Basic Economy Buyer Beware: The Good, the Bad & Mostly Ugly

To say Basic Economy fares are frustrating and confusing is an understatement. Regardless of how often you travel, this fare category is something we all need to understand, especially so we don’t book these fares without intentionally meaning to. That’s what happened to my friend. Maybe it’s happened to you too? She’s not blaming the airlines, though. She didn’t quite understand and didn’t pay good attention to what she was booking. But she won’t make that mistake again! In talking to her, I realized it would be a good idea to explain what Basic Economy fares mean and to understand what restrictions are placed on your ticket.

The three legacy airlines all have a Basic Economy category. Delta was the first one to introduce these fares, but now United and American Airlines have them as well. Each of them have their own set of restrictions. In general, though, the restrictions usually mean: NO advance seat selection, NO carry-on baggage allowances (your personal item will have to fit under the seat in front of you), last to board, NO accruing miles for the trip, fares are non-refundable and non-changeable, and other restrictions. Delta’s policy is slightly different on a few of these, so check each airline carefully. The legacy airlines see this as competing with what we might call the Low Cost Carriers such as Southwest and JetBlue. Or competing with the Ultra Low Cost Carriers such as Frontier and Spirit.

Delta flight options with various fare classes

Delta Basic Economy vs. Main Cabin. Choose wisely!

However, as we’ve started to see, these Basic Economy fares are also showing up on routes that the Low Cost Carriers and Ultra Low Cost Carriers don’t even fly. We need to be aware of this because we’re often getting less but paying more (or the same) than we used to in some of these markets because the fares are called Basic Economy. Think higher fare for an inferior experience.

My friend asked me if she should EVER book a Basic Economy fare. Of course, that’s the essential question, isn’t it? Once we FULLY understand what the restrictions are in this class of service, we have to look at prices. Here are the questions to ask yourself before purchasing a Basic Economy ticket:

  1. Is your trip a short one where you can only take one small personal item like a backpack? This would avoid extra fees. I’ve traveled with my friend and this will be her biggest challenge :)
  2. Is the Basic Economy fare a GREAT one? Added fees and frustrations are manageable if the fare saves you a chunk of change.
  3. What are your other options? How much more expensive are they? Fares can range from a $50 difference one way for Main Cabin to as little as $3. Traveling with these fare restrictions is an individual choice we all make and it may change from trip to trip. And is that cheaper fare really saving you money once you add in extras like seat assignments or carry-on baggage fees? Let math be your friend!

United flight options with various fare classes

United Basic Economy vs. Economy. Choose wisely!

There’s been a lot of confusion when people book these Basic Economy fares and although the airlines and booking sites have gotten better at disclosing Basic Economy fare restrictions, you really must pay attention. Avoiding booking these fares can be tricky. The major online travel agencies (OTAs) such as Priceline, Orbitz, or Expedia do not make it easy to filter out these fares, so always look to see if it says Basic Economy before you click through to get more details on the fare. The legacy airline websites make it a bit easier to spot these fares, but it’s still a “buyer beware” situation, so carefully check prices and fare classes. Don’t rush through the booking process. And don’t book these fares thinking you’ll be able to talk your way out of the restrictions when you get to the airport. I’ve seen people try to do this and it’s just not a pretty scene, and I’ve never seen anyone be successful, either.

Recently, a fellow traveler brought a good work-around to my attention. KAYAK allows you to filter out Basic Economy. By clicking the “More Filters” option, you can de-select Basic Economy. This actually filters out ALL no frills results, so what they show when Basic Economy is filtered out will be a traditional fare which includes a seat assignment and a carry-on option. You know, like the good old days!

If you’re frustrated by all this Basic Fare restricted services nonsense, you can often choose to spend your money elsewhere. I’m a big fan of Alaska and JetBlue. Alaska serves me well, and on the East Coast, JetBlue often has great fares and serves many cities, too. Of course there’s always Southwest! If you play the Basic Economy game well, it could save you some money. But it’s important to know the rules and do the math. This helps you from feeling frustrated and keeps you playing the game on your own terms!

