Ever wish the major U. S. airlines would give you the choice to forgo some flying privileges in exchange for lower ticket prices like those of the ultra-low-cost airlines?  Well, as you may have already heard, most of them have now moved in this direction.  Following Delta Airlines, American and United airlines have begun to sell, on some domestic routes, their own versions of a budget-style ticket called “basic economy,” which Delta pioneered on a limited basis in 2012 and has since rolled out to more markets, including international ones. To see if basic economy is for you, check out the guide below, which includes a comparison of it across the three major airlines. And, if you do want this ticket, you can now also buy it on CheapOair.com.

Trying to Beat the Budget Airlines at Their Own Game

With the basic economy ticket, these three 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.

Click the video link below for a quick news summary of basic economy.

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 move from basic economy after you have purchased it to the main cabin fare, which is standard economy and gives you the privileges and conveniences such as choosing 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.

Download a PDF of a 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 your neighbors with standard economy have.  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 2016 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.

Downsize Your Carry-On Bag

When you fly American or United on the basic economy ticket, you’re only allowed one personal item that fits under the seat in front of you.  For American, the dimensions of your personal item must not exceed 8 x 14 x 18 and for United the dimensions are 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 American or 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 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, American says that AAdvantage® elite status members and eligible Citi® / AAdvantage® or AAdvantage® AviatorTM Mastercard® card members can use the overhead bin for a carry-on bag and can also keep their preferred or priority boarding privileges.

Where Basic Economy Fares are Available

While Delta has rolled out the basic economy seat for many of its routes now, American Airlines has its own list of routes and United is only offering it in its Minneapolis market. You can buy these seats directly from the airlines or from online travel agencies like CheapOair, as previously mentioned.

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.