How to Make the Most of American’s Basic Economy

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As the cheapest tickets offered by American Airlines, basic economy fares can be a tremendous bargain. If you’re someone who travels light and doesn’t anticipate needing to change your travel plans, you can get great value out of basic economy.

But being aware of how to get around the limitations of this fare can help you save even more money. Here is everything you need to know to make the best of American Airlines' basic economy.

What is American Airlines' basic economy?

Basic economy is the cheapest fare class offered by American Airlines. Booking a basic economy fare entitles you to the same main cabin seat as other economy class passengers. There are just a few differences in the travel experience:

  • Reduced earnings of Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs), Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) and Elite Qualifying Segments (EQSs) through Dec. 31, 2020. Beginning Jan. 1, 2021, and beyond, basic economy fares will no longer earn EQM, EQD or EQS toward future status.

  • No choice of seats; your seat will be assigned at check-in unless you pay a fee.

  • Placement in a low-priority boarding group (Group 8 or 9).

  • No ticket changes or cancellations after 24 hours of booking (except on flights to Europe, where a fee applies).

  • No free checked bags on flights within the U.S., Canada, Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean and Europe. (Exceptions to this rule: Flights to and from Alaska, Cuba, El Salvador, Haiti, Panama, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.)

As of Oct. 1, 2020, all customers — including those with basic economy fares —can fly standby on the same day for free.

Are the savings worth it? To help, we built the calculator below, which can help you determine the "true cost" of a basic economy ticket. Just input the cost of the ticket you’re considering along with a few other details, and you’ll see whether it’s actually a better deal.

Note that this calculator applies to domestic flights only; international baggage fees are more complex.

Despite the restrictions, booking basic economy on American Airlines doesn’t have to be a bad experience. In fact, you can get around many of its inconveniences with a few tips and tricks.

Flying basic economy with elite status

Being an AAdvantage elite member makes traveling so much better, especially if you’re flying on a basic economy fare. Beginning in fall 2020, Elite members who purchase a basic economy fare will now be able to access elite benefits including:

  • Upgrade privileges.

  • Elite seat privileges (including access to Main Cabin Preferred and Main Cabin Extra seats).

  • Same-day confirmed flight change benefit.

You’ll also get a better boarding group and free checked bags:

  • AAdvantage Gold: One free checked bag, Group 4 boarding.

  • AAdvantage Platinum: Two free checked bags, Group 3 boarding.

  • AAdvantage Platinum Pro: Two free checked bags, Group 3 boarding.

  • AAdvantage Executive Platinum: Three free checked bags, Group 2 boarding.

Oneworld elite members also qualify for free checked bags and priority boarding while flying basic economy on American Airlines.

  • Oneworld Ruby: One free checked bag, Group 4 boarding.

  • Oneworld Sapphire: Two free checked bags, Group 3 boarding.

  • Oneworld Emerald: Three free checked bags, Group 2 boarding.

Using credit cards to fly basic economy

If you’re flying basic economy on American Airlines, you can circumvent many of the fare’s inconveniences with a co-branded credit card. For example, you can get upgraded to Group 4 or 5 boarding, meaning you can get to your seat faster and snag a convenient overhead spot for your bag.

You can get free checked bags from the AAdvantage co-branded credit cards as well. Here’s how the benefits look for various cards if you just add your AAdvantage number to your reservation:

Another side benefit of having some co-branded credit cards is that you don’t necessarily have to sacrifice earning elite status by booking these lower fares. Basic economy fares only earn half the EQMs of a regular economy ticket, but you might make up for this by earning extra EQM’s through the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®, for example. This card awards 10,000 EQMs after you spend $40,000 in a calendar year.

The bottom line

Paying for checked bags isn’t ideal, but if the basic economy fare is cheap enough, it might make sense to book it and pay for a checked bag rather than booking a fare with free baggage allowance. But we know this can be hard to figure out, especially if you’re comparing fares among multiple airlines.

The information related to CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Mastercard® has been collected by NerdWallet and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer or provider of this product or service.

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