This blog post was updated on July 16, 2019.

As you’re probably already aware, three of the largest U.S. airlines now give you the choice of forgoing some of your passenger flying privileges in exchange for lower ticket prices. Delta, American and United airlines all now sell their own versions of a budget-style ticket called “basic economy,” which Delta pioneered in 2012. To see if basic economy is for you, check out our guide below, which includes a comparison chart of it across these three major airlines. And if you find that you do want this ticket, you can now also buy it on

Trying to Beat the Budget Airlines at Their Own Game

With the basic economy ticket, these three major airlines are selling a seat with fewer privileges/conveniences and, consequently, with a lower fare than their standard economy seat.

It’s a response to competition in certain markets from budget carriers like Spirit Airlines, which sells a no-frills ticket called the ‘bare fare,’ and to customer demand.

Spirit’s bare fareTM is a form of à la carte pricing that sets a rock-bottom fare for an unreserved plane seat that’s stripped of baggage, seating choice, and other privileges, which Spirit sells separately as extras for each flight.


It’s up up and away with Basic Economy on American Airlines. / Photo by Aero Icarus. Creative Commons License 2.0.

The Basics of Basic Economy

While each of these three major U.S. airlines has its own “flavor” of basic economy, what’s fundamental is that you get the lowest stated price for a main cabin seat

Usually this means that the price of a basic economy ticket is lower than that of the lowest standard economy ticket for a flight; but, in some instances, it can actually be the same.  (Typically this is due to supply and demand or other economic factors.)  As a condition of purchasing it though, you must accept the restrictions they list for you at the point of purchase.



Basic Economy Selection Screen on the American Airlines’ Website.

While it appears from the way this selection screen is set up by American Airlines that the basic economy seat is not located in the main cabin, rest assured that it is.  ‘Main cabin’ is just a bit more descriptive term for standard economy.

With the basic economy ticket, you don’t have the option to separately purchase the privileges that you give up by accepting the restrictions, as you do with Spirit’s bare fare, so it is not an à la carte form of pricing.

If all you care about then is getting the lowest price, hop on board with basic economy; otherwise, go with standard economy for flexibility such as being able to change your flight or choose your seat.

Variations on the Theme of Basic Economy

Basic economy varies somewhat among these three major airlines based on differences in the restrictions that they place on this type of ticket. For instance, while the three airlines don’t let you choose your seat, American Airlines does give you a “paid seat assignment” option.  According to American’s customer service, this option lets you choose your seat as long as you do so within 48 hours of the departure of your flight and pay the difference in cost. According to American, there is no extra fee for doing so.

Check out this Basic Economy Comparison Chart to see other important variations in the basic economy offerings of these three airlines.

Basic Economy is Bare, but Not That Bare


Some snacks with a side of Mai Tai / Photo by ih. Creative Commons License 2.0.

The restrictions of basic economy do make it sound kind of plain, but all three airlines say that fliers with this ticket can still enjoy a main cabin flying experience that includes the following:

► The same physical kind of seat as that of your neighbors who have standard economy. In other words, the seat you get with basic economy has the same dimensions and other physical characteristics as the one you get with a standard economy ticket.

► Amenities such as soft drinks, alcoholic beverages, snacks, WiFi, and in-flight entertainment, when available on a flight. Both Delta and American say on their web pages for basic economy that non-alcoholic drinks and snacks are complimentary; United, however, does not make this promise.

► A level of service that reflects their generally good industry-wide ratings in categories like on-time arrivals, fewest denied boardings, overall customer service, etc. The Airline Quality Rating, which has issued report cards on the performance and quality of the largest U.S. airlines now for 26 years, rates American, Delta and United in the top ten in its 2018 study.

Is Basic Economy Economical?

basic_economy_costsYes you can save some money by buying the basic economy ticket.  Some spot checking of fares revealed that basic economy tickets are about $17 to $50 cheaper than standard economy tickets on the same flights. But you could save even more on certain routes, depending on how aggressive the airlines get on pricing the basic economy ticket. We did, for example, see savings of as much as $110 dollars on American Airlines flights from New York to Paris, France.

Downsize Your Carry-On Bag

When you fly United on the basic economy ticket, you’re only allowed one personal item that fits under the seat in front of you. Unless it’s a trans-Atlantic flight in which case you’re carry-on baggage allowance is the same as standard economy. For United, the dimensions of your personal item must not exceed 9 x 10 x 17.  So you might want to consider using a wheeled under seat carry-on bag that fits within the required dimensions.

Follow the Restrictions to Avoid Extra Cost

Dreaming of bringing a ton of bags is not restricted / Photo by Richard Hsu.  Creative Commons License 2.0

Certainly, if you do buy a basic economy seat, you must follow its restrictions to a tee.  If, for instance, you buy this type of ticket on United airlines and show up at the gate for your flight with a full-size carry-on bag or with multiple bags, you’ll be charged a handling fee of $25 plus the applicable bag fee for each bag, which must be paid by credit card on the spot.

Enriching Your Basic Economy Experience

If you’re a member of certain loyalty programs or have specific credit cards offered by these airlines, you may be exempt from a few restrictions of their basic economy offerings. For example, United says that a MileagePlus Premier member or companion traveling on the same reservation, the primary cardmember of a qualifying MileagePlus credit card or Star Alliance™ Gold members can use the overhead bin for a carry-on bag for basic economy seats.

Basic Economy Fares are Now Available in Many Markets

When Basic Economy was initially offered by these three major airlines, the number of routes on which they were available was fairly limited. But as they’ve had customer success with this new type of ticket, they’ve rolled them out to many U.S. domestic routes and even some international ones as well.

Will basic economy be your ticket to the friendly skies, or will you stick with standard economy? Let us know in the comments.

[CheapOair maintains contractual relationships with Spirit Airlines and with American Airlines.]

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About The Author

Joseph Decibus writes for CheapOair and is also an avid traveler who occasionally writes about his trips. He looks forward to informing readers periodically about interesting places and events throughout the world.