"Basic Economy" airline fares save you money, but come at a cost

Last Updated Feb 1, 2017 10:20 AM EST

Delta, United and American all have, or will soon be launching “Basic Economy” fares, a select number of bargain basement seats that offer fewer perks than a traditional coach ticket — but just what’s in and what’s out varies by carrier.

On its website, Delta explains, “This fare is designed for those Delta passengers who, first and foremost, want a great value, and who do not plan or want to: 1) change their ticket; 2) upgrade; or 3) select their seat in advance.”

We also don’t know pricing yet for American and United’s Basic economy, but several airline sources say the fares are designed to be competitive with the cheap tickets offered by ultra-low fare carriers Spirit, Allegiant and Frontier.

On some shorter flights, the price difference may not be worth the sacrifices. On a recent search we found Delta’s Basic fare to be only $25 cheaper than standard economy on a flight between New York City and Atlanta.

United plans to start selling the Basic Economy fares later in the first quarter of 2017 for service to/from Minneapolis. The airline plans to roll out the service from there. This month, American plans to launch its Basic Economy in 10 yet-unannounced markets.  

“American Airlines now has something to offer every customer, from those who want simple, low-price travel to those who want an ultra-premium experience via First Class,” said American Airlines President Robert Isom in a statement. “Importantly, this new fare product also gives American the ability to compete more effectively with the growing number of ultra low-cost carriers.”

The airlines are not adding a new cabin or section of the aircraft. The Basic Economy seats will be in the standard economy cabin — likely middle seats towards the back — but won’t be marked or otherwise noticeably identifiable. 

Here’s the breakdown, according to the airlines and travel website airfarewatchdog.com. The United Basic Economy appears to be the most strict, offering fewer options, even to frequent flyers with status.

United

Passengers will be allowed one “personal item” as a carry on (think purse, small backpack or laptop bag); it must be stored under the seat in front of you. All other bags must be checked in at the ticket counter in the terminal lobby. Fees for checked bags start at $25. George Hobica, founder of airfarewatchdog.com, points out the maximum size of the allowed bag is just the maximum carry-on bag size: 9 x 10 x 17 in.

Passengers with elite status will be allowed to use the overhead bin.

While the airline believes it can manage the check-in process to prevent Basic Economy flyers from bringing more than the personal item to the gate, travelers trying to bring a second carry-on or a larger-than-allowed bag can expect to be charged -- likely a $25 fee plus the checked bag charges.

Passengers on a Basic Economy fare will have their seat assigned prior to boarding by United. There are no upgrades allowed, regardless of frequent flyer status, and these flyers will board in the last boarding group (so there probably wouldn’t be overhead bin space anyway). A Basic Economy ticket will earn you Mileage Plus miles, which are based on ticket price, but not the “elite qualifying miles, segments or dollar,” coveted by business flyers.   These flights also won’t count toward lifetime miles or the four-segment minimum for elite status.

The tickets are non-refundable and not able to be changed. No same-day standby or changes.

Flyers with a United branded credit card or elite status will be able to avoid the checked bag fees and may get priority boarding.

Once on board, with your personal item stowed under the seat in front of you, Basic Economy fare customers will find the same experience as anyone else in coach. Soda, water and snacks will remain complimentary. They’ll also have access to the United inflight entertainment, which includes free streaming entertainment to your mobile device.

American

Passengers will be allowed one personal item that must fit under the seat; no overhead bin luggage may be brought on board. Hobica points out the bag is small — maximum size is just 18 x 14 x 8 in.

Larger carry-ons and other luggage, such as rollerboard bags must be checked at the ticket counter in the terminal lobby prior to security. This is important because if a Basic Economy passenger brings a larger-than-allowed bag to the gate area, there will be a $25 service fee per bag plus the checked bag fee, which starts at $25 for the first bag, $35 for each additional bag. The service fee will only be charged for the first two bags.

Seat assignments will be made automatically at check in, but American will allow you to purchase a seat assignment up to 48 hours before your flight. Like United, Basic Economy passengers will be in the last boarding group and fly in the Main Cabin (standard economy) section of the aircraft.  Like United, upgrades are not allowed, regardless of elite status.  

American says the tickets are “use it or lose it,” meaning non-refundable, and non-changeable. Same-day flight changes and same-day standby are also not permitted. 

Flyers with Elite status and those with an eligible American Airlines credit card will continue to receive Priority or preferred boarding even when purchasing this fare and will be allowed to bring one personal item, one rollerboard, and they maintain their current free checked bag allowance.

Unlike United, American will offer full AAdvantage miles and Elite Qualifying Dollars may be earned when purchasing these fares; however, only one-half Elite Qualifying Mile will be earned per mile flown, and one-half Elite Qualifying Segment per segment flown.

The airline promises Basic Economy passengers will have the same experience as any other main cabin customer receives, including access to free inflight entertainment (where available), complimentary water, soft drinks and snacks.  Again, the seats will be the same as the rest of the Main Cabin.

Delta

Calling it Basic Economy, Delta offers a “value-fare product for price-driven customers offering limited flexibility and product attributes.” Unlike United and American, Delta’s basic fare does not prohibit larger carry-ons and allows overhead bin use. That said, you’ll likely be among the last to board, so be prepared for the bins to be full.

The fare class is available in select markets and typically represents the carriers lowest fares, but seats are assigned after check-in by Delta. Like United and American, the tickets are non-refundable, non-changeable, not eligible for any kind of upgrade, and same-day flight changes and same-day standby are not allowed. 

Flyers will continue to earn SkyMiles, Medallion Qualifying Miles, Medallion Qualifying Segments and Medallion Qualifying Dollars, but those with status will not get the benefit of early boarding or checked bag allowance. 

All three airlines will allow changes and cancelations within 24 hours of booking, but some limit it that to reservations made at least seven days prior to departure. As always, read the fine print.  

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How does this compare to the ultra-low fare carriers?

Allegiant allows a personal item, but a carry-on bag for a fee for the overhead bin comes with a fee ranging from $15-$20 each way if paid at booking to $50 if paid at the airport. Advanced seat selection can cost up to $80, and priority boarding sells for $4 to $12, according to airfarewatchdog. The airline does allow cancelations and changes for $75 dollars which is not allowed under the Basic Economy of United, American and Delta.

Over at Frontier, the carry-on bag (or overhead bin fee, if you’d rather) is $30-$35 each way if paid online at booking or up to 24 hours before flight time. The cost rises to $60 at the gate. Advanced seat assignments are $6 dollars up to 24 hours before the flight and free at check in. The cancelation/change fee is $99 dollars.  

At Spirit, the trailblazer for ultra-low fare carriers in the United States, the Bare Fare, allows a small  personal item that fits under the seat, large bags (and the overhead bin) come with a cost — about $35 at booking $45 before/during online, $55 at the airport check-in counter and $100 at the gate. Checked bags also vary in price.  Advanced seat assignments range from as little as a $1 dollar to $50, but upgrades are available to “Big Front Seats” that cost $12-$199 per flight segment. Cancelations and changes will run you about $100.

While United, American and Delta won’t charge for drinks and snacks, those come with a cost on the ultra-low fare carriers, as can things like printing a boarding pass from an airport kiosk. Bottom Line: Do your homework before you fly.

  • Kris Van Cleave

    Kris Van Cleave was appointed CBS News Transportation Correspondent in September 2015 and is based in Washington, D.C.