Bargain-hunting higher flyers might, while planning their next adventures, come across airfares that are so good that they’re too good.  Budget airlines like Spirit and Frontier (in)famously offer such cheap prices, but they also inundate their customers with fees in order to generate additional revenue.  That’s to be expected, but sometimes you’ll see legacy carriers like American, Delta, and United selling flights at prices comparable to those low-cost rivals.  While such deals might look particularly enticing — especially when you consider that these three have better reputations than Spirit — you have to be wary of the catch(es).  These discounted tickets, known as basic economy fares, are heavily restricted and can seriously hurt your ability to fly higher.  But but but!  If you know what you’re getting in to, they can also represent outstanding values.

What is basic economy and why does it exist?

Basic economy fares are, in effect, entry-level plane tickets.  They’re the cheapest, most bare-bone things you can buy in order to fly from point A to point B.  More often than not, they’re heavily discounted and can represent incredible bargains, which can be really great in certain situations.  The trade-off is that aside from a standard economy class seat on the aircraft and a personal item (and maybe a carry on if you’re lucky), you have to pay for everything else.

The concept of a sub-economy product traces back to budget airlines like Spirit and Ryanair.  Given the success that these two have had — as well as their rivals like Frontier and EasyJet — legacy carriers have been keen to follow suit, including American, Delta, and United in North America, and British Airways, Air France, and Lufthansa in Europe… to name a few!  They market their offerings as means to give their customers more choice and more opportunities to save money, but the reality is that such fares allow the airlines to cut elite benefits, generate ancillary revenue from fees, and better compete on price.

spirit promo imagery
Spirit’s modus operandi, which helped inspire the rise of basic economy fares on legacy carriers.

How can you tell if a fare is in basic economy?

It’s really quite simple, actually.  When you go to book a flight on an airline’s website, it will list “Basic Economy” as its own class of service separate from regular economy.  Furthermore, if you do opt for basic economy, most airlines will remind you of your choice before you actually purchase the fare.  It’s almost as if it’s asking you:  “are you sure you want to do this?”

What is Basic Economy AA Booking Page
Basic economy may not be sold on every flight, or it may be sold out.  In any case, it’s easy to tell what’s what.

Google Flights also indicates whether or not a fare is in basic economy when it returns results.  If you see a bag with a line through it right next to the price, that means that the particular fare is for basic economy.

What is Basic Economy Google Flights Broad View United
If you see this, be careful!  This cheap price is for basic economy, and a regular economy ticket might be significantly more expensive.

Alternatively, if you open the expanded view of a Google Flights result, you might be prompted to choose between basic or regular economy.  If applicable, you can see how much it would cost to “upgrade” from basic to regular economy as well as compare the pros and cons too.  It’s a convenient set up.

What is Basic Economy Google Flights Close View Delta
At face value, a $486 flight looks a lot more appealing than a $531 flight.  Too bad it’s not that simple!

Other online travel agencies like Expedia and CheapoAir will show whether or not a fare is for basic economy, but getting that information unfortunately isn’t as clear.  Look for language about carry on luggage or seat selections; if you have to pay for either, the ticket is almost certainly “basic.”

Is there anything I should be aware of before purchasing a basic economy ticket?

Yes, that when you book a basic economy fare, you’re buying (renting?) an unspecified seat on a plane and not much else.  Anything that would make your trip more comfortable or more convenient will cost extra, including…

  • Luggage allowances
  • Seat assignments
  • The ability to easily change your ticket

…and more.  Furthermore, if you hold elite status, you’ll also forego most of the benefits you’re entitled to.  You won’t get priority boarding, you won’t be eligible for upgrades — neither paid nor complimentary — and, most regrettably, you won’t earn as many redeemable or qualifying miles… if any at all.  Similarly, if you hold an airline’s co-branded credit card, you won’t get any of the privileges that the card allocates for you either (like a free checked bag).

Is basic economy really that horrible?

It all depends on your perspective.  If you know what you’re getting in to and your wallet is prepared for a potential nickel-and-diming onslaught, your experience will more-than-likely be fine.  The best case scenario is that your flight will be like that of any other passenger who’s also seated in economy class.  The key difference is that you will have paid significantly less for your ticket.  The worst case scenario is that you get stuck in a middle seat in the last row right of the plane in front of a lavatory… but you can’t say that you weren’t warned beforehand.  In fact, airlines explicitly tell you about how bad restrictive their basic economy fares are AND, on top of that, make you acknowledge the sacrifices you’ll be making with this kind of reservation.

What is Basic Economy United Warning Page
Here, United Airlines seems to be asking:  “You wouldn’t want to subject yourself to this, now would you?”  If you accept, then click the box next to “Basic Economy works for me.”

This is telling behavior, but despite the ominous language, you shouldn’t read too far in to this.  The carriers do this more as a “I-told-you-so” if/when someone inevitably complains about how he didn’t get to choose his seat (or whatever), and perhaps as a means to upsell you to regular economy.  Remember:  you can pay extra to avoid any unsavory fate that basic economy might cause.

United Economy
You could get assigned any one of these seats, regardless if you’re flying in basic or regular economy on United Airlines.

To answer the original question, when it comes to the actual passenger experience on board and in the air, basic economy is only as horrible as the airline’s regular economy product.

