What ‘Basic Economy’ Actually Means

The U.S. airlines now offer budget fares. Here's the skinny.

January 26, 2017 9:00 am

Eager to improve on their already staggering profits — or, you know, to give passengers more “choice” — the three major U.S. airlines have rolled out “basic economy” fares. They’re billed as no-frills seats at a discount, like those on Frontier and Spirit. The worry is that you’ll be paying the same price as always … just with fewer perks. Not that the perks were so great to begin with, at least for the average, non-status economy passenger. 

Three things to keep in mind: You cannot change your flight. You cannot choose a seat at booking (hello, middle seat! bye-bye, family you might have wanted to sit with!). And you’ll board last.

Of course, one of the big motivations for boarding early is to ensure you won’t have to gate-check your bag if the overhead compartment is full — which makes this a non-issue if you’re flying American or United, since those carriers’ Basic Economy fares absolutely forbid the use of overhead compartment space. (Delta’s Basic Economy fares do permit use of the overhead compartment, which should be regarded as an important point of difference.)

If you’re caught trying to smuggle a bag into the overhead compartment at the gate on American, you’ll be charged $50 — half standard checked-bag fee, half penalty.  However, those with elite status and certain airline-branded credit cards can maintain their free checked bag and their overhead compartment space across all three carriers. Basic Economy passengers on all three airlines will earn awards miles, but only American and Delta passengers will earn status qualifying miles or dollars. United flyers are out of luck.

On the plus side, they can’t actually prevent Basic Economy passengers from accessing the wifi, so you’ll still be able to get online … if you pay for it, naturally. 

In short, the rules and restrictions are byzantine, so check each carrier’s descriptions (here’s United, Delta and American). In short: If you have status, go with American. If you have bags, go with Delta. If you’re a glutton for punishment, there’s always United. 

Or just fly JetBlue. 


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