What Is A Basic Economy Fare?
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Basic Economy Fare. I get questions about this all the time time and I’ve used it myself when convenient as well. It does have many restrictions and unfortunately, based on my own experiences and those of my friends and readers, you get treated not so well. I’ve also written a piece about how to find the lowest fares, which will also help you when you are shopping for air fares, so you can decide once you’ve found a low fare.
Let’s delve into what it is, who sells it, why you should or shouldn’t buy it, etc. Just be clear that all airlines have some sort of basic economy fare, they may call it something else and have differing benefits though. I have a list at the bottom of this article.
Here’s the low down.
First a bit of history. Airlines used to have just one fare for everyone, well, three. First Class, Business Class and Economy Class. Then they figured, umm…, we could have what’s called Premium Economy which is Economy class, but with a few more amenities and perks.
Low cost carriers came about a few years ago and started putting pressure on the full service carriers and of course people love low fares. The full service carriers tried to compete and did not do so well. So one day someone came up with unbundling fares. This meant taking the fare and choosing a base line and then adding all the “extras” like seats, meals, etc. on that.
That seemed to work for a while and then someone (Delta was first U.S. carrier in 2012 to implement it) came up with the term Basic Economy Fares and voila, we are where we are today.
So that is really a condensed version. But there you have it.
What Do You Actually Get?
You get a seat on the plane, all situations that are detailed in the contract of carriage just like any other passenger on that flight, i.e. refunds if your flight is cancelled, delay compensation if the law allows or the airline issues it, re-booking if necessary, etc.
Outside of those, you are subject to the restriction of the ticket you bought and there are many at times depending on whom you are flying.
What Airlines Offer Basic Economy Fares?
Almost all the airlines offer this fare even if its not called this name; it has the features. Initially, the larger U.S. airlines tested on U.S. domestic flights, but now, it can also be found on international routes as well. And international carriers such as Air Canada, British Airways, Lufthansa and others offer these fares to/from the U.S and Canada.
Southwest does not offer a Basic Economy-esque fare, but they do have a low fare called Wanna Get Away which has a non-refundable restrictions. But bear in mind that Southwest does not have seat assignments.
The Anatomy Of A Basic Economy Fare
Let’s take a closer look at how the fare is made up:
- The fare is the lowest possible for that flight. Typically, you do not get a seat assignment at the time of booking, unless you want to pay for it or have a special relationship with the airline. More on that later.
- Instead, your seat is either assigned at check-in or at the airport, either when you check-in at the ticket counter or at the gate before you board.
- You are allowed a carry-on bag, but it’s size is restricted. And you will have to pay extra for it, if it’s too big and you’re caught with it at the gate.
- Usually you cannot upgrade either complimentary or paid for the fare.
- You cannot make any changes to the itinerary even if you wanted to pay the change fee and the difference in fare.
- You cannot standby for another flight.
- Typically, you don’t use it, you lose it.
I flew Basic Economy fares on the three big U.S. airlines American, Delta and United and here are my findings:
How To Find Basic Economy Fares
If I don’t know the airlines serving my route, I start all my searches on Google.com/flights as it gives me a good picture of all the airlines serving my route as well as the fares. And if I’m flexible, it will show me the dates I can fly to get a lower fare.
But those lower fares may be Basic Economy Fares, so watch out. They are usually denoted by a carry-in bag icon with a line through it and a circle around it.
I’ve also initiated searches on the airline’s Web site themselves and they all clearly mark the Basic Economy fares, show you the amenities/restrictions and try to upsell you to the next best fare.
Let’s take a look at my experiences on American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines so you get a feel for what it’s like.
I was trying to get to New York from Houston and also needed to complete a status challenge with American Airlines. Basically, I need to spend $850 and earn 7,000 miles by September 25 2019 and I’ll get Gold status until early 2021. The challenge started on June 25, 2019 and I’ve not flown any segments as yet when I took this flight.
I do have another flight scheduled for later in September 2019, but I’d be short the miles for the challenge, so I needed to find a quick trip somewhere to make up the difference.
I used Google Flights and found a fare of $264.31 one way on American Airlines connecting via Dallas to LaGuardia, my airport of choice in NY as its closer to where my friends live as I stay with them. I held it for 24 hours as is allowed by American and continued to do some some more searching.
