Buyer Beware: Do your homework before booking a flight with a “basic” fare

I was doing some serious travel planning over the last two weeks. We are focusing on taking several shorter trips this year and that means I need to book more flights than usual for us. Since I’ve been booking our domestic flights with my Southwest miles or on JetBlue, I haven’t paid much attention to changes the major airlines like American, Delta
and United have been making. I did know they started to offer bare bone, or basic airfares, claiming that this will help them remain competitive with low cost airlines.

1024px-Airbus_A380-861,_Korean_Air_AN1960985
By Alex Beltyukov – RuSpotters Team [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Originally, these fares were only supposed to be offered on routes where they were in competition against airlines like Spirit, Frontier or Allegiant.  However, as you can imagine, the airlines have now started to roll these fares out to a larger number of routes, including some of the ones I now needed to book airfare for. Let me spell out what these fares entail for each airline:

American Airlines – Basic Economy

American_Airlines_Boeing_777-200ER_N775AN_PVG_2013-5-21
By Sergey Kustov [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
When you book a Basic Economy ticket with American, here is what you get:

  • One item that fits under the seat in front of you (no access to overhead bins)
  • Seats are assigned at check-in
  • Fees to choose a specific seat
  • Not eligible for upgrades
  • No flight changes or refunds
  • Board in last group

For more clarification on baggage, American gives this guidance on their website:

You can board with 1 item like a purse or small handbag that fits under the seat in front of you and is not larger than 18 x 14 x 8 inches (45 x 35 x 20 cm). You won’t have access to overhead bins.

All other items must be checked at ticket counters and cannot be carried on. If you take them to the gate you’ll pay an extra $25 gate service fee per item plus the applicable bag fee.

American does have some exemptions for elite members of their AAdvantage program and those who hold a co-branded American Airlines credit card. They can:

  • Take 1 item that fits under the seat (no larger than 18 x 14 x 8 in.)
  • Take 1 item free of charge to store in the overhead bin (no larger than 22 x 14 x 9 in.)
  • Keep their priority or preferred boarding privileges
  • Keep their checked bag benefits

Delta Airlines – Basic Economy

1024px-Delta_Air_Lines_B767-300_N130DL
By Richard Snyder from San Jose, CA, United States of America (Delta Air Lines N130DL Uploaded by Altair78) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Delta Airlines version of Basic Economy comes with the following restrictions:

  • With Basic Economy, you will not receive a seat assignment until after check-in or at the gate.
  • Passengers traveling together, including families, may not be seated together
  • You will not be eligible for same-day changes or ticket refunds after the Risk Free Cancellation Period
  • You will board in the last zone and not be eligible for paid or complimentary upgrades or preferred seats, even with Medallion® Status.

Frequent Delta flyers and cardholders of the co-branded Delta Skymiles American Express cards will still get some benefits when flying on basic economy:

When flying on a Basic Economy fare, Medallion members will continue to enjoy waived baggage fees, Priority Check-in, Priority Boarding and Medallion mileage bonuses. However, please note Medallion members will not receive paid or Complimentary Upgrades to first class, paid or complimentary Preferred Seats, or paid, or complimentary Delta Comfort+™ when flying on a Basic Economy fare.

Screen Shot 2017-05-16 at 9.22.50 PM.png
Delta gives members of their co-branded American Express cards priority boarding and one free checked bag even when booking basic economy fares.

United Airlines – Basic Economy

1024px-United_Airlines_777_N797UA
By InSapphoWeTrust from Los Angeles, California, USA (United Airlines – N797UA Uploaded by Altair78) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I hate to be the one to jump on the bandwagon, but United’s Basic Economy fares are the most restrictive of the “Big Three” airlines. Be prepared if you book one of these fares! (I added the bold type below for emphasis)

  • Seat selection and upgrades are not available – When you choose a Basic Economy ticket, your seat will be automatically assigned prior to boarding, and you won’t be able to change your seat once it’s been assigned. You will not be eligible to purchase Economy Plus® seating or receive Economy Plus subscription benefits. MileagePlus members, including Premier® members, cannot use complimentary, earned or mileage upgrades.
  • Group and family seating is not available – Please note that customers traveling in a group, including families, will not be able to sit together.
  • Full-sized carry-on bags are not permitted – You’re not allowed a full-sized carry-on bag unless you’re a MileagePlus Premier member or companion traveling on the same reservation, the primary cardmember of a qualifying MileagePlus credit card or a Star Alliance™ Gold member. Everyone else who brings a full-sized carry-on bag to the gate will be required to check their bag and pay the applicable checked bag fee plus a $25 gate handling charge.
  • One personal item is allowed – You are allowed one small personal item that fits under the seat in front of you, such as a shoulder bag, purse, laptop bag or other item that is 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches (22 cm x 25 cm x 43 cm) or less. Mobility aids and other assistive devices are also permitted.
  • Flight changes and refunds are not allowed – Ticket changes are not allowed with Basic Economy, including advance and same-day changes. Refunds are not allowed except as stated in the United 24-hour flexible booking policy.
  • Certain MileagePlus and Premier member benefits are not available – If you’re a MileagePlus member, you will still earn award miles based on the fare and your MileagePlus status. However, MileagePlus members will not earn Premier qualifying credit or lifetime miles or toward the four-segment minimum, and they won’t receive some benefits. See more details below.
  • Last boarding group – With Basic Economy, you’ll also be in the last boarding group unless you’re a MileagePlus Premier member or companion traveling on the same reservation, the primary cardmember of a qualifying MileagePlus credit card or a Star Alliance Gold member.

Is it just me or it that the MOST NEGATIVE list of benefits you’ve ever read? It almost seems as if they are daring you to buy these tickets. They do list some exceptions to these rules if you have one of the United co-branded credit cards or if you are a MileagePlus premium member, but these are, by far, the most restrictive tickets.

Final Thoughts

I recently had to look through the restrictions of basic economy fares and found that there are major differences between the three major airlines offerings. Delta’s basic economy rate’s only major drawback is that you’re not able to pick your seat until check in. American’s fare has a similar set of restrictions as Delta but additionally does not allow you to bring a bag bigger than one that will fit under your seat (and will charge you a $25 penalty on top of the checked bag fee if you bring said oversized bag to the gate). United rightfully earns the last spot with restrictions that would make RyanAir proud, like that you have no ability to pick or to change seat, can’t bring a full-size carry on (with a $25 penalty, the same as American, if you do bring one to the gate on top of the normal baggage fee), no ticket changes and being in the last boarding group.

While the reasoning the airlines gave to offer these fares was sound, to compete with ultra low cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier, in reality it just does not, to lack a better word, fly. These fares are offered on routes not served by any of the ultra low cost airlines. Other blogs have noted that the fares did not go down in price at all. The previous economy fare just became the new basic economy fare and the regular economy fare increased. The irony of these “no-frill” fares is that low-cost airlines like Southwest and JetBlue still offer lower fare structures and manage to offer wi-fi (still not available on many American flights), free checked bags (Southwest) or live TV (JetBlue) at a fare that is less than these “basic” fares. The true ultra low cost carriers, like Frontier, have fares as low as $39 or offers like Spirit’s $9 fare club. These are true “basic economy” fares that are up front about giving you nothing but a seat and having you pay for everything else. These new basic economy fares are just economy tickets with more restrictions that are the same price as the old economy fares. Buyer Beware!

Have you ever purchased one of these basic economy fares? Did you know what the restrictions were when you purchased it? How was the flight experience?  Let us know in the comments, on Facebook or Twitter.

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