How I Won (and Lost!) Booking American Airlines Basic Economy

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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.

How I Won And Lost Booking American Airlines Basic Economy
American Airlines Basic Economy Fares Are No Frills. But I Felt Confident I’d Worked Around the Negatives by Having an American Airlines Credit Card

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.

How I Won And Lost Booking American Airlines Basic Economy
If You Have a Lot of Luggage, American Airlines Basic Economy Fares Might End up Costing You More

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

The information for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum and CitiBusiness AAdvantage Platinum card has been collected independently by Million Mile Secrets. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

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.

How I Won And Lost Booking American Airlines Basic Economy
The Flight Was Nearly Full, so When My Seat Was Assigned at Check-In, I Ended up in Main Cabin Extra With Plenty of Legroom

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!

How I Won And Lost Booking American Airlines Basic Economy
Again, the Only Seats Left at Check-In Had Extra Legroom. I Didn’t Pay an Extra $21 for a Comfier Seat

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.

How I Won And Lost Booking American Airlines Basic Economy
There’d Be No Happy Reunion at the Airport This Time, Even Though There Were Plenty of Open Seats on the Earlier Flight

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.  🙂

Bottom Line

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.

Jasmin Baron was an editor at Million Mile Secrets. She covers topics on points and miles, credit cards, airlines, hotels, and general travel. Her work has appeared in The Points Guy and Business Insider.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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