I then found a regular Main Cabin (Economy) much lower fare for $102.50 from Houston to Newark via Charlotte and even with paying the $13 on NJ Transit train to Penn Station, it was still a good deal and lower than any fare I could get flying into LaGuardia. So I bought it and cancelled the other one. Which was a bummer as one leg was on the retiring MD80; oh well, it was way too pricey.
I could also request the 500-mile upgrade, which did not clear on the Houston to Charlotte segment, but did clear on the Charlotte to Newark segment which was the shorter one. I also got full miles for this segment.
American allows you to hold for 24 hours so I did while I continue searching. I then found a Basic Economy fare for $115.50 leaving from LaGuardia connecting via Charlotte to Houston. The Main Cabin Fare was $151 (not too bad) and the First Class Fare was $250.
The rules of the Basic Economy are clearly stated on American’s site.
The rules were clearly displayed for me.
Elite Member Perks
Now, I’m currently a Gold Elite member so some of the Basic Economy rules do not apply. One of them is boarding priority. I board at Group 4 as opposed to Group 9 if I did not have any status; I found that out when I checked in. The other is checked baggage cost as I am able to check a bag for free and take a full size carry-on.
I’m still not eligible for any type of upgrades and I can’t use my 500-mile upgrade certificates that were given to me as a result of the challenge. I also had some more from previous flights.
In terms of Seats, I had to pay for a seat at the time of booking or wait until check-in and one would be randomly assigned to me.
When I checked-in 24 hours before, my seats were assigned, but could not be changed unless I wanted to pay for a different seat, which was available. Seat prices varied based on where you were sitting. Luckily I got a window seat on the A side, so I was quite happy and as it turns out, I had the middle seat open the whole time and the aisle too.
Just before I arrived at the airport, I was also solicited via a message from the App to volunteer my seat at a price between $100 and $250, I chose $250 but I was not selected sadly. So Basic Economy seats are eligible for being bumped and compensation.
Day of Departure
At the airport check-in counter and on the kiosk in LaGuardia, I tried to change my seat and was told I could not as I had a Basic Economy ticket. I could if I wanted to pay; it was $17 for the seat that was available at that time.
At the gate in LaGuardia, I saw a customer go ask the agent for a seat and he scoffed at her and told her to wait. He then called her back and gave her a seat.
There were some names on the standby list, but I did not know if they were Basic Economy passengers or just airline staff or other paid customers waiting for a seat.
For the Charlotte to Houston segment on the Airbus A321, I had row 26E, a middle seat. I tried to change it in LaGuardia, but the agent said nope as I’m on a Basic Economy ticket I can’t; she was quite nice about it.
In Charlotte, I asked the agent nicely once they arrived about an hour or so before departure and she gave me 10B. I mentioned that I had a bus to catch in Houston and it left very soon after we arrived. I had timed getting off the plane in Charlotte as I was in 26A and it took 12 minutes to get off the plane. That would have caused me to miss the bus.
I need to catch that bus as I was renting a car from Avis and it was $111 with taxes from the airport and only $43 from the downtown location; except it closed at 6p and the scheduled arrival was 4:18p!
So, I had a pretty good experience on American and I think my Gold status helped and I did not check any bags and I only had my backpack which is the normal carry-on size. I also had a personal item; i.e. a much smaller backpack with electronics and stuff.
What is Delta Basic Economy
I was in Atlanta, GA (ATL) and needed to get to New York in January of 2019. I looked around and found an excellent fare on Delta into LaGuardia. At the time, I was a Delta SkyMiles Gold Medallion member.
I looked and realized there was no carry-on restriction and I’d actually get miles for the trip, albeit, not the full amount. But worked well as that meant I don’t have to worry about having to check my backpack and pay for it.
I found this great fare for $98.30 and decided that it would work for me, even with the restrictions. The next level fare was $35 higher and I didn’t need to do that. So I bought it.
The next screen did show me the perks of my Basic Economy fare as well as what it would take to upgrade to the next level fare and also gave me a chance to do the upgrade or keep what I have. I accepted the restrictions and moved on.
I had no opportunity to select seats so I pressed on to pay.
Day Before Departure Before Check-in Time
I could actually pay $29 to get a different seat; a regular seat in Main Cabin it said. I declined.
I was given a seat; a middle seat. Trying to change that seat to another middle seat, did not yield a charge. No aisles or window seats showed open which was a little suspect.
