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Everything You Need to Know About Basic Economy Fares: A Rundown of the Rules and Restrictions

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Everything You Need to Know About Basic Economy Fares: A Rundown of the Rules and Restrictions

Max ProsperiEverything You Need to Know About Basic Economy Fares: A Rundown of the Rules and RestrictionsMillion Mile Secrets Team

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INSIDER SECRET: You can avoid paying for a checked bag by using the right credit card. That’ll make a basic economy fare an even better deal.

So you’ve just found a crazy cheap flight. You’re ecstatic because that means more money to spend when you reach your destination and you won’t have to use your frequent flyer points.

You make your way to the airline’s website and begin to look over the details. The itinerary checks out and so does the price. Then you realize . . . you’re booked into basic economy.

What’s it like in basic economy? The airline lists a few details but you’re still uncertain. Here’s what you need to know.

Want to book the cheapest fare but confused about basic economy? Here’s what you need to know. (Image via United Airlines)

First, What Is Basic Economy?

Even some frequent flyers might not completely understand basic economy fares, which are still somewhat new.

Delta Air Lines was the first US airline to introduce basic economy, back in 2012. United and American Airlines followed soon after. More recently, Alaska Airlines introduced a milder form of basic economy.

Put simply, basic economy is the cheapest and most restrictive fare you can book with an airline. It’s not a separate cabin. You will still be seated in the economy class cabin and might even score a pretty good seat. It’s essentially a super-restricted ticket. Here are a few of the common restrictions airlines have put on basic economy tickets:

  • No advance seat assignments
  • No access to overhead bins (you can only bring a personal item)
  • Checked bags for a fee even on international flights
  • Ability to earn miles or elite status reduced or eliminated
  • No option to upgrade even as a top-tier elite frequent flyer
  • You board last in the last boarding group
Basic economy is a more restrictive economy class fare. (Image via Shutterstock.com)

Another way to explain basic economy is by imagining that you’re buying a new car.

The car you want is priced at $20,000 and is the entry-level model. It has all the features you need at a great price. As you prepare to buy that car, the car company introduces a new entry-level model with fewer features and a less powerful engine. Though it doesn’t have as many features, it’s still an appealing car and meets your needs. You assume that because the car lacks certain features and is less powerful the car company would charge you less.

When you show up to buy the car, you are surprised to find out that the new entry-level model is priced at $20,000 and the car you originally wanted is now $25,000. This is essentially the basic economy fare model. Airlines charge the original price of a standard economy ticket but don’t include any extras.

If you’re just looking for the cheapest flight, you should go ahead and book that flight. If, however, you want to keep the features of the original entry-level flight, you’ll be paying more for them than you would have with the entry-level flight in the past.

Basic Economy Compared to Standard Economy

When basic economy fares first popped up, the airlines were stingy. Basic economy fares were extremely restrictive. On some airlines, this is still the case. However, some airlines like Delta and American have made some passenger-friendly changes to their basic economy fares.

Here’s an airline-by-airline break down of the rules and restrictions of basic economy fares.

Alaska Airlines has the least restrictive basic economy fare of any US airline. (Image via Shutterstock.com)

Alaska Airlines:

Q: What does Alaska Air call its basic economy?

A: Saver Fares. Any Saver Fare booked with Alaska Air is essentially basic economy.

Q: Can I check a bag when I book a Saver Fare with Alaska Airlines?

A: Yes, but for a fee. Some credit cards, however, like the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card, allow you to check a bag for free.

Q: Can I bring a carry-on bag on an Alaska flight if I book a Saver Fare?

A: Yes

Q: Can I select a seat if I book a Saver Fare?

A: Maybe. Seats are usually assigned at check-in.

Q: Will Alaska Airlines make sure I can sit next to my companion?

A: No.

Q: When will I board?

A: Passengers who book Saver Fares board last.

Q: Can I make changes to my ticket?

A: No.

Q: Can I upgrade to premium or first class?

A: Yes/No. Only paid upgrades are allowed. Complimentary upgrades are not allowed with Saver Fares.

Q: Will elite members be subject to these restrictions?

A: Yes and no. Some elite benefits are available. Benefits that are not available are related to upgrades and flight changes. See Alaska Air’s website for all elite benefit restrictions.

Q: Will I earn fewer miles with a Saver Fare?

A: No. You will earn the same number of miles.

Q: Can I avoid Saver Fares?

A: Yes. Saver Fares are still quite limited on Alaska Airlines which means you’ll still find plenty of standard economy fares on most flights. You can also use select credit cards like the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® card to avoid checked-bag fees.