Is it worth it to just pay for regular economy?

What is Basic Economy AA Booking Page Comparison
How much is the $30 savings really worth to you?  The answer may not be so clear…

Here’s a cynical-yet-important question to ask yourself before booking a basic economy ticket:  how much do you value the perks granted to you by way of elite status and/or co-branded credit cards?  Depending on how you look at it and how deep in to mental gymnastics you’re willing to go, it’s not unreasonable to claim that when airlines offer you the choice between basic and regular economy, they are charging you to access all that you’re entitled to.  So, given that…

  • If you’re agnostic to the elite/credit card benefits, basic economy will suffice for your travel needs.
  • If you care about said benefits (and you should, seeing that you likely go/went out of your way to be loyal to an airline by flying it repeatedly and/or by acquiring its credit card), consider how much you would be willing to pay for them.  Is it more than the difference in fare between regular and basic economy?  If so, then you should “upgrade” to regular economy.

In example above, regular economy costs $30 more than basic economy on this particular route/flight operated by AA.  Would you pay that difference in order to board earlier, choose your seats, and so on?

American Airlines Exit Row

Want to assign yourself a spacious exit row seat for free?  You can, but only if you’re booking in regular economy AND you have elite status.  If you’re in basic economy but have elite status, you’ll still have to pay.

Is basic economy right for me?

The short answer:  Sure!  Why not?

The longer answer:  Yes, but it depends on what your needs are.

The longer answer is particularly relevant to business travelers.  Unless your employer (or whoever is funding your travel for work) is on a really tight budget, you may want to refrain from booking basic economy.  The reasons being are that you might need flexible fares and/or bigger baggage allowances.  Also, depending on the kind of flight, an assigned seat in a good location on the plane could be invaluable, as could unrestricted elite benefits.  None of this would be possible on a basic economy ticket.

Are there benefits to purchasing a basic economy ticket?

It’s hard to quantify the benefits of a standalone basic economy ticket beyond a good deal.  Yes, you forego a lot of perks and benefits when you elect to book one, but if you sacrifice those in order to save a lot of money, it’s hard to dispute the value.  Something doesn’t have to be super expensive in order to be considered “higher flyer” after all.

What is Basic Economy AA Expensive Price Comparison
You could pay $64 or $272 or $741 for VERY similar flights.  Here’s an example where basic economy makes a lot more sense than regular… unless you need a refundable flight!

What are basic economy award tickets?

These haven’t yet made it to the mainstream — thank God! — but that hasn’t stopped some airlines from experimenting a little.  Delta, in 2018, unveiled Basic Economy SkyMiles awards.

What is Basic Economy Delta Award Pricing
Just as you would see with cash, Basic Economy SkyMiles awards are available alongside other fare classes.

All of the same restrictions apply as they would if you paid for your ticket with cash instead of points.  That’s the only difference, and you’ll still board last, you won’t get to choose your seat, and your baggage allowance will be quite limited, all as it would be otherwise.

What is Basic Economy Delta Award Restrictions
As is the case with the earlier example on United, Delta will try to upsell you to regular economy on Basic Economy SkyMiles awards.

American Airlines, with its introduction of Web Special AAdvantage awards in 2019, appears to be moving with Delta towards selling cheaper-yet-more-restricted award tickets.

What is Basic Economy AA Web Special
The savings are minimal in this example, but then again, so are the restrictions.

Web Special awards are limited in the sense that they can’t be changed and they have to be booked, as the name implies, on the internet.  Other than those two hurdles though, the limitations on AA aren’t as draconian as they are on Delta.  You’re still allowed to choose seats, maintain your baggage allowance, and be eligible for upgrades (provided that you have Executive Platinum status), among other things.

What is Basic Economy AA Web Special Calendar View
See those “20K” prices?  Those are even-further-discounted Web Special awards.  Compared to some of the other dates on the calendar, the savings are significant.

More often than not, these can represent good deals… but who knows how American will devalue them in the future?  And surely, this trend means that United is not far behind in introducing basic award tickets either…

The “too long; didn’t read” answer:

To sum it all up:

  • Basic economy and regular economy are not one in the same, and accordingly, they’re not priced as such.
    • Basic economy is the cheaper of the two, but there are a LOT of restrictions attached to the fare.  Among other things, changing your ticket is impossibly difficult, you get a restricted baggage allowance, and you don’t get to choose a seat.
    • Regular economy is more expensive, but it’s also more “inclusive.”  You get all of the perks and benefits that you might be accustomed to, for instance.
    • In order to determine which is right for you, it helps to ask yourself how much you value your elite status/credit card benefits on a particular routing.  If you value these perks more than the difference in fare prices, you should buy regular economy; if you don’t care and/or regular economy is stupidly expensive, buy basic economy.
  • A basic economy ticket is not inherently bad; it’s just “less-good” than what you may be used to.  They can still represent excellent values in certain situations.

Hopefully this article clarifies the difference between basic and regular economy.  If it didn’t, let me know by commenting below or emailing here or here and I’ll do my best to answer your questions.  Fly higher!

Click here to see more questions and answers, and click here to read one relevant to this article:  What’s the difference between Economy Plus and Premium Economy?

Header image courtesy of Adam Moreira, via Wikipedia.  Click here for source.