Have you booked these fares by mistake? Have you booked them on purpose? What’s been your experience? Did I miss any points that would help people understand the Basic Economy fares better? Let me know in the comments below.

8 thoughts on “Basic Economy Buyer Beware: The Good, the Bad & Mostly Ugly

  1. Larry D

    Anyone know if I purchase a Basic Economy fare with the airline’s credit card, will I still get a “free checked bag” and if so, I presume I would only need to have a Delta or American credit card, and wouldn’t even need to use it to purchase the ticket.

  2. Shelli Post author

    HI Larry, Great question. I believe rule/explanation #2 under the United example addresses your question. Do check each airline’s rules, though, as they differ some and can change. In this case reading the fine print will help you not be surprised at fees tacked on. Hope that helps, and thanks for reading.

  3. henry LAX

    i’ve flown B/E once knowing full well what its limitations are, but it worked for that day because :

    1. it’s same-day trip and i virtually had no bags
    2. my status allowed priority boarding anyway
    3. by luck, i got assigned economy plus window seat
    4. the price differential was $106 vs. ~$190
    5. i didn’t need the extra elite qualifying miles or dollars

    But yea, it’s definitely not for the faint hearted.

    1. Shelli Post author

      Thanks so much for your summary, Henry. In your case it definitely made sense to book a B/E ticket. I think the analysis you did is what other people should do before choosing a B/E fare. Thanks for reading!

  4. Jon W.

    Honestly unless the ONLY choices for your budget is Spirit, Allegiant, or a Basic Economy ticket on Delta/American/United, I don’t see a reason to book a basic economy ticket. And those times are fairly rare since most of those routes usually also are flown by Southwest, JetBlue, and/or Alaska/Virgin America who will generally match the price while still allowing “normal” stuff for free like an overhead carry on bag, etc.

    For instance, there’s a great intra-California flight sale right now. Needing to go to SoCal from the Bay Area for the weekend of Oct 21 (and if schedules align, perhaps an Underbelly or Bird Rock meet up Shelli?) I see various fares for $29 on Spirit, JetBlue, Southwest, and United Basic Economy. And it’s only $49 on Virgin America from SFO/OAK to LAX/LGB/SAN. So unless schedule and/or budget is really important, I don’t see why you’d book a basic economy ticket.

    1. Shelli Post author

      Your comment gave me a good laugh, Jon. I was just at Underbelly last night:) Grant promises the next time he’s in SD he’ll try it. But alas, I digress! You make a good point. It really does require knowing WHO flies the routes and then comparing the savings. And then perhaps knowing your price point for savings. Is saving $50 worth it, or maybe a higher dollar value becomes the cut-off point? I haven’t flown Spirit, Allegiant or B/E, so I haven’t had to decide those questions for myself yet. I also think the name Basic Economy keeps people thinking it’s an economy, as they’ve known it, fare. It really should be called NO Frills Economy or Below Economy. Thanks for reading, and have a great evening!

  5. Diane

    Even when considering from the lowest of the lowest, the Basic Economy tickets from United Airlines and American Airlines give you the least bang for your buck. For example, I am in a situation where I have tickets from these airlines for a trip I can no longer make, which I know well ahead of time. Had I gone through Spirit (same price), I would have also had the option of exchanging the tickets for travel credit, but this right (its absence not explicitly stated anywhere) is stripped from me from United and American. When major airlines deliver less than a low fare airline for the same buck (contrary to what one would assume)… it’s a new low really. Legacy airlines have to go.

    1. Shelli Post author

      Thank you for sharing your story, Diane. Frustrating. That’s a valuable data point that I didn’t cover in the article, and surely one to add to the UGLY list. I hope everyone reads your comment and understands if they can’t make the flight they are out of the money on a B/E ticket.


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