3 things I think about when booking basic economy

As most frequent travelers know, basic economy has come a long way since airlines started adding the low-cost fare option over the past decade.

Originally seen by airlines as a way to compete with low-cost carriers, the general principle has remained fairly constant: you pay a lower ticket price than you would for a main cabin ticket, but you lose some of the services on your flight – or at least lose free access to them.

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On the other hand, airlines have made some changes when it comes to what’s included in a basic economy fare, what’s not, and what you can add on for a fee after choosing the cheaper ticket.

TPG has guides with everything you need to know when it comes to the rules of simple business with American, Delta and United.

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However, given how basic economic policies vary from one airline to another, let alone how they have changed over time, I personally found it helpful to have a mental checklist of factors to consider, when I’m evaluating whether it’s worth saving a little (actually, sometimes it’s a decent amount) by booking a basic economy ticket or if I’m better off going with a full-fare economy ticket.

A Delta Air Lines aircraft at the gate of Dulles International Airport (IAD). SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

Knowing which factors are most important to you is crucial to making the best decision on the right airline. Below are the main factors I consider.

1. The free full size hand luggage

Whether you’ve always shied away from checking a bag whenever possible, or moved in that direction after last summer’s luggage chaos, forgoing a checked bag can be a great option. But if you can’t stuff all your belongings into a small backpack or purse, you need a carry-on suitcase; preferably one that fits in the overhead compartment.

In the past, it has been a common policy for low-economy airlines to limit your baggage allowance to just one personal item that fits under the seat and charge for everything else.

Personally I need a full sized bag of some form on most trips. With that in mind, if I’m traveling on an airline with restrictive baggage policies, I will steer clear of basic economy unless it’s an airline where I have elite status or I have checked baggage with a co- Branded credit card that replaces the airline’s basic economic restrictions (more on that in a moment).

Thankfully, these types of carry-on restrictions are less common on the largest US airlines today than they were a few years ago. Of the three major U.S. airlines, United is the only one to restrict free overhead locker access as part of Basic Economy.

An American Airlines plane at the gate of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW). SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

2. Loyalty Perks and Earnings

A second important factor I think about when deciding whether or not to book a Basic Economy fare is whether I can enjoy my loyalty perks, earn miles, and progress toward elite status while traveling with a single economy fare.

When I first aspired to Elite status with American Airlines in 2018, knowing I would be “in the bubble” by December, I stayed away from Basic Economy at all costs, since AAdvantage members were only half of the Elite qualification earned segments when flying on a Basic Economy ticket. American has since eliminated both Elite qualification segments (in favor of its Loyalty Points system) and the handicap on AAdvantage earnings for Basic Economy flyers, so you’ll now earn miles and Loyalty Points even if you fly Basic Economy.

But other airlines still have restrictions. United basic economy passengers earn MileagePlus miles and Premier qualifying points, but their travel does not count toward Premier qualifying flights. Delta does not allow its SkyMiles members to earn miles or elite status credits when flying in Basic Economy.

While you’d rather pay the lowest fare, you would also hate paying for a flight that isn’t fully accounted for in an airline’s loyalty program. Therefore, I will consider how the airline handles this when making my decision.

I will also consider the other benefits I enjoy while flying, whether it’s elite status or a co-branded airline credit card, when making my decision. Sometimes airlines impose strict rules on basic economy tickets, but allow elite members exceptions to certain policies. It certainly varies from airline to airline.

To do this, I weigh a few factors: Do my typical benefits apply despite basic savings restrictions? Will I enjoy free upgrades? Can I board in my typical priority group, as opposed to the last group on board, as is the case with basic economy tickets almost everywhere? If I have to check a bag, does my free checked bag benefit still apply?

If the answer to all of these questions is yes, I might opt ​​for the cheaper ticket.


3. Itinerary Flexibility

Another hallmark of basic economy tickets is that they traditionally lack much flexibility when it comes to making changes beyond the 24-hour post-booking period.

The inflexibility of basic economy tickets compared to other tickets is now all the more glaring: Airlines overall have relaxed their change and cancellation policies for most tickets compared to before the pandemic, but basic economy is generally the exception to this flexibility.

While you may be able to recoup some of your investment if you voluntarily cancel a basic economy ticket, you often end up paying a hefty percentage of the ticket as a cancellation fee. You will also usually be largely or completely limited in your ability to alter your trip.

If I have any idea that I need to change or cancel my trip before departure, Basic Economy is probably not a good idea. If I’m confident that the trip will go ahead as planned and have little fear that I’ll end up losing all or most of my payment, I might be ready to book Basic Economy.

Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL). SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

One thing to always keep in mind

Ironically, being able to choose my own seat on a flight hardly figures in my basic economics decision equation. That’s because airlines do, and have pretty much always excluded free seat selection from these discounted tickets.

That means you probably can’t guarantee your family will be seated together when traveling in Basic Economy. You’ll often be assigned a seat at check-in — or you may be able to choose your seat — at that point, there are far fewer seat options available.

For this reason, if seat selection is important to you, you might not even need to weigh a checklist of factors: Basic Economy might just not be right for your travel needs.

bottom line

Because policies differ over the years and from one airline to another, there can be a lot to keep track of when it comes to basic economy or full-fare economy policies. For this reason, it is good to know which services and benefits are most important to you so that you can make the best decision on the right ticket type.

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