Day of Departure
I looked at the seatmap again and was able to change my seat to 37F without a charge. This was a little under 2 hours before departure. Yeah, this way I could get great photo of New York while landing.
United Basic Economy
Being the Aviation geek I am, I always wanted to fly in Paine Field in Washington state in the town of Everett. So when United has $100 fares form Houston to Paine Field, I was elated and found an itinerary that worked. But it’s all in Basic Economy. Oh crap.
I have the United card from the Continental days (its no longer available) so I get some special perks regardless of the ticket I buy; priority boarding, United Club access and two free checked bags. It’s why I stress that you should be loyal to the airline you are using as you do get some amazing perks.
I decided to use the United card to pay for the ticket in one direction and the American Express card to pay for it in the other direction. This way I could compare the treatment I receive and see if it was any different.
I even looked at taking American, but they don’t serve Paine Field and the combined fare with their partner American Airlines was much higher.
As you go through the booking process, its pretty clear the difference in fares as well at the restrictions. You have a chance to change your mind as well. I decided to carry on and purchase the fare as I had a small carry-on bag and kind of didn’t care where I sat and figured how full would a 7:30a flight be on a Wednesday? Also, didn’t mind not getting full credit. And know that there’s no way I’d get an upgrade on this flight anyways since I don’t even have any Elite status with United; I’m Silver with Singapore Airlines until August 31, 2019.
On the next page, I was also given an option to Upgrade to the next fare level; I declined. I actually don’t think they want you to buy this fare :-).
I wasn’t assigned a seat at the time of booking as the terms said. I could have, but would have to pay for the seat. I did not want to pay. Here’s a look at the prices on both legs of the flight.
There are different baggage options depending on your relationship with United. You can see in the screens below. For example, as I have the Presidential Plus card with them, I don’t pay for the first and second bag, a Silver member would pay for the first and if you have no relationship you pay for both first and second bag.
Day Before Departure
I did get my check-in reminders 24 hours before my departure. I used the United App to check-in for both flights, I was assigned a seat and I could not change the seat. I got 38A on the first leg and 21C on the second leg. I got Group 2 Premier Access due to my relationship with United (Presidential Plus card)
I’m reminded that I have a Basic Economy ticket as I go through the process with the word “Basic Economy”.
On the return journey, I was also assigned seats and had no way to change it. Got 18A a window on the first leg and and 42D on the second leg.
Also, despite the fact that I did not use the Presidential Plus card to buy the second ticket, I still got Group 2 boarding as the relationship is a part of my profile. Otherwise, my Group would have been 5; the last Group.
I arrived at the airport super early as I wanted to use the Lounge. Security was smooth and as I had Group 2 so I boarded easily and got my seat 38A. As it turns the other two seats in my row were empty too.
In San Francisco, I asked the agent to change to a window seat and he changed me to 19D without any issues.
On the return, there were delay issues and I missed the original 11:55p connecting flight, but was able to change to the 1p departure instead of the 5a departure that the automated re-booking system had placed me.
The agent was kind of odd when I showed her my boarding pass for the later flight and told her that I was trying to get on the 1:00a flight due to the weather-related delay. She hesitated but took care of me and I got a middle extra legroom seat as there were no other regular seats available.
Apart from the weather delay, the experience was fine. I got across the country for $200, you can’t beat that.
Why Would Anyone Buy A Basic Economy Fare?
So if these fares are so terrible, i.e. restrictions, why do people buy them you may ask?
To demonstrate this I just (on August 26, 2019) did a search from Houston to Orlando for September 3 returning on the 9th on Google Flights first, then chose the United option; my other competitive option are Frontier and Spirit who also flies this route and is the reason for United having the Basic Economy fare so they can compete. And look, Google Flights is now offering a price guarantee! What do you think?
By the time I chose the departure and the return flights the Basic Economy fare is $134 and the regular Economy fare is $367. That’s a difference of $233, you could almost take three persons on the trip. Also, even at $30 per bag, it does not come anywhere near the normal economy class price. I also did it on United.com and got the same fares:
Had I chosen the Frontier price I’d have to choose Spirit to return and would have to buy the tickets separately from the two Web sites or from Priceline.com, Google’s travel agent of record until they become their own airline travel agent.
Now notice the restrictions, but if I have Elite status or a United credit card, I can take a full size carry-on. I still won’t get to pick a seat at the time of booking, but I pay for one if I choose to do so.
