Basic Economy vs. Economy: Cheap or Convenient But Not Both

Basic economy seats come with cheaper fares, but seat selection and baggage is limited and varies between airlines.

Sam KemmisJul 27, 2021
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Note: In July 2021, Delta announced new temporary rules for their basic economy tickets. For travel starting July 28, 2021 through through Dec. 31, 2021 you can make changes to basic economy tickets without a change fee. The ticketed date must be May 1, 2021 or later and you must re-book travel no later than Dec. 31, 2022. 

Love them or hate them, basic economy fares are here to stay. These fares, which major airlines introduced to compete with low-cost airlines like Spirit and Frontier, carry significant limitations to flexibility and creature comforts.

On the other hand, they’re cheap.

Beyond this simple tradeoff, each airline handles its basic economy fares differently. Some even have different names for them, such as “Saver” fares. A few airlines let flyers earn miles on these low-cost fares, while others don’t, and some charge far more than others for the price markup between its basic economy and main cabin seats.

Cutting through all of this confusion, here are some key takeaways to understand about basic economy versus main cabin (also called "economy") tickets:

  • Changes or cancellations are not allowed with most basic economy fares but are free for many main cabin fares.

  • Seat selection is limited on basic economy fares, which can be tough for families and for those who want to avoid the middle seat.

  • Most basic economy fares do not earn as many (or any) miles, but this varies significantly by airline.

  • American Airlines and Alaska Airlines offer the best basic economy fares.

Price differences between basic economy and economy tickets

Is it worth it to pay for the price difference between basic economy and main cabin fares? That depends on a bunch of factors, including whatever is important to you for a given flight experience. It also depends on the cost difference between the two.

Airlines don’t charge the same amount for the markup between its basic economy and main cabin tickets. We compared data for 19 similar round-trip routes for each of the following airlines to determine an average price difference between the two fares.

Airline

Average difference in cost between main cabin and basic economy round-trip fares

Alaska Airlines

$60.

Delta Air Lines

$86.

Hawaiian Airlines

$74.

JetBlue Airways

$93.

United Airlines

$76.

Overall, Alaska Airlines charged the lowest average markup for a round-trip ticket ($60), while JetBlue charged the most ($93). That might not seem like a big difference at first glance, but these fees add up.

Interestingly, American Airlines was offering almost no basic economy fares on any routes when we searched in June 2021. So we were unable to determine an average price on AA routes that were comparable to other airlines.

Basic economy rules by airline

Seeing an overview of the restrictions and allowances that differ between airlines can help paint a picture of the varied landscape of basic economy tickets. We’ll dive deeper into these differences in the next section.

Airline

Fare name

Restrictions

Allowances

Alaska Airlines

  • No changes or cancellations.

  • No seat selection.

  • No standby.

  • No upgrades for elites.

  • Overhead carry-on bag.

  • Redeemable and elite qualifying miles earned at full rate.

American Airlines

  • No changes or cancellations.

  • No elite qualifying miles, dollars or segments earned.

  • Overhead carry-on bag.

  • Standby allowed.

  • Seat selection allowed (for a fee).

  • Redeemable miles earned at reduced rate.

  • Elites eligible for upgrades.

Delta Air Lines

  • No changes or cancellations.

  • No seat selection.

  • No standby.

  • No upgrades for elites.

  • Overhead carry-on bag.

  • Redeemable and elite qualifying miles earned at full rate.

Hawaiian Airlines

Main cabin basic

  • No changes or cancellations.

  • No seat selection.

  • No upgrades for elites.

  • No bonus miles for elites.

  • Overhead carry-on bag.

  • Redeemable and elite qualifying miles earned at full rate.

JetBlue

Blue basic

  • $100 fee for changes/cancellations.

  • No seat selection.

  • No overhead carry-on bag.

  • Standby allowed ($75).

  • Redeemable and elite qualifying miles earned at reduced rate.

United Airlines

  • No changes or cancellations.

  • No seat selection.

  • No overhead carry-on bag.

  • No upgrades for elites.

  • Standby allowed.

  • Elite and redeemable miles earned at reduced rate.

Major differences between basic economy and economy inclusions

Let's look closer at the differences related to changes and cancellations, seat selection, carry-on bag allowance, and the ability for travelers to earn miles or qualify for elite status.

Trip modifications

Among U.S. airlines, only JetBlue allows any changes or cancellations on its basic economy fares (Blue Basic), though it charges $100 to make these adjustments. Other airlines simply do not allow changes on these fares, which means you’ll have to buy a completely new ticket if your plans change.

