American Airlines Basic Economy vs. Main Cabin

One crucial aspect sets these two fare types apart: The ability to make changes.
JT Genter
By JT Genter 

Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This influences which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own. Here is a list of our partners and here's how we make money.

After scaling back on basic economy during the pandemic, American Airlines' basic economy fares have become commonplace once again. Now, the first price you'll see when searching American flights is likely a basic economy fare. However, at checkout, American will try to upsell you to main cabin fares.

That may have you wondering: What's the difference between American Airlines' main cabin versus basic economy? Is it worth upgrading to American Airlines' main cabin fares or are the cheapest fares good enough?

Let's dig into the restrictions of American Airlines' basic economy and compare it with the features of main cabin fares.

Rack up miles or enjoy lounge privileges with our favorite American Airlines cards
Check out our nerdy picks for the best American Airlines credit cards and find the right card for you.

Restrictions of American Airlines' basic economy

American Airlines' basic economy fares have a few limitations, plus one crucial restriction:

  • Absolutely no changes are allowed after ticketing — not even for a fee. That means if you need to change your flight, you have to rebook and have no recourse for a refund of any kind (save for same-day flight changes, which we'll discuss in the next section).

  • You can choose a specific seat at any time for a fee, otherwise, seats are automatically assigned for free at check-in. This means no guarantees for sitting together if you're traveling in a group.

  • Basic economy passengers board in the last boarding group unless they have AAdvantage elite status or an eligible AAdvantage credit card.

  • As of March 1, AAdvantage members earn just 2 miles per dollar spent on basic economy fares.

If those restrictions don't sound that bad, you're not alone in thinking so. NerdWallet testing concluded that American offered the best basic economy fares of any U.S. airline.

By comparison, United Airlines and JetBlue Airways restrict basic economy passengers from bringing a full-size carry-on bag on domestic flights. Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines doesn't allow any upgrades or mileage and elite earnings on basic economy fares.

None of these additional restrictions are in play on American basic economy fares.

Perks you still get in basic economy

To give you an idea of how minor the restrictions are, here are the perks you'll get when booking American Airlines basic economy fares.

Perks all travelers get on American Airlines' basic economy fares

  • Full-size carry-on bags: When flying on American Airlines' basic economy fares, you'll get to bring a full-size carry-on bag onboard. That wasn't always the case, though. American previously restricted basic economy passengers from bringing a full-size carry-on bag onboard. However, American ditched that restriction in 2018.

  • Seat selection (for a fee): Want to avoid a middle seat at all costs? You can still do so even when booking American Airlines basic economy fares. While you'll have to pay to select a seat, you can do so anytime before check-in.

  • Mileage earnings: On some airlines, basic economy fares don't earn any airline miles. That's not the case on American Airlines. You'll earn AAdvantage miles and Loyalty Points toward elite status at the same rate as main cabin fares.

  • Same-day flight changes: Another perk you'll get on American Airlines' basic economy fares: Same-day flight changes and complimentary standby. Basic economy passengers can make a confirmed flight change on the same day as their original flight for as little as $75. Or, you can standby for a different flight for free on domestic flights.

AAdvantage elite benefits on American Airlines' basic economy fares

American Airlines AAdvantage elites retain elite perks on basic economy fares.

  • Complimentary seat selection: AAdvantage elite members can select preferred or extra-legroom Main Cabin Extra seating for free — depending on the perks offered for your elite status level.

  • Free checked bag: One perk of all AAdvantage elite status levels is (at least) one free checked bag on American Airlines flights. That's also the case on basic economy fares.

  • Priority boarding: American Airlines basic economy passengers are assigned to the last boarding group: Group 8 or 9, depending on the route. However, AAdvantage elite status holders retain their priority boarding privileges, even when booking basic economy fares.

  • Upgrades: All AAdvantage elite members are now eligible for complimentary first-class upgrades within North America. On international flights, AAdvantage members can use miles or systemwide upgrades to upgrade their ticket. Booking a basic economy fare won't keep you from using any of these upgrades.

Credit card benefits on American Airlines' basic economy fares

Like AAdvantage elites, American Airlines' credit cardholders can enjoy their card benefits when booking American's basic economy:

With all this in mind, when does it make sense to pay more for American Airlines' main cabin versus basic economy?

When to book main cabin vs. basic economy on American Airlines

The restrictions on American Airlines' basic economy fares aren't bad. But there are a few times when it makes sense to pay more for American Airlines' main cabin fares instead.

Taking advantage of price drops

The primary restriction on American Airlines' basic economy fares is the lack of ability to make changes. This is quite an important restriction now that American has eliminated change fees on most main cabin fares. When booking a main cabin fare, you can take advantage of fare decreases.

So you might want to pay more for a main cabin fare if you're booking a flight far in advance and may want to change, cancel or take advantage of a lower price.

When you're going to pay for seat selection anyway

American Airlines' basic economy fares allow seat selection for a fee. If you're going to pay to ensure you avoid getting stuck in a middle seat, consider the price difference between the seat selection fee and upgrading to the main cabin fare.

It might be worth paying a main cabin fare to get a complimentary seat selection.

When the main cabin fare doesn't cost that much more anyway

The last time it's worth considering paying more for a main cabin fare is when it doesn't cost that much more anyway. For example, we found a flight option from San Francisco to New York that cost $177 one-way in basic economy or $187 one-way in the main cabin.

Between getting a complimentary seat selection, free changes and avoiding the last boarding group, it makes sense for almost anyone to pay $10 more to upgrade to the main cabin.

AA basic economy vs. main cabin, recapped

There's not much of a difference between American’s main cabin and basic economy offerings. All travelers get a full-size carry-on bag, mileage earnings and the flexibility to change flights on the day of travel for a fee. Plus, elite status members and credit cardholders enjoy all of their perks when booking basic economy fares.

The primary downside to the airline's basic economy fares is the lack of ability to make changes. American Airlines' basic economy fares are essentially "use it or lose it." Plus, this lack of flexibility means you can't take advantage of price drops after booking.

How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:

Cards for American Airlines from our Partners
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate


Earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, every day. Earn 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of trip options.


Intro offer


Enjoy a one-time bonus of 75,000 miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel.

Citibank Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard® Credit Card

on Citibank's application

Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate


Earn 1 Loyalty Point for every 1 eligible AAdvantage® mile earned from purchases.


Intro offer


Earn 70,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after spending $7,000 within the first 3 months of account opening.

Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate


Enjoy benefits such as a $50 annual Ultimate Rewards Hotel Credit, 5x on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3x on dining and 2x on all other travel purchases, plus more.


Intro offer


Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.

See more cards
Get more smart money moves – straight to your inbox
Sign up and we’ll send you Nerdy articles about the money topics that matter most to you along with other ways to help you get more from your money.