American Drops Fees and Adds Benefits to Basic Economy

The three major full-service U.S. carriers have now dropped change fees for most domestic flights.

JT Genter, Meghan CoyleSeptember 3, 2020
On a similar note...
On a similar note...
American Drops Change, Standby Fees and Adds Elite Benefits to Basic Economy

Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This may influence 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.

Over a period of about 24 hours, it got drastically better to be a U.S. airline traveler. First, United Airlines sent shockwaves through the travel community by announcing that it was eliminating change and same-day standby fees for all travelers. The next day, both Delta and American Airlines responded by also announcing new change and standby fee policies.

While all three airlines are eliminating change fees and standby fees, the details vary among the airlines. And American Airlines has clearly adopted the most flyer-friendly policies of the bunch. American’s new change fee policy is the broadest and most generous, and it removed restrictions and added elite benefits to basic economy fares.

Here’s what you need to know about all of these changes.

American’s generous new change fee policy

Effective immediately, American Airlines will waive change fees on domestic and short-haul international routes. The new policy applies to all ticket types, except basic economy fares. You still won’t be able to change basic economy tickets on flights within North America — even for a fee.

American’s policy is the most geographically broad of the three new change fee policies. American Airlines won’t charge a change fee on flights within the U.S. or between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Neither United nor Delta’s new change fee policy covers Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean.

American’s policy also really stands out when you find a cheaper fare. Say you book a $400 flight but then you notice a new flight that only cost $250. Under American's new policy, you can change to the new flight and get a $150 voucher toward future travel.

Meanwhile, United’s new change fee waiver policy will let travelers change to a cheaper flight at no cost, but travelers will not get a credit for the price difference. Delta’s policy for changing to a cheaper flight wasn’t included in its announcement. In a statement to NerdWallet, a Delta spokesperson confirmed that the details are still being finalized.

New change fee waiver policy

American

Delta

United

Regions covered

Any of the 50 U.S. states, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands

Domestic U.S., Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands

Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands

Get a voucher when changing to a cheaper flight?

Yes

Unclear at this time

No

Change fees waived on basic economy fares?

Only for flights booked through Dec. 31, 2020

Only for flights booked through Dec. 31, 2020

Only for flights booked through Dec. 31, 2020

Award flights

American's new change fee policy also applies to award flights. The change fees are now waived for travel booked on AAdvantage miles within the U.S. and short-haul international flights between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In addition, AAdvantage members can cancel award flights without fees through the end of the year, meaning travelers won't be subject to an award reinstatement fee through Dec. 31, 2020, if they decide not to fly at all. The previous fee for award flight changes and cancellations was $150.

Standby for free on all routes

Starting Oct. 1, 2020, all American Airlines travelers will be able to standby for free. There will be no fee regardless of the route, the type of ticket purchased or the status of the traveler. The only limitations are that the flight must be on the same day and to the same destination.

Currently, same-day standby is a benefit reserved only for elite members flying on certain routes. For flights before Oct. 1, 2020, non-elite members will still have to pay $75 to standby for an earlier flight and won’t have the option to standby for a later flight.

Improvements to basic economy

Basic economy is the most restrictive type of ticket that airlines sell. American Airlines’ current version of basic economy, for travel within the U.S., Canada, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean, doesn’t allow travelers to purchase or use upgrades or make any changes. Plus, basic economy travelers are assigned to Group 9 boarding — the last boarding group.

Reduced basic economy restrictions

Now, those hardline restrictions are being relaxed. Passengers who purchase basic economy tickets on or after Oct. 1, 2020, will be able to purchase:

  • Upgrades.

  • Priority boarding.

  • Preferred or Main Cabin Extra seating.

  • Same-day confirmed flight changes.

This policy change allows basic economy travelers to choose what’s most important to them. For example, you may be fine with the other basic economy restrictions but can’t risk gate-checking your bag. You can add priority boarding to your basic economy ticket to ensure there’s overhead space when you board.

Elite benefits on basic economy fares

There’s also some great news for American Airlines elites: Your elite benefits will soon be applicable to all fare types. Currently, elite members who book basic economy fares don’t enjoy many of the key benefits of elite status. Basic economy fares aren’t eligible for upgrades, seat selection requires an additional fee, and elite members can’t apply their same-day standby or change benefits.

But, that’s all about to change. Soon, AAdvantage elite members will get all of their elite status benefits on basic economy tickets. That includes:

  • Upgrading privileges.

  • Elite seat privileges (e.g. choosing Main Cabin Extra seats).

  • Same-day confirmed change benefits.

The exact timing of this change isn’t clear. American’s announcement only says that these changes will go into effect “later this fall."

No more elite earnings on basic economy fares

However, there’s one nugget of bad news among all of this good news. Starting Jan. 1, 2021, basic economy fares will no longer help travelers toward elite status. That means you won’t earn elite qualifying miles (EQM), elite qualifying dollars (EQD) or elite qualifying segments (EQS) on basic economy fares in 2021 and beyond.

So, while elite members won’t need to buy up to Main Cabin to get elite benefits, you may want to do so in order to work toward requalifying for elite status.

The bottom line

Over the past few years, we have seen airlines copy each other’s flyer-unfriendly policies in what seemed to be a race to the bottom. Now, with airline demand at a fraction of what it once was, we are starting to see the reverse.

Both Delta and American were quick to match United’s elimination of change fees and standby fees. But, instead of just matching United’s policy, American took the policy change a couple of steps further. Hopefully, we will see more of this as airlines try to woo travelers back to the skies.

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 2020, including those best for:

We want to hear from you and encourage a lively discussion among our users. Please help us keep our site clean and safe by following our posting guidelines, and avoid disclosing personal or sensitive information such as bank account or phone numbers. Any comments posted under NerdWallet’s official account are not reviewed or endorsed by representatives of financial institutions affiliated with the reviewed products, unless explicitly stated otherwise.