Southwest Airlines stands alone as the only major U.S. air carrier without a basic economy fare option or an a-la-carte fee structure.
Basic economy fares found their way into the big three U.S. mainline carriers a few years ago. Since then, the fares have also spread to Alaska, Hawaiian and even JetBlue.
In order to better compete with the ultra-low-cost carriers like Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit (and simply generate more revenue), the airlines got creative. With basic economy fares, the mainline carriers have more closely matched the fares of low-cost carriers by stripping out many of the inclusions you’d typically get with a regular economy ticket.
However, basic economy means different things to different airlines.
Related: Best credit cards for defeating basic economy
In this guide, I’ll examine what you do and don’t get with a basic economy ticket on various domestic carriers. Plus, we’ll go over how the pandemic changes the equation.
Comparing basic economy fares
|Seat Assignments||Limited selection before check-in and rest are auto-assigned at check-in||Pay or auto-assigned at check-in||Pay or auto-assigned at check-in (Free for elite members)||Pay or self-select at check-in||Pay or self-select at check-in||Pay or auto-assigned at check-in||Auto-assigned at check-in; available for purchase at booking||Auto-assigned at check-in||Pay or auto-assigned at check-in|
|Carry-on Baggage||One free full-size carry-on bag and a personal item||$10-$75 each way. Free personal item included||$30-$60 each way. Free personal item included (Carry-on is free for elites)||One free full-size carry-on bag and a personal item||Effective July 20, 2021, personal items only except for Mosaic members, unaccompanied minors and those seated in Even More Space seats.|
$35 at booking,
$65 at gate (each way)
|One free full-size carry-on bag and a personal item||One free full-size carry on and a personal item|
Personal items only except for Premier members,
Star Alliance Gold members and MileagePlus cardholders. Transatlantic tickets get free full-sized carry-ons
|Checked baggage||$30 for first bag, $40 for second bag||$18-$41 per bag||$30-$50 per bag||$25-$30 for first bag, $35-$40 for second bag||$35 for first bag, $45 for second bag||$21-$50 for first bag, $31-$60 for second bag||From $30 for first bag, From $40 for second bag||From $30 for first bag, From $40 for second bag||From $30 for first bag, From $40 for second bag|
(After 24 Hours)
|No (see below for pandemic waivers)|
$75 before 7 days from departure,
none permitted within 7 days
|Free 60 days or more before departure, $79-$119 less than 60 days before departure||No||Yes; $100 for domestic and select short-haul international. $200 for other markets.||$90 online||No for most flights. Flights to Europe and South America can be changed for a fee||No||No|
|Award Miles||Yes||N/A||Yes||Yes||At reduced rate||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Elite-qualifying Credit||Yes||N/A||Yes||Yes||Yes||N/A||No||Yes||At a reduced rate|
|Upgrades (Each Way)||No||N/A||From $20 for larger seats||No||N/A||$12-$175 for seat assignments and Big Front Seat||Yes||No||No|
|Credit Card Holder Benefits||Free checked bag with the|
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature®
|Priority boarding with the|
Allegiant World Mastercard®
|Priority boarding with the Frontier Airlines World Mastercard||Free checked bag with the Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard||First checked bag is free with the JetBlue Plus Card||Zone 2 priority boarding with the Spirit Airlines World Mastercard||Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® and the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®, get priority or preferred boarding (respectively) and free checked bags||Co-branded cards include free checked bags and priority boarding include Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card, the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card and the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card||See below|
The information for the Alaska Airlines Visa, Allegiant World Mastercard, Frontier Airlines Mastercard, Hawaiian Airlines Mastercard, JetBlue Plus card, Citi AAdvantage Platinum card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
What makes an economy class fare ‘basic?’
Low-cost carriers Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit were the first U.S. carriers to offer a new kind of airfare that didn’t include the ability to bring aboard a standard-sized carry-on without paying extra (a smaller “personal item” such as a backpack or purse is permitted, but it must be able to fit underneath the seat in front of you). This model is based on European discount airlines such as Ryanair and easyJet. Now, almost all of the domestic airlines apply many of those same rules to their own basic economy fare classes.
Another concept introduced by some ultra-low-cost carriers is the inability to select standard seats at the time of reservation, or even at check-in, without paying additional fees. This was copied by some of the major airlines as they introduced basic economy. Also, an ultra-low-cost carrier or a basic economy fare offered by a legacy airline may not allow you to make any voluntary changes — not even for a fee. Finally, basic economy often means that there are no permitted upgrades to passengers booked in a basic economy fare, even if they have elite status and are otherwise eligible.
