Basic Economy 101: Navigating Today’s Lowest Fare Class

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Delta was the first to sell a sub-economy cabin class titled Basic Economy in 2012. United followed suit last year, so it should be no surprise that American Airlines has also just jumped on the bandwagon. American Basic Economy fares will go on sale February 10.

As restrictions in Basic Economy vary between the three legacy carriers, today I’m going to go over what Basic Economy is for each of them, as well as how to identify a fare as Basic Economy when searching through various methods. It’s not always as transparent as you’d think.

Each heading below is linked to the airline’s website page that describes their Basic Economy.

Delta Basic Economy

  • No seat assignments until the day of (this means you may not sit with the people in your reservation, since your seats are assigned after everyone else’s in the fare classes above you).
  • You cannot change or refund your ticket after the Risk Free Cancellation Period of 24 hours.
  • Even if you have status, you aren’t eligible for paid or complimentary upgrades; paid, complimentary or discounted Delta Comfort+; paid or complimentary Preferred Seats; or same-day confirmed or same-day standby travel changes.
  • You are in the last boarding group unless you are a Delta Medallion elite–then you maintain your preferred boarding status.
  • Checked baggage policies are the same as Main Cabin Economy.
  • You will still earn redeemable miles based on the cash price of the ticket, same as Main Cabin Economy, as well as Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs), Medallion Qualification Segments (MQSs) and Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs – U.S.-based members only) on Basic Economy fares.

Here’s Delta’s FAQ page about ticketing and reservations, with a section dedicated to Basic Economy fares. Here are a couple I found pertinent.

I think Delta’s Basic Economy is the best of the worst. At least you can still bring a carry on bag (and the weight/size restrictions are severely limited). 

United Basic Economy

  • No seat selection available, they are automatically assigned the day of the flight.
  • No upgrades available (even for elites), and you do not have the option to purchase Economy Plus.
  • Full-sized carry-on bags aren’t allowed unless you’re a MileagePlus Premier Elite or companion traveling on the same reservation, you have a MileagePlus credit card, or are a Star Alliance Gold member. Instead you are allowed a personal item no larger than 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches (22 cm x 25 cm x 43 cm) that must fit under the seat.  Full-sized carry-on bags would require you to check the bag and incur the standard fee (plus $25 if it has to be done at the gate). Contrary to popular belief, you aren’t prohibited from putting said personal item in the overhead bin. As long as fits the Basic Economy personal item size restrictions, if there’s room in the overhead bin, you can shove it up there.
  • You will be in the last boarding group unless you’re a MileagePlus Premier Elite or companion traveling on the same reservation, have a MileagePlus credit card, or are a Star Alliance Gold member–then you maintain your preferred boarding status.
  • You cannot change or refund your ticket after the 24 hour flexible booking period.
  • Checked baggage policies are the same as Main Cabin Economy
  • You will still earn redeemable miles based on the cash price of the ticket, same as Main Cabin Economy, but (even if you’re an elite) you will not earn anything towards status. That means no…
    • Premier qualifying dollars (PQD)
    • Premier qualifying miles (PQM)
    • Premier qualifying segments (PQS)
    • Lifetime miles
    • Segments toward the four-segment minimum

American Airlines Basic Economy

  • No seat selection available, they are automatically assigned the day of the flight.
  • Like United, you are not allowed to carry on the typical luggage allowed of Main Cabin fare customers. You get one personal item that must fit under the seat in front of you (which doesn’t mean it can’t be put in the overhead bin if there’s room). The same extra fee applies as does to United’s Basic Economy ($25) if you bring a carry on that doesn’t fit regulations and it must be checked at the gate.
  • No upgrades available (even for elites).
  • You cannot change or refund your ticket.
  • You will be the last to board, unless you have an AAdvantage credit card or are an Elite member (then you will still receive preferred boarding)
  • You will still earn redeemable miles based on the cash price of the ticket, same as Main Cabin Economy. As for earning towards elite status…
    • You will still earn Elite Qualifying Dollars in the same manner as Main Cabin Economy
    • You will earn .5 Elite Qualifying Mile per mile flown
    • You will earn .5 Elite Qualifying Segment per segment flown

How to Identify Basic Economy

Each airline makes it obvious on their own websites when it’s a Basic Economy fare by actually labeling it “Basic Economy”.

But if you’re trying to find the cheapest cash ticket, how often are you actually searching a specific airline’s site?

