Is No-Frills Basic Economy Worth the Hassle?

What’s known as stripped down, no-frills air travel or ‘basic economy’ has been around for years; you’ve experienced it if you’ve ever flown Spirit or Frontier or Europe’s EasyJet and Ryan (and there are others). Spirit even calls its cheapest deals ‘bare fares’. Important: Never blindly buy basic economy and assume you’re getting the best deal; you must compare airfares.

Is no-frills basic economy worth the hassle?

Now some big airlines are getting in on the act; either they now offer it or are planning to do so this year (and this would be in addition to their regular economy, first and business class and premium economy seating). I’ve written about this new cabin class recently in an effort to answer the question, is basic economy right for you? The answer is, it depends.

1. Which big airlines offer basic economy?

At the moment, only Delta does (and only on certain routes), but American and United have announced plans to begin offering basic economy seats sometime this year.

2. How much cheaper is basic economy compared to regular economy?

We found these fares on Delta’s website on Jan. 10, for travel in March.

Salt Lake City – New York

  • Basic economy: $267
  • Regular economy: $282
  • Savings: $15

Minneapolis – Atlanta

  • Basic economy: $225
  • Regular economy: $255
  • Savings: $30

Newark – Phoenix

  • Basic economy: $284
  • Regular economy: $314
  • Savings: $30

Clearly, no one’s going to save a fortune on basic economy, but every little bit helps, right? And the savings multiplies for groups traveling together including families. But there are some restrictions that families in particular may not like.

3. What are the restrictions of basic economy?

Delta: Here’s what we know about Delta’s basic economy restrictions, and to its credit, Delta makes the restrictions very clear to shoppers on its site. It also continues to offer basic economy passengers free snacks and soft drinks, which Spirit and some of the other discounters do not. The restrictions:

  • No seat assignments until after check-in or at the gate.
  • Families and groups may not be seated together.
  • No same-day changes or ticket refunds (outside the post-booking 24 hour grace period).
  • Basic economy boards last (and these passengers cannot even pay for early boarding).
  • No complimentary (or even paid) upgrades or preferred seats, even for elite miles members.

United: No regular sized carry-on bags.

Late last year, United said its basic economy passengers would not be allowed to use overheard bins. This shouldn’t be too big a problem since folks in basic economy will be limited to a single, small carry-on that must fit under the seat. Example: travelers with a small bag, a laptop and a purse must choose one for the cabin and check the rest (and you may pay a fee for that). For airlines, this arrangement supposedly leads to faster boardings and more on-time take-offs as it cuts down on the time it takes to locate available bin space then hoist bags into bins. Spirit, for example, has long discouraged carry-ons by charging a higher fee for smaller bags compared to big suitcases. Elsewhere, airlines such as Aer Lingus limit cabin baggage on domestic flights to 7kg or just 15 lbs.

American: At this point, little information has been released on how American Airlines might restrict its basic economy seats.

4. How to find the cheapest basic economy fare?

Always compare airfares: The cheapest fare may be an airline’s basic economy ticket, but it might be another carrier’s regular economy. If you only go to a single airline site, you won’t necessarily get the best deals, so always compare fares.

5. Is basic economy worth it or not?

Yes and no. If you travel as a family of four, say, some basic economy fares could save $120 (or more) but you wouldn’t necessarily get to sit together; no big deal if traveling with teens but a problem for those with little ones. Get the facts, compare fares, and see what works best for you.

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Updated: January 11, 2017