What’s changed due to the pandemic?
Due to the pandemic, every major U.S. airline is offering sweeping travel waivers that allow most tickets to be changed or voluntarily canceled for free. This includes basic economy tickets.
With the waivers in effect, every ticket, including those booked in basic economy, can be changed or canceled. Note that you won’t receive a refund if you decide to cancel. Instead, you’ll get a future travel credit with a firm expiration date.
When, and if, the waivers expire, basic economy tickets will revert to pre-pandemic change policies. Note that although most U.S. carriers have permanently eliminated change fees, that offer doesn’t apply to basic economy tickets.
The rules outlined below don’t factor in the additional flexibility airlines are offering due to the pandemic.
Airline basic economy rules
Alaska recently introduced basic economy that’s not as punitive as many other airlines. While you won’t be able to make changes or cancellations to your flights, you will be able to bring a carry-on bag. You’ll also earn the full number of miles and can purchase seat assignments anytime after booking.
However, elites won’t be eligible for waived change fees, same-day changes, upgrades or preferred seating. Elites still receive bonus miles, baggage allowances, check-in benefits and priority boarding.
If you are a non-elite and want to check a bag, make sure you have the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card since that card includes one free checked bag, regardless of your fare class.
This ultra-low-cost carrier is known for offering just a few flights a week between airports in small communities and major vacation destinations. Because of the limited flight frequencies that Allegiant offers, you’ll have very few options if your trip is severely delayed or canceled for any reason.
When you book a flight on Allegiant, you can pay to choose a seat, including extra legroom seats. Otherwise, you’re randomly assigned a seat at check-in. You can also make changes to your flight for $75, so long as your departure is more than seven days out. There are no changes within seven days. The charge for carry-on bags is between $10 and $75 each way.
Allegiant doesn’t have a standard frequent flyer program, but it does offer a rewards credit card. You can read our review of the Allegiant World Mastercard from Bank of America. To sum it up, it’s not a very compelling offer.
This Denver-based ultra-low-cost carrier can be an attractive option, but passengers need to be aware of its fees. The price of a carry-on bag starts at $30 each way and can be much more if you don’t pay online in advance. Customers can pay for advanced seat assignments and seats with additional legroom, or are randomly assigned a seat. You will receive miles from your flight, but Frontier’s miles expire after six months of no activity.
Frontier has a unique change fee structure that emphasizes booking your tickets early. Changes are free 60 days or more before departure and between $79-$119 for flights less than 60 days before departure. You’ll get priority boarding if you hold the Frontier Airlines World Mastercard. Spending on that card can help you earn elite status, which in turn unlocks free seat assignments, free bags, etc.
Gallery: The Best and Worst Airlines for Cheap Flights (GOBankingRates)
JetBlue is the latest airline to offer basic economy fares. Plus, despite the pandemic, JetBlue has made its basic economy offering even more punitive.
Effective July 20, 2021, basic economy flyers will not be able to bring full-sized carry-ons, except for those seated in Even More Space seats, Mosaic members, unaccompanied minors and active-duty military members. The carrier’s Blue Basic fare doesn’t include seat assignments or checked bags, either.
JetBlue’s basic economy tickets can be changed for $100 or $200, depending on your destination. You’ll earn award miles at reduced rates, and you can bring a checked bag for free if you hold the JetBlue Plus Card.
Hawaiian also recently introduced a basic economy fare that’s pretty similar to JetBlue’s basic economy offering. You can’t make seat assignments when booking your flight, but you will be able to select a seat when checking in.
You can bring a carry-on bag and personal item, but you can’t make any changes or cancellations to basic economy tickets. You’ll still earn the standard number of miles for Main Cabin flights and elites will get priority check-in and complimentary bags.
If you’re a non-elite, consider getting the Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard since the card allows you to bring one free checked bag per person.
This is an airline that some people love to hate, yet it continues to profit and grow. Seat assignments start at $5, or you’ll have a seat assigned to you at random when you check-in. (Pro tip: Splurge on the Big Front Seat if you can.) Ticket changes are $90 when made online, and for what it’s worth, you do receive award miles for each flight.
If you have the Spirit Airlines World Mastercard, you’ll always receive priority check-in and Zone 2 preferred boarding. You also have access to cheaper award tickets with the card.