When searching Kayak or Google Flights, the only way to tell if a ticket is in Basic Economy is by clicking through to the airline’s website.

It’s hard to believe that Google Flights, which is perhaps the most user friendly search aggregator out there right now, doesn’t show any sign that the first search result is in Delta Basic Economy.

I love their price tracking tool that creates a clean price graph for you over time. But if we can’t tell the difference between a Basic Economy and Main Cabin Economy fare on Google Flights, that defeats part of the time saving purpose as we have to click through all the way to the airline’s website.

Travis from One Mile at a Time recently wrote a plea to Google to include fare codes on Google Flights and save us the time and grief. He notes that..

  • Delta Basic Economy fares are typically in fare class “E”
  • United Basic Economy fares are typically in fare class “N”
  • American Basic Economy fares will apparently be in fare class “O”

…so they have the ability to filter the class out based on that identifying information.

I second his notion: Please Google! Don’t let anyone fall victim to accidentally buying a Basic Economy ticket and subsequently not being able to change it. You’re better than that!

Expedia and Orbitz do show the fare code, so if you’re trying to avoid Basic Economy I recommend searching one of those places. In either’s search results, click the “Flight details and baggage fees” drop down, and the fare code will displayed next to the cabin. 

Click the flight details drop down to see the fare code
On Expedia, click the flight details drop down to see the fare code

ITA Matrix

If you like and know how to use ITA Matrix, the precursor to Google Flights, it does have the ability to filter out Basic Economy fares or show only Basic Economy fares. Travis from OMAAT goes over the code to put into ITA Matrix here.

What’s up with the new fare class? Is this in response to competition from low cost carriers like Frontier or Spirit?

The model is somewhat comprehensible–sell bare bones cheap tickets, no extras included, with the option to pay for a Main Cabin Economy ticket if you want things like a seat assignment or more of a carry on luggage allowance. It seems transparent. As long you know what to expect as far as restrictions, the fares provide customers who don’t need the extras an opportunity to save money.

The fear I have and that I see written about often is that Main Cabin Economy fares will just get more expensive and the Basic Economy prices will become what used to be Main Cabin Economy prices, which means you’d be paying more for less. I don’t track revenue tickets enough to comment on this, but I think it’s a legitimate concern. Have any of you seen this happen over time with Delta? United? Only time will tell with American.

I’m interested to know your thoughts, please leave any in the comments.

Bottom Line

As long as you know what purchasing a Basic Economy fare entails and how to identify it when searching, then the cheaper fares can be a good thing for those of you that don’t need or care about things like a seat assignment or earning towards elite status.

The Barclaycard Arrival Plus earns a type of “mile” called an Arrival mile, which isn’t like a traditional airline mile at all. It’s best used for cheap fares, not on expensive First Class redemptions. Arrival miles essentially offset any travel expense greater than $100 inside your Barclaycard account within 120 days of the purchase, like any flight (no blackouts). Here is How to Redeem Arrival Miles. 50,000 Arrival miles, the current (limited time) sign up bonus offer for the Barclaycard Arrival Plus, plus the Arrival miles you’ll earn meeting the minimum spending requirement (6,000 for $3,000 dollars) is worth $560 if you redeem on travel expenses.

Arrival miles are perfect for redeeming (retroactively) on Basic Economy flights. You don’t have to wait to meet the minimum spending requirement and earn the miles to spend them. Open an Arrival Plus, put whatever revenue tickets on the card you want now to help you meet the minimum spending requirement, and then redeem Arrival miles later to offset the charges.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. I’d really like to see data on the issue of whether Basic Economy simply replaces regular economy fares at their price level, or whether it is actually a new lower level of fare. I think our fears are the former, but in that case, if the stated reason is to compete with Spirit – and it is – that scenario would seem to do the opposite. If fares are not reduced as they market this product, people currently flying Spirit would have no incentive to switch to American (for example), and people previously willing to pay a little more to fly American for a better product would have that motive eliminated, and thus become new potential Spirit customers. I think they have to reduce fares from the existing baseline if the point is to compete with Spirit. On the other hand, maybe that’s a lie, and they just think that adding the new class will provide another revenue stream whose net value with offset the loss of some customers.

  2. Does the DL screenshot that Delta will just refund your flight if you’re cancelled/delayed due to weather? They won’t put you on another flight?

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