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In the past year or two, legacy airlines have rolled out no-frills basic economy to help budget travelers save money. If you’re looking for a cheap fare without the typical frequent flyer amenities, is basic economy worth it? Basic economy isn’t for every traveler, but you can save up to 50% compared to a regular economy fare.
What is Basic Economy?
As seems to be the case with most changes in frequent flyer benefits (good and bad), Delta introduced basic economy fares a few years ago. In 2017, United and American Airlines followed suit.
We’ll cover the highlights of each carrier’s individual basic economy fares, but here are a few common traits:
- Only a small carry-on allowed
- No assigned seat (unless you pay a fee)
- Cannot purchase early boarding access
- No group or family seating permitted
- Last boarding group
- No upgrades, refunds, or changes allowed
- Free snacks and soft drinks as Main Cabin enjoys
In a nutshell, basic economy is a mixture of flying on coach standby and main economy. You don’t know where you’ll sit, but you at least know you have a confirmed seat!
American Airlines Basic Economy
Here are a few specifics to the American Airlines basic economy fare:
- 1 item that fits underneath your seat (no overhead bin access)
- Seat assigned at check-in
- Choose a seat within 48 hours before takeoff for an additional fee
AAdvantage Elite members and owners of the co-brand American Airlines reward cards can still check baggage for free as part of their elite travel benefits. If you can check a bag for free, this can be a good way to save some money when flying American.
Delta Airlines Basic Economy
Delta pioneered the basic economy movement for the legacy airlines to compete with discount airlines like Southwest and Spirit.
- No paid or complimentary upgrades or changes, even for Medallion members
- International checked baggage fees apply
- The seat will be assigned either at check-in or at the gate
- No same-day confirmed standby, even for Medallion members
You will still receive your standard SkyMile and Medallion miles as you would in the Main Cabin.
You will get overhead bin access, but you can still enjoy free checked bags on Delta flights by owning a Delta credit card like the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card.
United Basic Economy
Finally, let’s look at United basic economy fare stipulations:
- No assigned seat (unless you pay an additional fee)
- Full-size carry-on bags are only permitted for MileagePlus Premier members or companions, co-brand MileagePlus card owners, and Star Alliance Gold members
- One personal item 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches permitted underneath the seat
- MileagePlus members will not earn Premier qualifying credit or lifetime miles to a four-segment minimum
How Much Can You Save With Basic Economy?
How much you save flying basic economy depends on the route. In some cases, you might only save $10 (not a good deal) while you could save $100 on other routes. The various flight search engines like Hipmunk, Kayak, and Google Flights now let you quickly compare the prices of Basic Economy to Regular Economy fares.
If you’re going to only save $50 or less roundtrip, basic economy fares probably aren’t worth the savings–unless you know for sure that you can travel with the carry-on restrictions and don’t need the additional frequent flyer benefits and upgrades.
Of course, you can still check a bag one-way for $25 and still come out ahead. Your $50 savings reduces to $25, but you still have $25 extra to buy a meal during a layover or buy something else once you land.
When Basic Economy is Worth It
Basic economy is worth considering when you can save at least $50 roundtrip. You won’t find these savings on every route, but Hipmunk has completed some research to help find the 25 best routes to fly basic economy.
The ten best routes are listed below:
Do you see a trend?
The best basic economy routes are from these three airports:
- Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR)
- Los Angeles Internation Airport (LAX)
- O’Hare International Airport (ORD)
Hipmunk’s six-month survey found that the average basic economy fare saves $35 per passenger. If you don’t have to pay any baggage fees, these fares can definitely make sense. But, you may still choose to pay the higher fare just to have the additional flexibility and to know you have your own seat selection.
Why Fly Basic Economy?
Maybe you’ve never considered flying basic economy before because it’s such a new concept or you primarily fly discount airlines including Frontier, Southwest, or JetBlue.
Here are a few reasons to consider Basic Economy:
- You’re flying alone
- Don’t need overhead bin access
- No seat preference
- You have a co-brand credit card to pay checked bag fees
When to Avoid Basic Economy
You should stay away from basic economy when:
- Need group or family seating
- Have a regular carry-on
- Want access to typical upgrades and benefits available for regular fares
You might also decide to stay away from basic economy fares when the savings are less than $50, or less than $35 if you go buy Hipmunk’s research as that is the current “gold standard” of cost comparison.
Alternatives to Basic Economy
Basic economy can be a good alternative to flying discount airlines, especially if you don’t fly from a major hub. But, owning a flexible travel rewards card can save you even more money than basic economy with legacy airlines or transferring your points to a discount airline like Southwest and JetBlue.
Southwest Airlines is one of the best discount carriers because you don’t pay change fees, cancellation fees, or checked bag fees. Even if you pay the same price as a basic economy fare, you have fewer restrictions which can save you money when your travel plans change, or you simply want a stress-fare fare.
Southwest also happens to be a 1:1 transfer partner of the Chase Sapphire Preferred, in addition to United and American Airlines partner flights booked through British Airways. If Southwest flies to the same destination, give them a look and see if you can transfer your Ultimate Rewards points.
In many cases, Southwest award flights are cheaper than United’s flat-rate domestic fares of 10,000 miles one-way for flights 700 miles or less and 12,500 for all other U.S. flights.
JetBlue primarily serves the U.S. East Coast and the Caribbean hotspots. With the low-cost Blue fare, you get 1 carry-on and 1 personal item. For a fee, you can fly on standby, make changes, and cancel your flight. Yes, you have to pay a fee, but you at least have the option versus basic economy.
JetBlue offers its own co-brand credit card, but they are also a 1:1 Membership Rewards transfer partner if you own the Platinum Card from American Express.
Flying basic economy can save you money, but it might not be as much as you expect unless you are out of Newark or O’Hare. It’s also a good idea for light travelers that don’t have to sit with a group.