American was the final legacy carrier to announce a basic economy offering, and during the pandemic, the carrier has made the offering even more flexible than before.
American used to restrict full-sized carry-ons on basic economy fares, but ultimately reversed course. Additionally, flyers can now purchase the following additional offerings,
- Priority boarding
- Preferred and Main Cabin Extra seating
- Same-day confirmed flight changes
Elites can enjoy their benefits on basic economy tickets too, but they’ll no longer earn elite-qualifying credit on these fares. Basic economy travelers can select seats in advance for a fee, or will have a seat assigned automatically at check-in.
Elite members and customers with a co-branded card, such as the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard and the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard, get priority boarding and free checked bags.
No customers will be able to make any changes to these tickets (unless flying to certain international destinations). Fortunately, customers will still earn miles on these tickets.
Delta was the first legacy airline to offer basic economy fares, so on the one hand, we can at least partially blame them for this trend. On the other hand, Delta’s version of basic economy isn’t all bad. You receive the same food and service that you would if you bought a regular economy ticket (which Delta calls Main Cabin). You also receive the same carry-on allowance as every other passenger — a full-size carry-on plus a smaller personal item.
Delta still awards redeemable miles and credit toward elite status, and if you have a Delta SkyMiles credit card from American Express, you’ll still receive a free checked bag and priority boarding. Cards that include free checked bags and priority boarding include the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express card, the Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express and the Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express.
Delta’s basic economy fares are non-refundable and non-upgradable, even if you’re an elite. Elites can’t select preferred seats or those with extra legroom. You can’t even pay extra to choose your seat in advance to upgrade. But if you don’t have Medallion status, there are few drawbacks to purchasing one of Delta’s basic economy fares, especially if you hold a Delta SkyMiles credit card or are traveling on a regional jet.
United’s version of basic economy is the most restrictive of the mainline carriers.
Travelers on a United basic economy fare can’t carry on a full-sized carry-on bag, or even pay for the privilege, unless they have United elite status, are Star Alliance Gold members or are United MileagePlus cardholders. With United basic economy fares, there are no ticket changes at any price, and you’ll earn reduced credit toward elite status (no Premier Qualifying Flights) and award miles.
Note that on transatlantic flights, your carry-on baggage allowance is the same as for standard economy tickets.
You can purchase a seat during booking or wait to be assigned a seat during check-in. However, if you’re traveling as a group or family, you’ll want to make sure to pre-purchase seats since United won’t guarantee seating groups and families together.
To avoid some of the basic economy restrictions, you’ll want to make sure that you have a co-branded United card. United Explorer Card members receive a free checked bag and priority boarding, while those with the United Club Infinite Card receive a second free checked bag, priority check-in, security and baggage handling.
Tips when booking basic economy
Don’t rule it out
Some travelers are repulsed by the idea of potentially being unable to bring a full-sized carry-on or be stuck in a middle seat. Still, it could be worth considering this option depending on the situation. For example, Delta still allows seat selection for free at check-in and permits free carry-on bags for basic economy fares. If you’re making a quick trip with little luggage, you could potentially save hundreds of dollars compared to a standard economy fare.
Related: How to pack in a free personal item carry-on
Consider basic economy for short-haul flights and regional jet travel
It’s not a great sacrifice for those with elite status to pass up the chance for an upgrade on a very short flight. And when it comes to the ultra-low-cost carriers, an ultra-low amount of legroom could be tolerable for a couple hours, especially when you’re saving money on airfare. Plus, smaller regional jets seat four across at most and have fewer passengers, so you’ll never be stuck in a middle seat or behind 180 other people slowly exiting the plane when you book a basic economy ticket.
Avoid them when traveling with families, for now
When traveling with small children, there doesn’t seem to be any 100% guarantee of seats together if you don’t lock in seat assignments yourself. So, either avoid basic economy or be prepared to lock in seat assignments, even if that means paying extra.
Related: How to get seats together as a family
Have the right credit cards
Carrying the right credit card can be the difference between paying additional bag fees when flying on a basic economy ticket or not. Each airline’s offering is a bit different, but if you can get a free checked bag and priority boarding with a credit card, you’re basically replicating a traditional economy experience without paying additional fees. Also, priority boarding goes a long way since you’ll minimize the chances of you gate-checking your carry-on.
Have you ever flown a basic economy fare or with an ultra-low-cost carrier? What was your experience?
Featured image by Ryan Patterson/The Points Guy
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