American’s basic economy fare varies depending on whether you’re flying in the US or to Europe. (Image via Shutterstock.com)

American Airlines:

American Airlines originally had a very restrictive basic economy policy. They’ve let up a bit, but basic economy is still quite restrictive. Keep in mind, American offers different basic economy fares for domestic and some international flights.

Q: What does American call its basic economy?

A: Basic economy. Pretty simple.

Q: Can I check a bag when I book a basic economy fare with American? 

A: Yes, but for a fee. Some credit cards like the Citi®/AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard® allow you to check a bag for free. Elite frequent flyers can check a bag for free in basic economy when traveling to Europe.

Q: Can I bring a carry-on bag on an American Airlines flight if I book in basic economy?

A: Yes

Q: Can I select a seat if I book a basic economy fare?

A: Yes, but only 48 hours or less from departure on domestic flights. All seats will require additional payment. For flights to Europe, you can select a seat at the time of booking — for a fee.

Q: Will American Airlines make sure I can sit next to a companion?

A: Varies. American states that it will work to accommodate families with small children. If you are traveling with another adult or teenagers, there is no guarantee.

Q: When will I board?

A: Passengers who book basic economy fares board last. For American, this is either Group 9, or Group 8 on flights to Europe.

Q: Can I make changes to my ticket?

A: No, for domestic flights. Yes, for flights to Europe — for a fee.

Q: Can I upgrade to business, first, or premium economy?

A: No. Upgrades are not allowed even for elite frequent flyers.

Q: Will elite members be subject to these restrictions?

A: Yes. Some benefits are available, like free checked bags and priority boarding, should you have higher-tier elite status or select credit cards like the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard. See American’s website for all elite status restrictions.

Q: Will I earn fewer miles with an American basic economy fare?

A: Yes. AAdvantage members earn just 0.5 elite miles or segments per mile/segment flown.

Q: Can I avoid American Airlines basic economy?

A: Yes but it continues to become harder to avoid them. American still offers standard economy fares as the lowest fare on quite a few flights. On flights with basic economy as the cheapest ticket, cards like the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard will let you board earlier, check a bag for free and earn more miles.

Here’s what you need to know about Delta’s basic economy fares. (Image via Shutterstock.com)

Delta Air Lines:

Delta was the pioneer of the basic economy fare. When you book a basic economy fare with Delta, you can expect many of the same restrictions offered by American and then some. Delta is especially heavy on not allowing elite frequent flyers to use their benefits when they book basic economy.

Q: What does Delta call its basic economy?

A: Basic economy, like American and United.

Q: Can I check a bag when I book a basic economy fare with Delta?

A: Yes, but for a fee. Some credit cards, like the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, allow you to check a bag for free.

Q: Can I bring a carry-on bag on a Delta flight if I book in basic economy?

A: Yes.

Q: Can I select a seat if I book a basic economy fare?

A: No. You will be assigned a seat after you check in.

Q: Will Delta make sure I can sit next to a companion?

A: No.

Q: When will I board?

A: Passengers who book basic economy will board last.

Q: Can I make changes to my ticket?

A: No.

Q: Can I upgrade to business, first, or premium economy?

A: No. Upgrades are not allowed even for elite frequent flyers. This includes paid upgrades and upgrades to Delta Comfort+.

Q: Will elite members be subject to these restrictions?

A: Yes. Only a few benefits are available for the elite. See Delta’s website for all elite status restrictions.

Q: Will I earn fewer Delta miles in basic economy?

A: No.

Q: Can I avoid Delta basic economy?

A: Yes. Delta still offers flights without basic economy. On routes that feature basic economy, you can use the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express or the Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express to board early or check a bag for free.

United Airlines has the most restrictive basic economy fares of any US airline. (Image via Shutterstock.com)

United Airlines:

United offers the most restrictive basic economy fare of any US airline. United is the only major non-low-cost airline to prohibit carry-on bags when you book basic economy fares. Additionally, nearly every elite benefit is useless when you book a basic economy fare on United.

Q: What does United call its basic economy?

A: Basic economy.

Q: Can I check a bag when I book a basic economy fare with United?

A: Yes on domestic flights, but for a fee. Some credit cards, like the United℠ Explorer Card, allow you to check a bag for free. Yes also on European flights, but for a fee, though pricing varies.

Q: Can I bring a carry-on bag on a United flight if I book in basic economy?

A: No on domestic flights; yes on European flights.

Q: Can I select a seat if I book a basic economy fare?

