With Alaska Airlines set to join American, Delta, and United in offering no-frills basic economy fares (Alaska will be calling them Saver Fares), almost every airline in the U.S. market now offers some form of bare-bones, nothing-but-a-seat flights.
At first, this doesn’t seem like a bad thing. If your primary objective is to get from point A to point B, why worry about frills of any kind? But the problem arises when you’re unaware of just how minimal some of these offerings can be. For instance, who ever thought that a major airline would sell you a fare that explicitly has zero access to overhead bins? Now there are several that do (though it is worth noting that Southwest, Hawaiian, and JetBlue have so far avoided basic economy fares, and are worth a look if you are flying on their routes).
How Basic Economy Fares Can Screw You
In the spirit of “forewarned is forearmed,” following is a guide to the disadvantages of purchasing a basic economy fare—any of which could cause some major irritation on your trip.
Note that most of these practices are simply standard policy on ultra-discount airlines such as Spirit and Frontier; for that reason I haven’t included their fare rules below. When booking a flight on such airlines, expect plenty of restrictions and fees for just about everything, including seat assignments and carry-on bags.
Limited or Fee-Only Seat Assignments
Seat assignments for flyers on basic economy fares vary by airline, but in general you get what you’re given. American will charge $40 and up for a seat assignment 48 hours before checking in; United allows the same for $5 or $10. On Delta, seats are assigned at check-in; Alaska plans to let you pick seats at the time of booking, but they will apparently be in the back of the plane.
No Group or Family Seating
Even if you fly an airline that does permit some basic economy seat selection, sitting together is not guaranteed. United’s basic economy fare offering specifically says “no group or family seating,” while Delta restricts the ability to “select available seats, including seats together”—so be careful about basic economy fares if you are traveling with young kids.
You’ll Be Last to Board
Flyers on basic economy fares will be in the last boarding group in almost all cases. So even for airlines that do allow you to use (or pay for) space in the overhead bins, there’s no guarantee that you will actually find any remaining.
Baggage Is Restricted—as Are the Overhead Bins
Basic economy baggage policies currently vary somewhat across the major airlines. For basic economy flyers on U.S. domestic flights, American allows no baggage whatsoever save for a personal item that fits under the seat in front of you, banning any use of the overhead bins. United allows the personal item at no charge and charges $25 for anything that will only fit into the overhead bin.
Delta is the least restrictive of the three major airlines, offering a free carry-on and personal item. It will also gate-check your bag for free if the overhead bins are full by the time you board.
For airlines that offer basic economy on international flights, policies are sometimes a bit more permissive; both American and Delta allow a carry-on, with a fee for all checked baggage. United is not currently offering basic economy on international flights, but may do so later this year.
Forget About Upgrades…
Even if you want to shell out the cash to upgrade from your basic economy fare, in many cases you are not allowed. This includes elite flyers.
As noted above, American does allow you to purchase seat assignments starting 48 hours before your flight, but otherwise no fare class changes are permitted. United says that “Upgrades and Economy Plus are not available”; in other words, you will get what you paid for and can’t decide later to upgrade at all. Delta and Alaska also prohibit upgrades for flyers on basic economy fares.
…or Changes of Any Kind
Forget about same-day ticket changes or standby flying if you’re on a basic economy fare. Alaska, United, Delta, and Alaska all prohibit such changes, even if you’re willing to pay the fare difference.
You Might Not Get Full Mileage Credit
If you are thinking of flying basic economy to help you rack up miles, think again. For example, on American, even if you are an elite flyer, you will earn only half the air miles; meanwhile, on United, you get the miles, but no Premier credit.
Delta and Alaska, however, are more generous and permit normal mileage accrual.
Don’t Expect Expedited Security
Unless you are a TSA PreCheck and/or Global Entry member, don’t expect a magic expedited security stamp on your boarding pass; you are so far at bottom of list that you’re not on the list.
Tips for Flying on a Basic Economy Fare
Even if you choose to purchase a basic economy seat, there are some ways to improve your overall experience.
- Fly a plane with no middle seats. When you are working on your booking, check the seating chart on the flight to see if the seats are configured so there are no middle seats (usually four seats per row, with two window and two aisle seats); in this case it won’t matter as much that you can’t choose your seat.
- Put your miles or elite status to work. It’s probably not that often that elite-level flyers purchase basic economy fares, but if this description fits you, look into whether your status will entitle you to any additional benefits. For example, United allows Premier members a regular carry-on without paying the $25 gate fee.
- Put your credit card to work. Similarly, many airlines will waive specific restrictions for passengers who hold and use that airline’s credit card at the time of purchasing. If your airline credit card grants you the right to priority boarding, for example, you don’t lose that benefit because you purchased a basic economy fare.
- Check to see if the basic economy fare is actually your cheapest option in the end. On some airlines, the cost of adding on any one component (a carry-on, a seat assignment) might cost more than the difference between basic and regular economy. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Beware of small expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship.”
- Use the mandatory 24-hour cancellation period. Since many basic economy fares severely restrict changes of any kind, you’ll want to work out any concerns or regrets before the federally mandated 24-hour cancellation period runs out.
More from SmarterTravel:
Ed Hewitt is a seasoned globetrotter who brings you a monthly glimpse into the latest travel news, views, and trends—and how they could affect your travel plans.