American Airlines Basic Economy vs. Main Cabin

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

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American Airlines' basic economy fares have become commonplace once again. When shopping online for airfare, 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 — or for additional services, like seat selection.

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?

The short answer is that the main difference when comparing the airline's basic economy versus main cabin is that the former doesn't allow you to cancel your flight and recoup the value as a flight credit or refund. You will also earn fewer miles, get assigned a seat and board last.

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

American Airlines' basic economy restrictions

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.

  • 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 (though JetBlue will allow a carry-on with its basic fare beginning Sept. 6, 2024). 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.

  • 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 when flying 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.

AA credit cardholder benefits

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

American Airlines credit cards provide several other perks to sweeten the flying experience, regardless of fare class.

Popular American Airlines cards
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Earn 60,000 AAdvantage® bonus miles after making your first purchase and paying the $99 annual fee in full, both within the first 90 days.

Earn rate

• 2 miles per $1 at grocery stores, including grocery delivery services, and on eligible American Airlines purchases.

• 1 mile per $1 spent on other purchases.

• 1 Loyalty Point per 1 eligible AAdvantage® mile earned from purchases.

• 2 miles per $1 at gas stations and restaurants, and on eligible American Airlines purchases.

• 1 Loyalty Point per 1 eligible AAdvantage® mile earned from purchases.

• 10 miles per $1 on eligible car rentals and hotels booked through AA.

• 4 miles per $1 on eligible American Airlines purchases, up to $150,000 spent per calendar year (5 miles per $1 spent thereafter for the remainder of the calendar year).

• 1 mile per $1 on everything else.

• 1 Loyalty Point per 1 eligible AAdvantage® mile earned from purchases.

• 2 miles per $1 on eligible American Airlines purchases.

• 1 mile per $1 on all other purchases.

• 1 Loyalty Point per 1 eligible AAdvantage® mile earned from purchases.

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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

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.


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