A: No. Seats are assigned at check-in. You can pay for advanced seat assignments.

Q: Will United make sure I can sit next to a companion?

A: No. You will be required to pay for any advance seat assignments when available.

Q: When will I board?

A: Passengers who book basic economy board last.

Q: Can I make changes to my ticket?

A: No.

Q: Can I upgrade to business, first, or premium economy?

A: No. Upgrades are not allowed even for elite frequent flyers.

Q: Will elite members be subject to these restrictions?

A: Yes. See United’s website for all elite status restrictions.

Q: Will I earn fewer miles on United in basic economy?

A: Yes. You will earn 50% of the miles you would normally earn and 0.5 segments per segment flown.

Q: Can I avoid United basic economy?

A: Yes but it’s difficult compared to other airlines. United offers basic economy on nearly every domestic flight and on many of its international flights. You can still find a few flights that don’t feature basic economy. Some credit cards, like the United Explorer Card, will also allow you to avoid checked bag fees and earn additional miles.

JetBlue and Southwest Airlines:

Neither JetBlue nor Southwest Airlines offer basic economy fares or fares like basic economy. JetBlue recently introduced a saver fare. The only difference between a saver fare and traditional JetBlue ticket is that passengers who book this fare will have to pay to check a bag.

Southwest Airlines has no plans to introduce basic economy fares and continues to offer the same fares it has always offered.

Basic Economy on International Airlines

International airlines also offer basic economy and saver fares. These fares vary by airline but are usually similar to basic economy fares offered by US-based airlines. Often, if an international airline partners with a US airline, the two carriers’ basic economy fares will come with identical restrictions.

International airlines that offer basic economy or saver fares include:

  • Air Canada (Star Alliance)
  • Air France (SkyTeam Alliance)
  • Aer Lingus
  • British Airways (oneworld Alliance)
  • Finnair (oneworld)
  • Iberia (oneworld)
  • KLM (SkyTeam)
  • Lufthansa (Star Alliance)
  • SAS (Star Alliance)
  • TAP Portugal (Star Alliance)
  • Virgin Atlantic (partners with Delta)
Even some international airlines like British Airways offer basic economy fares. (Image via Shutterstock.com)

Should You Pay to Upgrade to Standard Economy?

Unlike a lot of other frequent flyers and points/miles enthusiasts, I don’t see the need to avoid basic economy and book in standard economy. There are times when booking the cheapest fare, even in basic economy, makes sense. If you are a traveler who isn’t after elite status, basic economy might be your best option anytime you fly. The answer to whether or not you should book basic economy comes down to the traveler.

Frequent Flyers Chasing Elite Status:

Yes. If you’re trying to achieve elite status or earn miles, you should always upgrade to standard economy fares. The fare difference on domestic flights is almost always offset by the miles you’ll earn in standard economy versus basic economy.

Frequent Flyers With Elite Status:

Yes. If you already have elite status, you should always pay the fare difference to upgrade to the standard economy fare. On many airlines, even the most elite frequent flyers won’t be able to take advantage of their elite benefits. To make matters worse, you won’t earn as many miles if you book a basic economy fare.

Families Traveling Together With Children:

Depends. I am making the assumption that you’ll want to sit next to your children during the flight. If this is the case, you’ll want to check with the airline before you book your flight. Some airlines are allowing families with younger children the ability to have seats assigned together in basic economy.

This won’t always be the case; it’s possible on some flights that there won’t be seats together. Paying the fare difference will allow you to select seats together and avoid any confusion when you get to the airport. You’ll also be able to bring carry-on bags aboard any airline’s flights.

Flyers Not After Status:

No. If you’re just after the cheapest flight and don’t care about miles or elite status and benefits, I don’t see the need to pay for standard economy. Of course, you won’t be able to select a seat in advance, might have to pay for a carry-on bag and won’t be able to check a bag. But if you’re just after a cheap flight, these might be things you’re willing to forgo. In that case, just book basic economy.

Families traveling together may want to avoid basic economy fares. (Image via Shutterstock.com)

Bottom Line

Basic economy is a nasty word to frequent flyers. I understand why they think basic economy is so awful. It means that they’ll have to pay more to earn more miles or use the benefits they earned through their elite status. At the same time, basic economy shouldn’t be a dirty word for all travelers.

If you’re looking for the cheapest fare and are willing to forgo things like carry-on bags, checked bags, earning miles or selecting seats, go ahead and book the basic economy fare. You’ll still get a seat on your flight and you’ll get to your destination at the same time as everyone else.

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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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