Home Airlines The Breakdown Of The Changes In Basic Economy For 2021

The Breakdown Of The Changes In Basic Economy For 2021

by joeheg

In 2020, booking a basic economy ticket wasn’t that bad. Planes generally weren’t full and for part of the year airlines were blocking seats, meaning you’d have no chance of a middle seat.

It’s 2021 and planes are full once again. In case you haven’t been paying attention, it’s time to look at the rules for each airline’s basic economy offering.

Here’s the breakdown for each airline when flying a domestic U.S. route, as of April 2021. Rules can be different for international flights booked in Basic Economy and can be found on each airline’s website.

American Airlines – Basic Economy


When you book a Basic Economy ticket with American, here’s what you get:

  • You can board with 1 carry-on and 1 personal item. The carry-on item must fit in the overhead bin and be no larger than 22 x 14 x 9 in (56 x 36 x 23 cm). The personal item like a purse or small handbag must fit under the seat in front of you and be no larger than 18 x 14 x 8 inches (45 x 35 x 20 cm). Carry-on requirements apply to all customers including ConciergeKey and AAdvantage elite members.
  • You can choose a specific seat at any time for a fee (complimentary for AAdvantage elite members based on your status). Otherwise, seats will be automatically assigned for free at check-in. We can’t guarantee that you’ll be seated together.
  • If you’re a family traveling with children under 15, and do not already have seats assigned, our system will search for seats together automatically before the day of departure. We’ll try our best to keep you together, but if seats are limited, we’ll assign seats so children under 15 are next to at least 1 adult.
  • Change of plans? We allow same-day confirmed changes on select flights for a fee, with some exceptions.
  • Customers can stand by for a flight at no charge.
  • Board in the last group (Group 9)

Just saying, you know our luck with American and the size of carry-on bags.

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:

  • Upgrade privileges
  • Complimentary Preferred and Main Cabin Extra seat benefits based on elite status
  • Complimentary confirmed same-day flight changes for Executive Platinum and Platinum Pro members
  • Priority or preferred boarding privileges
  • Checked bag benefits

When it comes to earning miles for your flights or qualifying for status, you’ll earn full redeemable miles but will get no qualifying credit for elite status.

  • Award miles earn based on ticket price (includes base fare plus carrier-imposed fees; excludes government-imposed taxes and fees) on flights marketed and operated by American
  • Basic Economy fares don’t earn EQMs, EQSs or EQDs

Delta Airlines – Basic Economy

Delta Air Lines N130DL by Richard Snyder from San Jose, CA is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A basic economy ticket on Delta comes with the following restrictions.

  • Your seat will not be assigned until after you check in to your flight.
  • Complimentary carry-on bag. Overhead bin space may be limited, so your carry-on bag may be gate checked free of charge
  • You will not be eligible for paid or complimentary upgrades; paid, complimentary or discounted Delta Comfort+; paid or complimentary Preferred Seats; or same-day confirmed or same-day standby travel changes, regardless of status.
  • You will not be able to change or refund your ticket after the Risk Free Cancellation Period.
  • You will board in with Basic Economy, the last zone of the new Delta Branded Boarding Order – Elite flyers or cardholders of an eligible SkyMiles credit card will retain their boarding status when booking basic economy fares.

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

  • If you have an eligible SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express, you receive your First Bag Free on Delta flights booked with your SkyMiles Credit Card. The benefit extends to up to 8 travel companions, who must be listed on the Card Member’s reservation — for a total of 9 passengers.
  • To reward your loyalty, your first checked bag fee is waived with Delta Medallion Status or as a SkyTeam Elite & Elite Plus Member.

For mileage earning and status qualifications, Basic Economy fares on Delta are treated the same as a regular economy ticket.

United Airlines – Basic Economy


United continues to have the harshest restrictions on their Basic Economy passengers.

  • 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’ll be eligible to purchase Economy Plus seating at check-in only. MileagePlus members, including Premier members, cannot use complimentary, earned or mileage upgrades, or Economy Plus subscription benefits.
  • 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.
  • For Basic Economy tickets, 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. (Exception for trans-Atlantic flights to and from the U.S., Mexico and Central America, as well as to and from El Salvador, Panama and South America where your carry-on baggage allowance is the same as for standard Economy tickets.
  • 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.
  • Ticket changes are not allowed with Basic Economy, except in connection with same-day standby. For tickets issued between March 3, 2020, and April 30, 2021, there are no change fees. Refunds are not allowed except as stated in the United 24-hour flexible booking policy.
  • If you’re a MileagePlus member, you will still earn award miles based on the fare and your MileagePlus status, as well as full Premier qualifying points, lifetime miles and credit toward the four-segment minimum. However, Basic Economy flights do not count as Premier qualifying flights
  • 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.
  • If you’ve already purchased a Basic Economy ticket but find it too restrictive, you may have the option to add the benefits of a United Economy fare for a service charge. This will allow you to enjoy many of the features of United Economy, including the option to bring one full-size carry-on on board, complimentary seat assignment before check-in and the ability to upgrade to Economy Plus or a premium cabin seat.

Alaska Airlines – Saver Fares

Alaska Airlines

Alaska chose to name their bare bones ticket differently but don’t let the name fool you, this is still a restrictive ticket.