Here’s another example on Delta Air Lines for Houston to Atlanta.
So this is one major reason why people buy Basic Economy tickets as sometimes they are so much lower than the price of the regular fare.
How Basic Economy Fares Affect Corporate Bookings
Typically, corporations will look for the lowest fare in an effort to save money. Choosing a Basic Economy fare, may not really save them any money as sometimes the difference between the Basic Economy Fare with many restrictions and the First level of Economy Fare with not so many restrictions is the cost of a bag.
Some corporate booking tools can and do handle this, but it’s worth looking into at your company.
A friend of mine bought a Basic Economy fare as she was attending a funeral, right here in Houston. Last minute, great fare so she bought it.
As most do, she did not read the part about the luggage size. She called me up and I advised here of all the restrictions.
She was very frustrated with the process of checking in and also at the airport waiting for a seat and having the size of her carry-on that she uses all the time scrutinized.
On the return, she just checked her bag in so she would not have to worry about that, but still had to wait for a seat at the gate before boarding. By now she was completely annoyed. She vows never to buy another Basic Economy fare and have not.
I’ve watched as agents scoff at passengers who come to the gate and ask them for a seat assignment. They are told to wait, but with an attitude. Look. if there is a seat available, and the customer is at the gate asking you for a seat, please give it to them. What are you waiting for?
As a result of customer complaints, American now allows you to take a carry-on item plus a personal item.
Here are some popular questions that I see being asked and their answers:
What is the difference between main cabin and basic economy?
A. Main cabin is a higher fare and gives you benefits of choosing your seat at the time of booking and also a higher boarding priority. You can find more information on Delta.com.
What is the difference between economy and basic economy?
A. Basic Economy is a sub-class of Economy class. You can sit next to someone who has bought a regular economy class fare.
Can I bring a carry on with United Basic Economy?
A. Yes, but its not a full size carry-on luggage. If you do, you will have to pay extra for that carry-on. You may also be charged to check it as checked luggage depending on the gate agent.
What is basic economy Delta?
A. Basic economy Delta is a cheaper fare to fly in Economy class with more restrictions than the higher economy class fare. You can find more information on Delta.com.
Is Basic Economy Worth It?
So, at the end of the day, is Basic Economy worth it? Well, that depends :-).
In all my cases, yes, but I had a relationship with the airlines so that made it better. Although I did not get the full amount of frequent flyer mileage credits for the flights, it suited my purpose in every case.
If you’re traveling with a family, it may be worth it, but you have to pay extra to sit together if the children are younger. In some cases this may still be less than buying the higher fare, but always do the Math.
If you’re checking a bag, then look at the difference in the cost of the ticket to see if it may be worthwhile.
Do you want to be frustrated by not knowing where you’re sitting? You may get a middle seat and you’ll have to keep it. If it’s a long flight, this may make a difference.
In the example I show above, its totally worth it as the savings are huge on the Houston to Orlando and Houston to Atlanta fares, even when you add the extras unless you’re a frequent flyer and looking for a certain amount of miles and dollars spent to make elite status.
So weigh the options and decide. You hold the key to the right answer.
Basic Economy Information By Airline
To help you make your decision, here is a list of airlines offering basic economy fares along with their rule:
Alaska Airlines (AS) – called Saver
Air Canada (AC) – called Economy Basic
Air France (AF) called Light and Standard
British Airways (BA) called Basic Fare; these are for international routes and there is no seat selection at the time of booking as well as there is a price for checking a bag.
Finnair (AY) – called Light Economy
Hawaiian Airlines (HA) – called Main Cabin Basic; not yet implemented as of this writing
Swiss (LX) called Economy Light. You will see the rules when you select a flight and it’s available as a subset of Economy Class. Checked bags, seat assignments and priority boarding are all for a fee. No rebooking, no upgrades, no refunds.
TAP Portugal (TP) – called Discount (10% miles, carry-on (hand luggage (8kg))), upgrade with cash or miles, seat at check-in, no changes
Virgin Atlantic Airways (VS) called Economy Light (Meals, drinks and snacks included; carry-on (hand luggage) only, standard seat assigned at check-in; no checked luggage allowance; 25% mileage; tier points earned; no changes or refunds; no priority check-in; paid or mileage upgrades not allowed
VivaAerobus (VB) called vivalight
What are your thoughts on Basic Economy Fares? Have you bought them? Leave a comment here to let me know.