Buyer Beware: Do Your Homework Before Booking a Flight With A “Basic” Fare

I’ve been doing some serious planning for our upcoming domestic travels. Since I’ve booked most of our recent flights on Southwest or JetBlue, two of our favorite airlines, I haven’t been paying much attention to changes the major airlines like American, Delta and United have made to their basic economy fares. I 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)], 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 rolled these fares out to a larger number of routes, including some of the ones I now needed to book flights on. Here’s the restrictions these fares have for the big three airlines:

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)], 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
  • One carry-on bag that fits in the overhead compartment
  • Seats are assigned at check-in
  • Fees to choose a specific seat 48 hours before departure
  • Not eligible for upgrades
  • No flight changes or refunds
  • Board in last group (Boarding Group 9)

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:

  • Keep your priority or preferred boarding privileges
  • Keep your checked bag benefits

Delta Airlines – Basic Economy

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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)], via Wikimedia Commons
Delta Airlines’ version of Basic Economy comes with the following restrictions:

  • Your seat will not be assigned until after you check in to your flight. If your seat number does not appear on your boarding pass, your seat will be assigned at the gate before you board and your boarding pass will list, “Seat Assigned at 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
  • Basic Economy customers will board last; access to overhead bins may be limited.

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 checked baggage fees, Priority Check-in, Priority Boarding and Medallion mileage bonuses. However, please note Medallion Members will not receive paid or Complimentary Upgrades when flying on a Basic Economy fare.

Medallion Members, others with elite status, and Delta SkyMiles American Express credit card holders continue to enjoy their Priority Boarding benefits.

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)], via Wikimedia Commons
United’s Basic Economy fares are the most restrictive of the “Big Three” airlines. Be prepared if you book one of these fares and don’t be like the passenger who didn’t know they were flying on a Basic Economy ticket.

(The bold type is added for emphasis)

  • Seat selection and upgrades are not available -When you choose a Basic Economy ticket, your complimentary seat will be automatically assigned prior to boarding, and you won’t be able to change your seat once it’s been assigned. Advance seat assignments may be available for purchase during booking and up until check-in opens. 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 unless advance seat assignments are purchased and seats are available.
  • 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.
  • 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, assistive devices and medical devices including breast pumps are also permitted. With Basic Economy, you’ll only be able to check in for your flight through united.com or the United app if you indicate that you’re checking a bag. To check your bag, you’ll go to a check-in counter or designated kiosk in the airport lobby. If you begin check-in and do not indicate that you’re checking a bag, you’ll need to finish checking in for your flight at the airport.
  • 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 benefitsSee 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 looked 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 (or maybe not at all).  After flying on a Delta Basic Economy ticket, we’ve decided this fare type just isn’t for us.

American’s recent Basic Economy changes have brought them in line with the fare that Delta offers. United rightfully earns the last spot with restrictions that would make RyanAir proud, like that you can’t bring a full-size carry on (with a $25 penalty if you do bring one to the gate on top of the normal baggage fee), no ticket changes, being in the last boarding group and not even being able to check in online if you are not checking a bag.

While the reasoning 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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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary

 

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2 thoughts on “Buyer Beware: Do Your Homework Before Booking a Flight With A “Basic” Fare”

  1. Just flew on a United flight using economy fare and have done several Delta basic economy fares in the past few months. You are right, United is much more restrictive, and frankly anal about the rules. However, I was able to bring a folding instrument onboard without penalty, but that’s most likely due to FAA policies (after the “United Breaks Guitars” PR fiasco).

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