Delta Basic Economy vs. Main Cabin

Calculate whether the low-price basic economy fare is worth the hassle of less cancellation flexibility.
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Nerdy takeaways
  • Delta allows free cancellations and changes on most main cabin tickets but not on basic economy.

  • Baggage rules are generally the same between the two fares (carry-ons are free with Delta Basic economy).

  • Basic economy fares don't include seat assignments, which makes them less than ideal for groups and families.

  • Baggage rules are generally the same between the two fares.

Nerdy takeaways
  • Delta allows free cancellations and changes on most main cabin tickets but not on basic economy.

  • Baggage rules are generally the same between the two fares (carry-ons are free with Delta Basic economy).

  • Basic economy fares don't include seat assignments, which makes them less than ideal for groups and families.

  • Baggage rules are generally the same between the two fares.

Does the phrase “basic economy” send a shiver down your spine? Are you confused by Delta’s basic economy offering and how it compares to main cabin fares? Our guide on Delta’s basic economy versus main cabin experience is here to help.

Delta’s main cabin is the name of the airline’s regular economy product. Here, we’ll explain Delta’s basic economy versus main cabin, how to know what fare you’re booking and how to avoid the worst features of these budget options without paying extra.

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Difference between basic economy and main cabin on Delta

Delta features six different cabin classes, which can seem overwhelming. But for the flyers who are concerned with the differences between main cabin and basic economy, here’s how the two fare classes compare:

Basic economy

Main Cabin

Checked bags (domestic)

Starting at $35 for your first bag.

Starting at $35 for your first bag.

Overhead carry-on bag

Free.

Free.

Seat assignments

At check-in.

Before check-in.

Qualifies for elite benefits (including upgrades)

No.

Yes.

Changes

Not allowed.

Free for flights originating in the U.S, Canada, Europe, Africa, India and the Caribbean.

Cancellations

Generally not allowed but some regions allow a cancellation for a partial credit minus a cancellation fee.

Free for flights originating in the U.S, Canada and the Caribbean.

Upgrades

No.

Yes.

Earns miles

No.

Yes.

Boarding group

Last.

Second-to-last.

Changes and cancellations

One of the most important differences between Delta basic economy and main cabin fares is the change and cancellation policy. Delta allows free changes on main cabin tickets on flights originating in certain regions but does not allow any changes on basic economy tickets.

So if you have to change your ticket for any reason, you’ll end up eating the entire cost of a basic economy fare. For this reason alone, main cabin fares are better for anyone seeking flexibility.

For cancellations, it's a similar policy. For main cabin fares and higher, Delta allows free changes to a different flight as long as it’s prior to departure. If your new flight costs more, you’ll owe the difference. If the new flight costs less, you’ll get the difference in an eCredit. Note there are some regions where a cancellation fee will also apply. For basic economy fares, a ticket cannot be canceled unless you’re in the 24 hour risk-free window.

Delta basic economy baggage rules

Unlike competitor United Airlines, Delta includes a free overhead carry-on bag as part of its basic economy fares. These bags are also included in main cabin fares. And both fares charge the same checked bag fees for domestic flights.

This means you don’t have to worry about comparing these fares based on the baggage you’re planning to bring. It is worth noting, however, that basic economy passengers board the plane last, so overhead bin availability may be low.

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Earning miles and elite benefits

Another dealbreaker for some: Delta’s basic economy fares do not earn any SkyMiles or elite qualifying miles. This makes basic economy fares suitable for infrequent travelers who aren’t interested in rewards programs or earning miles for their travels.

Seat selection

The Delta basic economy seat selection policy doesn’t favor those traveling together. For basic economy fares, seats are randomly assigned after check-in, which means that you cannot select your seat.

So it’s not the best option for families or friends who are traveling together and are hoping to sit next to each other.

Upgrades

If you’re hoping for a Delta upgrade from basic economy to a higher fare class, you may be disappointed. Basic economy fares are not eligible for paid or complimentary upgrades.

Main cabin tickets on the other hand can be upgraded, and the likelihood of scoring an upgrade depends on many factors like your elite status and/or a Delta credit card that you hold.

How the cards compare
Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card
Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card
Apply now

on American Express' website

Rates & Fees
Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card
Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card
Apply now

on American Express' website

Rates & Fees
Annual fee

$650.

$650.

Upgrade benefit

Complimentary upgrades to Comfort Plus or first class on domestic flights within the U.S. even without elite status. Terms apply.

