I sat.
I saved ~$50 on my round-trip flight. And ended up in better seats than I anticipated. But there was one variable I didn’t factor in.
Here’s more about why you should (or should NOT) consider an American Airlines Basic Economy fare.
Getting Around American Airlines Basic Economy Fare Restrictions
1. What Are the American Airlines Basic Economy Fare Rules?
Deeply-discounted American Airlines coach fares within the US and to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Europe are now called “Basic Economy.” Essentially, they’re “unbundled” fares which get you from point A to point B without anything extra added in.
Similar to low-cost airlines like Spirit or Frontier, you’ll pay extra fees for:
- Seat selection – on North American flights, you can pay extra to choose a seat within 48 hours of departure (any time for Europe flights). Otherwise, you’ll be assigned a seat when you check-in
- Checked bags
Note: In the past, American Airlines restricted Basic Economy passengers to one “personal item” that could fit underneath the seat. Now, you’re allowed a personal item and a carry-on bag that fits in the overhead bin.
You’re also among the last to board the plane. And flight changes are NOT allowed, except for European flights which are permitted for a fee.
2. There Are Workarounds to Dodge Some of the Restrictions
You can save money with American Airlines Basic Economy fares if you’re traveling light or don’t care where you sit. And they’re an even better deal for folks with American Airlines credit cards.
That’s because with certain cards, you’ll be allowed a free checked bag on domestic flights and preferred or priority boarding:
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®
CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Mastercard®
- Barclaycard American Airlines Aviator Red
But there’s no card that offers free seat selection on these flights.
I’d read online that because you can’t check-in until 24 hours before departure, there’s a possibility on nearly-full flights that you might get assigned a “Main Cabin Extra” seat at no charge because they’re the only coach seats left. These are in the front coach section or bulkhead / emergency exit rows with extra legroom, and normally cost more than a regular coach seat.
I have the CitiBusiness / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Mastercard, so on a recent short hop on a regional jet to Charlotte, I booked a Basic Economy fare. I knew I’d still get a free checked bag and preferred boarding, so figured saving $50 was worth it. The seating was in a 2-2 configuration, so there was no possibility of getting stuck in a middle seat. And my flight dates were firm so I wasn’t worried about having to change or cancel the trip.
When it came time to check-in, the only seats left were in Main Cabin Extra. I ended up in a window seat with extra legroom, on the cheapest fare, without having to pay an extra dime.
The same thing happened on the return flight home. Just before checking-in online 24 hours prior to departure, I checked the seat chart and saw only Main Cabin Extra seats were left. Yes!
I was feeling a little smug for scoring a premium seat – twice – on a basic economy fare. Kinda like I’d beaten American Airlines at their own game. But when my schedule changed later the day of my return, they showed me who was boss.
3. I Didn’t Read the Fine Print … and Missed Out on a Night With My Kids
My original flight was supposed to leave after 10:00 pm. But when my meetings in Charlotte ended early, I figured I’d just go to the airport and standby for the earlier flight that left at ~4:00 pm.
That way, I’d be home around suppertime and be able to spend extra time with my kids instead of leaving them at their dad’s for an extra night. I hadn’t seen them for a week! 🙁
For $75, American Airlines allows folks to standby for a same-day earlier flight within the US, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands, provided the routing and number of stops are the same. I’ve done this a couple of times in the past.
Although I was aware American Airlines Basic Economy fares don’t allow flight changes or cancellations, the American Airlines page detailing their same-day standby policy didn’t specifically exclude them. So I headed to the check-in counter, credit card in hand, and asked to pay the $75 fee for the (not full) earlier flight.
The agent shut me down. “You can’t. You’re on a Basic Economy fare.”
I pleaded. I just really wanted to give them $75 so I could get home to see my kids. Unfortunately, the agent explained, these fares aren’t eligible for ANY change at all – even a same-day standby. Digging further into the fine print, I realized that was indeed the case. Ugh.
I’d never been sad about an airline NOT wanting to take my money before. It seemed really backwards to me. Wouldn’t they rather the extra revenue from a passenger who’d already paid a fare and would just be occupying an otherwise empty seat?
And I was annoyed at myself for not reading all the fine print. I’d only quickly read over the same-day standby policy and assumed all would be well at the airport. As a result, I ended up sitting around for ~6 hours when I could have been checking out the fun things I’d still wanted to see in Charlotte.
It wasn’t all bad, I suppose. My co-workers who have American Airlines Admirals Club lounge access from the Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard “guested” me into the lounge, and we got to hang out and stuff ourselves with complimentary snacks and drinks. 🙂
I felt a bit like I’d beaten the system when I saved ~$50 booking a American Airlines Basic Economy fare and ended up with free extra-legroom seats. Plus, because I have the CitiBusiness / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Mastercard, I still qualified for a free checked bag and preferred boarding.
But after my schedule changed, I learned the hard way that these fares won’t even let you do a same-day standby (for a $75 fee) on an earlier flight. So I spent ~6 hours twiddling my thumbs in the Charlotte airport waiting for my original late-night flight (albeit on American Airlines’ dime, indulging in drinks and snacks in the Admirals Club lounge). And missed out on an extra night with my children. 🙁
Lesson learned – American Airlines Basic Economy fares truly lock you in to a specific flight if you’re traveling in the US. There’s no wiggle room for ANY changes. So if there’s even the slimmest chance you’ll want to change your flight (even to one leaving the same day), I’d avoid these fares and cough up the extra cash for a regular coach ticket.