How to Survive a Flight in Basic Economy
United and American joined Delta in 2017 to offer an option called “basic economy” to compete with no-frills, low-cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier. As with all things, you get what you pay for, and in the case of basic economy, that’s truly just the essentials. Each airline has its own definition of what essentials are included, but the easiest way to scale expectations is to know that the only thing you’re getting is a seat—and an unassigned seat at that.
What Is Basic Economy? The Pros
There’s only one real benefit to basic economy: the price. And that it gives customers some buying power with the a la carte model—pay only for what you want, whether it be a pre-assigned seat or access to the overhead bin.
So, if you travel frequently, especially on shorter flights, this could be a good-value option, as long as you don’t mind just getting the basics. And let’s be honest, anything beats Spirit and Frontier, so you’re upgrading your overall experience, and at least Delta, United, and American typically have TVs and snack and beverage service.
Jeff Klee of CheapAir.com makes a case that basic economy fares give people looking for low fares some more flight options, which is a pro for cheaper air travel overall. Low-cost carries typically only offer one or two flights daily in each market, and now there are tons more options. He also notes that basic economy fares let customers earn rewards points on these three major airlines, at a lower price.
What Is Basic Economy? The Cons
Basic economy fares set a problematic precedent though, proving to airlines that there’s a market for miserable, but cheaper travel. And the introduction of basic economy also reduces the number of traditional economy fares available.
There’s a negative trickle-down effect, too: Even if an airline decides to stick with the standard main cabin and business or first class cabin, it might still look to cut back on certain things like legroom, since now the industry bare minimum as a point of comparison has been lowered.
Other cons of basic economy fares include surcharges on basic amenities. If you’re not careful, you could end up spending even more than a standard fare by paying for things you actually want or need, like seat selection, upgrades, and carry-on bags.
You also lose flexibility and refund or change options with a basic economy fare.
Know What’s Included in Your Basic Economy Fare
With basic economy, it’s important to read the fine print. Here’s what you get on each of the three current major airlines offering basic economy fares.
On American, you get a seat in the main cabin, free snacks and soft drinks, in-flight entertainment, but with the following restrictions: no access to overhead bins, your seats are assigned at check-in or you pay a fee to choose a specific seat, there are no flight changes or refunds (except if you have AAdvantage Elite Status member or eligible AAdvantage credit card members), you’re not eligible for upgrades or priority privileges, and you board in the last group.
On Delta, you get a seat in the main cabin, complimentary snacks and beverages, access to overhead bin space, as well as in-flight entertainment; however, you’ll have the following restrictions: no seat assignment until after check-in at the gate, you won’t be eligible for same-day changes or ticket refunds after the Risk Free Cancellation Period, you must board in the last zone, and you’re not eligible for paid or complimentary upgrades or preferred seats.
On United, you get a seat in the main cabin, food and beverage selection, access to United Wi-Fi, and in-flight entertainment. There is no seat selection or upgrade option, no group and family seating, no access to overhead bins unless you’re a MileagePlus Premier member, MileagePlus credit card, or Star Alliance Gold member; no ticket changes (even same-day changes), you also must board in the last boarding group (unless you’re a MileagePlus Premier/credit card member or Star Alliance Gold member), no refunds (except if in the United 24-hour flexible window), and they specify that you can only carry on one personal item.
Kayak offers a handy tool that shows you when a basic economy fare is available. Look for the two small drop-down menus, one labeled “Basic Economy” and the other “Main Cabin” when searching on basic economy fare airlines or routes. When you click this drop-down, you’ll also see what’s included in each fare type.
Editor’s Note: All details and restrictions are not included here and are subject to change. Check each airline’s website for specific details and fees regarding basic economy fares.
It’s no secret that being restricted to just a personal item is probably the worst part of basic economy (and low-cost carriers). To avoid hefty surcharges and checked bag fees, make sure you fit the baggage and weight requirements for basic economy fares. This often means packing light. To maximize your space, take a look at these 10 bags that will fit under the seat in front of you. To truly maximize your savings, you’re going to want to comply with this restriction.
Check in Early
Since your seat is assigned at check-in, you may have a greater chance of getting a window or aisle seat if you check in before others. Or you can try and be friendly with the gate agent and see if you can pick from what’s available.
BYO – Entertainment and Snacks
While the three airlines offering basic economy fares provide you with entertainment, snacks and beverages, it’s still worth preparing to not have these amenities since many of the shorter flights on these airlines—which might be the only bearable way to fly in basic economy—limit them.
Splurge on Other Perks
If you’re going bare bones for your flight, maybe it’s worth splurging on a lounge day pass or massage at the airport with the money you’ll be saving. Many airport lounges offer perks or amenities like coffee, headphones, or snacks that you can take with you on the flight.