  • Limited seating may be available at the time of purchase. Most seats will be assigned at check-in.
  • We can’t guarantee that parties of two or more will be seated together.
  • No refunds are allowed beyond the first 24 hours after ticketing.
  • No changes, including same-day confirmed changes, are allowed for Saver fares.
  • No standby is allowed for Saver fares, even for elite status guests.
  • If a guest is a no-show for any flight during a trip, all other flights within that trip are automatically canceled, with no refund available.
  • Saver fares cannot be combined with any other fare types on the same itinerary.
  • Saver fares are non-transferable.
  • Elite members do not receive waived change fees, same-day confirmed, preferred seating, or upgrade benefits with Saver fares. On all fares including Saver, Elites receive bonus miles, baggage allowances, check-in benefits, and priority boarding. All other Saver fare rules and restrictions apply to MVP, MVP Gold, and MVP Gold 75k Mileage Plan members.
  • Passengers are allowed one carry-on + one personal item. Overhead bin space is on a first-come, first-served basis. Elite Mileage Plan passengers keep Elite boarding status.

JetBlue – Blue Basic

JetBlue introduced its low-cost ticket in 2019 and has announced tweaks to the fare for flights after July 20, 2021.

  • There’s a fee for selecting your seats more than 24 hours prior to departure (you can still choose from the remaining Core seats at check-in for free).
  • You’ll board with one of the last boarding groups. (Except for Mosaics and those who have purchased an Even More Space seat.)
  • Changes and cancellations are subject to a fee of $100 within the U.S., Caribbean, Mexico and Central America, or $200 for other routes, (fare difference may apply), even if you have Mosaic status. Same-day switches, when available, can be made for $75 (free for Mosaics), with no fare difference.
  • Effective 7/20/21, Blue Basic fares do not allow a carry-on bag, but you may bring a personal item that fits under the seat in front of you on board. Carry-on bags brought to the gate will need to be checked and incur a fee of $65 (if it would be your 1st or 2nd checked bag) or $180 (if it’s your 3rd).
  • Mosaic members, travelers that are combining a Blue Basic fare with an Even More Space seat, active military and unaccompanied minors may still bring a carry-on bag
  • Mosaic members may make same-day switches with no fee and no difference in fare starting 24 hours prior to your scheduled departure, even with Blue Basic fares
  • You’ll earn 1 TrueBlue point per dollar spent—or 2 points if you booked on jetblue.com or the JetBlue app


They sure don’t make it easy to know what you’re getting yourself into when you buy a basic economy seat. If you’re considering buying one of these seats (or now redeeming points for one of them, no thanks to Delta for that option) here are some of the takeaways:

  • United and JetBlue do not allow a carry-on bag for the overhead bin. However, all of the airlines warn that since you’ll be boarding last, there may not be any space in the overhead bins and you may (most likely) have to check the bag at the gate.
  • With these fares, you’ll usually have to pay if you want to pick a seat in advance if you have that option at all. Only American guarantees that at least one parent/guardian will be seated next to a child under 15.
  • COVID-19 has loosened up some of the cancellation and change rules for basic economy tickets, read the rules carefully before booking.
  • All of the airlines let you earn the full amount of miles based either on miles flown (Alaska) or cost of the ticket (American, Delta, JetBlue and United). Any bonuses earned due to status will be applied to these tickets as well.

Final Thoughts

Looking at these rules, there are certain travelers who might not mind these restrictions. For example, if you’re a frequent flyer with status or have an airline credit card, you’ll keep your preferred boarding and ability to bring on a full-size carry-on for the overhead. If it’s a short trip, you’re probably not checking a bag. If you’re flying alone and don’t mind where you sit, the only negative is the decreased qualification for status on American and United. I’d say this describes many frequent business travelers, and most changes to the rules have been to make basic economy tickets more appealing to them.

Then, who are these fares bad for? They are terrible for families since they’re most likely the customer buying solely based on price. This is why you have a situation like I had the last time (which is the last time) we flew on United. These types of passengers aren’t going to know the rules of these fares. In fairness, airlines have strengthened the language to stress the downsides of these fares, telling families or people wanting to sit together to simply not to purchase basic economy. It seems that instead of offering a lower fare to value customers, airlines have imposed extra costs and fees upon families going on a vacation they’ve been saving up (or going into debt) to take.

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary

1 comment

disdadisdisdis April 5, 2021 - 5:20 am

Very helpful write-up, thanks.

For me personally, I would have to rank the US legacies when it comes to basic eco from AA (best) to UA (worst).

As an BAEC elite (OW Sapphire), AA is wonderful. Almost all elite benefits are given. And, if you credit to BA, you even earn the same credit towards elite status as in regular main cabin.

DL is more of a mixed bag. For short haul, I may accept the restrictions and purchase basic eco. For mid haul, I grudgingly pay up and purchase main cabin so I can get complimentary upgrade privileges and such as a Delta medallion. For long haul, I typically resort to a workaround: I purchase the lowest fares offered by Delta’s joint-venture partners. These are considerably less restrictive. For instance, if I buy an “economy light” on Air France, I retain most elite benefits, including the ability to reserve exit row free of charge right after booking (as Platinum medallion).

UA is the most problematic. No easy workarounds despite having Star Gold status. I try to avoid UA completely in situations where seating privileges matter to me and the upcharge for regular economy is non-trivial.


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