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What You Need to Know About Basic Economy Fares and How To Get Around Them

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American started rolling out its basic economy fares this month, joining the other two major legacy airlines in their attempt to compete with ultra-low cost carriers. That means service aboard domestic flights has taken another hit, but there are ways to get around at least some of the drawbacks of flying.

American, Delta and United have modeled their cheapest fares after ultra-low cost carriers like Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant. The success of those airlines despite their lack of complimentary services, such as free bags and seat assignments, has given the legacy carriers a roadmap of what they can upcharge customers for.

With all three of the legacy carriers, it’s still possible to buy standard coach fares that include the services you’d expect to get. What they’ve done, though, is add a lower tier fare that comes with almost nothing. So if you want perks like a seat assignment or even a carry-on bag, you now have to pay for them by buying a more expensive fare.

That’s slightly different than the way low-cost carriers work. They’re upfront about the fact that every ticket includes nothing. It’s a base fare that you can then upgrade by paying a separate fee for what you want, including priority boarding, seat assignments, carry-on and checked bags, etc.

What you get with the legacy carriers’ basic economy fares differs by airline. Now that American has released the details of their service, we can compare all three.

The Nitty-Gritty

The basic economy fare is similar across all the legacy carriers. None of them allow ticket changes and if you need to change your flight, you simply have to forfeit your ticket. You don’t even have the option to pay an exorbitant change fee (United, for example, charges $200) like you do with other fares.

You cannot get an advanced seat assignment when you purchase the ticket. In fact, Delta and United will simply assign you a seat that you cannot change when you arrive at the airport. American’s policy is slightly better, giving you the chance to purchase seats within 48 hours of departure. Otherwise you’ll be assigned a seat when you check in.

American, Delta and United airlines started rolling out basic economy fares to compete with low cost carriers.
Airlines introduced basic economy fares to compete with low cost carriers

Wherever your seat is—and it’s likely to be in the middle toward the back of the plane—you’ll have to wait to board since all basic economy fares are assigned to the last boarding group.

Think again if you buy a cheap seat in hopes of getting an upgrade. There are no elite upgrades from basic economy.

Speaking of elite status, basic economy does not earn elite qualifying miles on United; American earns at 50 percent of the normal miles; and Delta gives you the full mileage.

The Good, the Bad and the Carry-On Bag

Potentially the most expensive difference between the basic fares offered by the legacy carriers involves the carry-on bag. Delta gives you a free full-sized carry-on, but both United and American limit you to a ‘personal item,’ like a purse or briefcase, that can fit under the seat in front of you.

Unless you’re an extremely light packer, you’re going to end up paying for a checked bag on top your basic fare. That’s another $25 for the first bag, plus another $35 for a second. And if American catches you trying to bring a full-sized carry-on, you’ll have to check it at the gate and pay the bag fee plus another $25.

Carry-on bagPersonal itemFull-sizedPersonal item
Seat assignmentsAvailable to purchase 48 hours before flightNoneNone
Upgrade eligibilityNoneNoneNone
Elite qualifying miles 50% accrual100% accrualNone
Ticket changesNoneNoneNone
Boarding groupLastLastLast

So what’s the good? Well, you can get around this particular limitation of the basic fare if you have elite status or a co-branded airline card. You’ll also get a free checked bag and priority boarding.

Getting a Co-Branded Airline Credit Card

If you’ve been on the fence about getting a co-branded airline card, now might be the time. With one of these cards, you can buy the cheapest fares and still get most of the benefits of a standard coach fare.

Each airline has its own lineup of cards. They come with different benefits at different price points. If you’re thinking about getting your first airline card, you’ll probably want to start with the cheapest option. Let’s take a look at those cards.

The Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® has a long name, but a reasonable annual fee and decent benefits. It costs  $95 a year, with the first year waived, and gets you a free checked bag and group 1 boarding, even in basic economy.

Right now the card also comes with a generous 50,000-mile sign-up bonus. That should be enough for two domestic round-trip tickets in coach. Other perks include double points for American Airlines purchases, a 25 percent discount on in-flight purchases and access to Reduced Mileage Awards to select destinations. You’ll also get 10 percent of the points you redeem back every year.

The Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express card also costs $95 with the first year waived. You’ll get a free checked bag, priority boarding and a 20 percent in-flight discount. The current 30,000-mile sign-up bonus isn’t as generous as American’s, but it does go up to 60,000 miles or more on occasion.

The Gold SkyMiles card comes with a few unique perks too, including discounted access to Delta Sky Club lounges, the ability to pay for some of your ticket with miles and a Medallion Qualification Dollar (MQD) waiver. While you’ll still have to earn enough miles to qualify for elite status, you won’t have to spend the required amount of money on Delta tickets.

The most affordable card in United’s lineup is the Chase United℠Explorer Credit Card. It has the same $95 annual fee as the other cards, but it is not waived for the first year. You’ll get a free checked-bag and priority boarding and, for a limited time, a 60,000-mile sign-up bonus.

Other perks that come with this card are two free passes to United Club lounges annually and 10,000 bonus miles every year you spend at least $25,000. That means you’ll earn 35,000 miles a year if you spend a little more than $2,000 a month. If any of those purchases are with United, you’ll get double miles.

Which Airline Should You Fly?

If you plan to fly the cheapest fares and you have a choice between the legacy carriers, Delta is probably the best choice. It was the first to introduce the basic economy fare, and it continues to have the best service. Not only do you get a full-sized carry-on bag, but 100 percent of your miles count toward elite status.

That might not sound like much, but American and United don’t give you that. You’ll probably end up spending at least an extra $25 to bring a bag since they only allow a small personal item.

On the other hand, if you have a co-branded credit card or elite status with any of the airlines, that would be my go-to choice. You’ll get a free checked bag and priority boarding. Unfortunately, there’s no way to get around the middle seat in the back of the plane if you’re going basic economy.

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