Complimentary upgrades to Comfort Plus or first class on domestic flights within the U.S. even without elite status. Terms apply.

Earn rates

• 3 miles per $1 on eligible purchases made directly with Delta.

• 1 mile per $1 on other eligible purchases.

Terms apply.

• 3 miles per $1 on eligible purchases made directly with Delta.

• 1.5 miles per $1 on eligible transit, U.S. shipping and U.S. office supply store purchases.

• 1.5 miles per $1 on all purchases after spending $150,000 in a calendar year.

• 1 mile per $1 on other eligible purchases.

Terms apply.

Still not sure?

Basic economy across U.S. airlines

In NerdWallet's annual analysis of the best airlines, we compared the basic economy experience across the major U.S. airlines currently offering a basic economy fare.

We looked at restrictions and allowances, including baggage, miles earning and trip modification policies. Here's how they stacked up:

Calculator: Is Delta basic economy worth it?

Use the calculator below to determine the total cost of your ticket, and compare the tradeoffs of basic economy to main cabin.

Note: This calculator only applies to domestic flights. International baggage rules on Delta are more complex.

More tips for choosing Delta basic economy vs. main cabin

Using credit card benefits to travel in basic economy

Delta offers several branded credit cards, all of which offer priority boarding except the Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card. If you book a basic economy fare, this card can take care of the last-to-board problem, as well as the likelihood of having to gate-check your overhead carry-on when the bins fill up.

All these Delta cards (again, except the Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card) offer at least one free checked bag, which can offset baggage fees. Remember that checked baggage fees apply to basic economy and main cabin fares alike.

Terms apply.

However, none of these cards help with seat assignments, which is often the biggest problem with basic economy, especially for families.

Delta co-branded cards
Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card
Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on American Express' website

Rates & Fees
Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on American Express' website

Rates & Fees
Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card
Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on American Express' website

Rates & Fees
Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card
Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on American Express' website

Rates & Fees
Annual fee

$0.

$0 intro for the first year, then $150.

$350.

$650.

Earning rates

• 2 miles per $1 on purchases made directly with Delta and at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery in the U.S.

• 1 mile per $1 on all other eligible purchases.

Terms apply.

• 2 miles per $1 on purchases made directly with Delta and at U.S. supermarkets and restaurants (including takeout and delivery in the U.S.).

• 1 mile per $1 on all other eligible purchases.

Terms apply.

• 3 miles per $1 on eligible purchases made directly with Delta and on hotel purchases.

• 2 miles per $1 at U.S. supermarkets and restaurants (including takeout and delivery in the U.S.).

• 1 mile per $1 on all other eligible purchases.

Terms apply.

• 3 miles per $1 on eligible purchases made directly with Delta.

• 1 mile per $1 on other eligible purchases.

Terms apply.

Other benefits

• No foreign transaction fees.

Terms apply.

• First checked bag free.

• Priority boarding.

• No foreign transaction fees.

Terms apply.

• Companion certificate (main cabin).

• First checked bag free.

• Priority boarding.

• No foreign transaction fees.

Terms apply.

• Airport lounge access.

• Companion certificate (first class, Delta Comfort+ or main cabin).

• Credit for application fee for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry

• First checked bag free.

• Priority boarding.

• No foreign transaction fees.

Terms apply.

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Flying basic economy with elite status

Similar to most branded Delta cards, elite status with Delta includes priority boarding regardless of fare type. Platinum Medallion members all board together, whether they have main cabin or basic economy seats.

Elite status also offsets checked bag fees, which are the same for basic economy and main cabin. And most importantly for many Delta elites, basic economy fares do not offer complimentary or paid upgrades. Depending on your level of status and the likelihood of receiving a bump to the front of the plane, it might be worth springing for the full main cabin economy fare.

Final thoughts on Delta’s basic economy vs. main cabin

The phrase “basic economy” has bad connotations for some, but Delta’s version of these low-budget fares is better than some competitors. You won’t get to choose your seat assignment, board early, get an upgrade or change/cancel your ticket after purchase, but you still get a free overhead bag.

Delta-branded credit cards and elite status can help you board early, which avoids the all-but-inevitable hassle of gate-checking your carry-on. But you’ll still be left without an assigned seat until check-in, which can be a real deal breaker for many travelers.

To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card, see this page.
To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card, see this page.
To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card, see this page.
To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card, see this page.
To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card, see this page.

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