Basic Economy Airfares: Everything You Should Know Before Booking Your Next Flight

Many airlines have embraced basic economy fares to provide flyers with cheaper tickets

Basic Economy Airfares: Everything You Should Know Before Booking Your Next Flight
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July 11, 2018

Don't be so quick to snag that discount airfare the next time you are booking a flight. You might find yourself spending more money then you intended to spend.

Many airlines have embraced basic economy fares to provide flyers with cheaper tickets. But it is not always that simple for the person buying the ticket.

What is basic economy airfare?

Basic economy airfare is just what it sounds like. Those fares offer only the bare basics, which is generally just a seat on a flight. Depending upon the airline, you aren't allowed to make changes to your flight, you aren't allowed access to overhead bins, you may board last, you may not get snacks or drinks, you might not earn miles or points, you may not qualify for upgrades, there is no guarantee that you will be seated with other people on your itinerary, and if something happens to your flight you will probably be the last to be rebooked, even if it's the airline's fault.

Why have airlines embraced basic economy?

Airlines know that they can offer perks for frequent or first class flyers. But in reality, they know that the vast majority of people who fly do so very infrequently. For them, price is what talks. That's why many discount airlines have been so successful. Travelers pick and choose the options they want and pay only for those things. Basic economy is a response from the major airlines in order to get back some of those passengers.

The ultra-low cost airlines, such as Spirit, Allegiant, and Frontier, have operated under the basic economy principle for many years, offering a la carte airfare. Since you buy only the things you need or want, you save money. If you don't have a carry-on or need access to the overhead bin, you don't buy it. If you don't care where you sit, you don't pay extra to pick a seat. If you don't care about snacks or drinks, you save money. Basic economy airfare is built upon these same principles.

Don't make a mistake when booking your low-cost airfare!

Bob bought a ticket from Raleigh to Las Vegas using a popular travel website to book his ticket. He compared pricing and found a cheap option with a major carrier and thought he got lucky. But Bob did not know that this ticket was basic economy. He was surprised to learn at check-in that if he wanted his family to sit together he would need to pay a fee for each of the seats.

When he got to the airport, Bob was further shocked to learn that he and his family would incur even more charges because each had carry-on luggage and needed access to the overhead bins. To add further insult to injury, he was assigned to the last boarding group and had to gate-check his bags anyway. He ended up spending about $100 more per ticket in order to get the options he wanted and would have been better to choose what seemed to be the more 'expensive' ticket when he originally made his purchase.

Don't Overlook The Drawbacks of basic Economy

Many people are jumping on basic economy airfare just because of its price and ignoring the caveats that come with it. Before you buy your next ticket, pay attention to what type of fare you are purchasing. If you are purchasing a ticket with basic economy, be sure to read the fine print and know what is and what is not included. As mentioned earlier, many basic economy tickets only guarantee you a seat on that flight. They may not allow you any other options without having to pay, if they even allow you to do so.

You should be especially careful if you are buying a ticket from a third-party website and not directly from the airline. Initially, the rollout of basic economy fares hit a few bumps when third-party websites did not clearly denote basic economy fares. Most, if not all, now clearly highlight that a fare is basic economy as opposed to a small icon next to the flight and even warn you with a pop up message. They are also more clear with the restrictions for a particular flight, telling you what is not offered as opposed to telling you to contact the airline. Many now even offer ways to filter basic economy flights if you want to stick to a traditional ticket, which might be the better option if you need to select your seat and bring carry-on luggage.

why do major airlines offer basic economy airfares?

There is a little bit of logic to the use of basic economy airfare, at least from the standpoint of the airline industry. Airlines know that people who don't fly that often can cause delays at the gate, and consequentially increase costs, while accessing overhead bins or while boarding. Since these travelers are the most likely to purchase basic economy, they board last and don't hold up other travelers with use of the overhead bins. It also gives the airlines an opportunity to make a little bit of money with upgrades, if they allow you to upgrade.

But the real reason airlines are shifting to basic economy is to compete with low-cost carriers. Remember that the airlines don't really want you to buy a basic economy ticket. They'd rather you buy a regular ticket after seeing how limiting basic economy fares can be. But a seat that is filled with a basic economy flyer is better than a seat that isn't filled at all.

A basic economy ticket can also encourage penny-wise flyers to leave unnecessary things at home. It's no secret that fuel costs increase with each pound of weight added to the plane. In order to reduce fuel costs, airlines are always trying to reduce weight. In fact, in 2012 American Airlines replaced the 35 pound flight manual in each aircraft with an iPad, saving $1.2 million in fuel in the first year. If removing a 35 pound flight manual can save $1.2 million per year, imagine the potential fuel savings if an airline can convince several passengers to leave unnecessary carry-ons at home.

Cost Differences between basic economy and traditional economy airfare

The cost differences between basic economy and traditional economy airfare vary greatly and depend upon demand, the route and the itinerary. In some cases, the price difference could be $300 or more. In other cases, the cost difference might only be $20. The cost even varies greatly between airlines.

It can sometimes be difficult to compare basic economy flights to traditional economy flights on third party websites. If you find yourself considering a basic economy flight on a particular airline, check out the airline's website. The airline's website typically offers you an easy side-by-side comparison tool that can help you make a more informed decision. If you know you want to fly with a particular airline, it's typically better to purchase directly from that airline, especially since the costs are the same as third-party websites.

The Bottom Line

Basic economy doesn't necessarily suck. You can get a rock-bottom prices by giving up a few amenities in the sky. But keep in mind that restrictions vary from one airline to the next, with United Airlines currently imposing the most restrictions. But restrictions change all the time. Delta Airlines used to allow you to pick your seat for no charge at check in. But they no longer do that. They do, however, offer basic economy on some international flights, which not all airlines offer. Basic economy is not available for all routes and the fare can also very greatly depending upon the itinerary and the market.  Just remember that basic economy is NOT a regular economy ticket.

If cost is a concern to you, you might consider checking out some of the ultra-low fare airline carriers. You must pay individually for each thing you need and you probably won't have a very comfortable seat (many don't even recline), but the potential to save a lot of money is there.