Airline

Ability to change or cancel ticket

Alaska Airlines.

No.

American Airlines.

No.

Delta Air Lines.

No.

Hawaiian Airlines.

No.

JetBlue.

Yes, for $100.

United Airlines.

No.

Now that most airlines have eliminated change fees altogether, this is a huge difference from main cabin fares.

Seat selection

All U.S. airlines, except American Airlines, have strict restrictions on seat selection for basic economy fares. The rules and wording of these restrictions differ from airline to airline, but amount to the same thing: You can’t choose your seat ahead of time, and you will get your seat assigned at check-in.

This indicates two realities for basic economy tickets:

  • You are more likely to get stuck in a middle seat, near the back of the plane.

  • It might be difficult to sit with other members of your party (though gate agents are sometimes accommodating for families).

Airline

Seat selection

Alaska Airlines.

No.

American Airlines.

Yes, for a fee.

Delta Air Lines.

No.

Hawaiian Airlines.

No.

JetBlue.

No.

United Airlines.

No.

American Airlines does allow seat selection ahead of time on basic economy fares, but it charges a fee. If you’re going to pay that fee, you may as well upgrade to the main cabin, since they roughly amount to the same thing.

Carry-on bags

This is where many travelers get confused, since airlines have such inconsistent policies. Many have changed their rules since rolling out basic economy fares.

JetBlue and United don’t allow overhead carry-on bags for basic economy passengers and could charge a hefty fee if you try to bring one. When you fly either airline, you can still bring a bag that fits underneath the seat, but you will not have access to the overhead bin.

All other airlines allow overhead carry-on bags for basic economy fares.

Airline

Overhead carry-on allowance

Alaska Airlines.

Yes.

American Airlines.

Yes.

Delta Air Lines.

Yes.

Hawaiian Airlines.

Yes.

JetBlue.

No.

United Airlines.

No.

Earning miles

This is yet another area where airline rules differ significantly and where some airlines have changed their own rules in recent years.

This differentiator breaks down to two key questions:

  1. Do passengers earn redeemable frequent flyer miles on basic economy fares?

  2. Do these flights count toward earning elite status?

Within these, some airlines offer the same rate of earning miles and elite status for both basic economy and main cabin fares, while others offer lower earning rates for basic economy.

Airline

Redeemable miles

Elite qualification

Alaska Airlines.

Full rate.

Full rate.

American Airlines.

Reduced rate.

No.

Delta Air Lines.

Full rate.

Full rate.

Hawaiian Airlines.

Full rate (though no bonuses for existing elites).

Full rate.

JetBlue.

Reduced rate.

Reduced rate.

United Airlines.

Reduced rate.

Reduced rate.

Which airline offers the best basic economy ticket?

Winner: American Airlines

After reviewing the full breakdown of restrictions and allowances, we’ve determined that American Airlines offers the best basic economy tickets for travelers. We compared all of the full-service U.S.-based airlines across the basic economy-related categories outlined above and created a five-point score for each.

Although American doesn’t offer elite qualifying miles for basic economy fares, it does allow seat selection (for a fee), elite upgrades and standby travel. This is more generous than any other airline, though Alaska’s Saver fares are a close second.

JetBlue and United Airlines trail the pack, in large part due to their restrictions on carry-on bags for basic economy passengers. Both of these airlines also offer reduced mile earning for basic economy fares.

When to choose basic economy

The logic of basic economy is simple from the airlines’ perspective: They want to entice you with low fares in search results and then bump up the price by making basic economy seem very unappealing.

Some airlines even make it quite difficult to book a basic economy fare at all.

This creates an opportunity — and dilemma — for any budget-conscious traveler. Should you save the money on the raw airfare cost and lose some privileges, like seat selection? Or pony up the cost to “upgrade” your ticket to the main cabin?

Here’s a good rule of thumb for when to choose basic economy:

  • Your plans are absolutely firm.

  • You are traveling alone.

  • You don’t care about earning points and elite status.

If that doesn’t sound like you, consider booking a main cabin fare.

The bottom line

Overwhelmed yet? Don’t be. Airlines have made the world of basic economy a complicated mess, but the logic is fairly straightforward: You should choose these ultracheap tickets when the benefits outweigh the costs. If you don’t care about seat selection, earning miles and bringing an overhead carry-on (in some cases), you can truly take advantage of basic economy fares.

“Basic economy” does not mean the same thing across all airlines. American and Alaska Airlines offer comparatively generous basic economy fares, while United and JetBlue are more like budget airlines in this regard.


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