It’s a choice budget-conscious passengers always face when booking a flight: Do you select the absolute cheapest fare, or pay more for added comfort and convenience?
The decision has gotten more complicated in recent years as major U.S. airlines have added, adapted, and modified “basic economy” fares that give passengers a lower price on tickets, but with bare-bones services.
These sorts of tickets started appearing from the largest U.S. airlines in the latter half of the 2010s as a way to appeal to budget travelers enticed by the base fares offered by the so-called ultra low-cost carriers such as Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines.
Basic economy programs follow the same nickel-and-dime business model adopted by those no-frills carriers: Make the base fare cheap, and then pile on extra fees for pretty much everything other than the privilege of sitting on the plane. That includes charges for stuff that didn’t used to be considered perks in air travel—choosing your seat on the plane, sitting with your traveling companions, making changes to your reservation, and even using the overhead bins.
Given the catalog of caveats that come with a basic economy ticket, travelers need to consider what they’re not getting with their flight reservations—and what add-on fees they might wind up paying—before opting for the cheapest seats available from the likes of American, Delta, and United.
“We explain it every day to clients,” said Lauren Doyle, president and senior travel advisor at The Travel Mechanic, an agency based in Raleigh, North Carolina.
“I would just advise people know what you’re getting into,” Doyle said.
What to expect with basic economy
Basic economy policies differ slightly on each of the largest U.S. airlines, but the overarching principles are consistent.
When booking the lower-fare tickets, you might save anywhere from $20 to $70, though there are some cases where the price difference is even greater (most often, that happens when you’re dealing with higher dollar amounts overall).
A basic economy ticket will get you a seat in coach, though you typically won’t be able to choose your seat for free—it will probably be assigned to you at check-in. Yes, that means you could wind up in a middle seat and away from your family members.
There’s a good chance you’ll board in the last group, too, and, depending on the airline, your carry-on baggage may be restricted to just a personal item that fits under the seat in front of you. While Delta and American allow one carry-on and one personal item with basic economy fares, United will not let you bring on a carry-on without paying an additional fee. JetBlue, likewise, limits its “Blue Basic” passengers to just a personal item.
One of the most notable across-the-board features of a basic economy fare: the lack of flexibility when it comes to changing your reservation. Since the onset of the pandemic, major airlines have become a lot less rigid with regard to letting passengers cancel main cabin tickets and making other alterations while retaining full trip credit for future flights.
But basic economy tickets are a notable exception. In nearly all cases, passengers cannot change or cancel basic economy fares—at least not without paying a penalty.
When to avoid basic economy
The restrictions on seat selection, baggage, and reservation changes are perhaps the three staples of basic economy most likely to give unsuspecting passengers an unpleasant surprise—and those drawbacks may be good reasons to avoid basic economy outright.
“Unless there is a large price difference, I don't recommend that travelers book basic economy fares,” said JT Genter, a travel writer and expert who flies over 200,000 miles per year.
Part of Genter’s reasoning is the add-on fees travelers might end up forking over. If you find, for instance, that you can’t stuff all your belongings into your personal item and you’ve booked a domestic basic economy fare with United, that full-size carry-on you bring to the airport will either need to be checked for a fee before security, or, if you choose to gate-check the bag, you’ll have to pay the checked bag fee plus another $25 for going over the basic economy luggage allowance.
“The cost to upgrade to a main cabin fare might just be cheaper than the cost to check a bag,” Genter explained. “Plus, you'll avoid the other pitfalls of basic economy like boarding last.”
Keep in mind, too, that if you like to earn points and miles for flights, airlines usually limit or even completely block earnings for the lowest-costing tickets.
When basic economy may be a good idea
Despite the restrictions, Doyle of The Travel Mechanic sees some cases where basic economy is a logical option for passengers: namely, those who can fit all their stuff in a backpack and have no need to sit next to a traveling companion.
“Your solo travelers, quick weekend trips, things that you’re traveling to by yourself,” she said.
It helps to do your research before you book. Your airline’s specific basic economy rules might be more workable for your needs. If you think you’re going to need a full-size carry-on, for example, find one of the airlines, like American, that allows basic economy flyers to use the overhead bins for free.
Additionally, most airlines’ elite status members and credit card holders can skirt at least a few of the basic economy rules, making the option less restrictive for those customers.
It’s also worth noting that some basic economy policies—on baggage in particular—are often less stringent for overseas flights.
But there’s one nonnegotiable for basic economy passengers: Make sure your plans are ironclad when booking. If changing or canceling a ticket is at all a possibility, modifications will likely be costly.
Advanced planning is key.
Ultimately, like most facets of trip-planning, you’ll want to do your homework before opting for a basic economy fare.
Check the airline’s specific rules and consider what the restrictions would mean for your trip. Are the savings worth the sacrificed services? Will the initial savings get wiped out by the fees you’ll end up paying?
If the answer to that last question is yes, you might as well purchase a standard economy fare.