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.

UPDATE: Both American and United now offer basic economy, and neither one allows carry-ons in this class.

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 (details below).

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.

American and United: No regular sized carry-on bags.

Both American and United appear to be following Delta's lead on lack-of-amenities for basic economy, but they have also added a restriction Delta does not have (so far) and thats a ban on regular-size carry-ons. In fact, American and United's basic economy passengers will not be allowed to use overheard bins. Passengers will be allowed one small carry-on bag, but only if it fits under a seat. And one item is all you get, so if you board with a small carry-on, a purse and a laptop, you are two items over the limit, and those two extra items must be checked and you must pay a fee. What's the reasoning behind this? Passengers will board more quickly and planes will take off on time, or so goes the thinking. By the way, this isn't really a new concept; Spirit, which charges for all bags, has long discouraged carry-ons in cabins by charging less to check a big bag. Elsewhere, airlines such as Aer Lingus limit carry-on bags to a mere 7kg (15 lbs) on domestic flights.

4. How to find the cheapest basic economy fare?

Always compare airfares: The cheapest fare might be a basic economy ticket, but it might be regular economy! You cannot assume anything when it comes to airfare and if you only go to a single airline site, you may not get the best deal. 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 you $120 (or more) but remember, you may not get to sit together. That's no big deal if traveling with teens but could be a big problem for those with little ones. Get the facts, compare the fares, and see what works best for you.

Rick Seaney
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