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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.
Basic economy tickets get a bad rap. These cheaper fares, which carry more restrictions and fewer built-in features than regular economy tickets, can seem like a “gotcha” game. And while these fares do add a layer of complication and confusion to booking air travel, there are times when they are the smart choice — even for savvy flyers.
The first thing to keep in mind is that all airlines have their own rules (and terminology) for basic economy tickets. For example, Alaska Airlines calls them “Saver” fares and offers the same award mile earning rate as main cabin fares, while JetBlue calls them “Blue Basic” fares and offers one-third the usual award mile earning rate. So depending on your needs, airlines’ basic economy offerings will meet or fall short of them in different ways.
That said, there are some general guidelines for when booking economy makes sense. Here, we outline three of them.
Book basic economy when you’re very sure of your plans
You may have heard that many airlines "abolished change fees,” but this comes with a big asterisk: These fees were not eliminated for basic economy fares. In fact, changes and cancellations are simply not allowed on most basic economy tickets.
The elimination of change fees for main cabin fares raises the stakes when choosing whether to book basic economy. For example, let’s say a round-trip basic economy fare is $200 compared with $250 for regular economy. If you need to change your plans, you’ll have to book an entirely new ticket for (hopefully) another $200, bringing the total to $400.
This means that you should book basic economy fares only when you are exceedingly confident in your plans. If you want to get extra nerdy, you can multiply the cost of the basic economy ticket by the estimated percent chance of needing to change it. If this value is larger than the difference between the cost of basic and regular economy, you should avoid the basic economy fare.
Book basic economy when you don’t mind the middle seat
Free seat assignments are generally granted to main cabin fares but not basic economy fares. This means if you book basic economy, you will be assigned a seat by the airline unless you pay an extra fee. Often, this means getting stuck with a middle seat.
The trade-offs here are harder to quantify, but in general there are three situations where basic economy’s lack of seat assignments are not a big deal:
When traveling solo: Families who want to sit together will need to pay extra for assigned seats.
For short flights: An hour in the middle seat is no big deal. Six hours is another story.
For empty flights: This can be hard to predict ahead of time, but if you’re reasonably confident your flight will not be full, you can usually nab a better seat once you’re on the plane.
Book basic economy when you don’t care about elite status perks
One of the gambits airlines are making with basic economy versus main cabin fares is that they can get their regular business customers to pay the higher main cabin prices. One of the levers they use to ensure business travelers avoid basic economy is by denying elite status perks.
For example, if an ultra-elite Delta Diamond member books a basic economy fare, not only will they be ineligible for first-class upgrades, but they won’t even be allowed to choose a seat. This defeats much of the purpose of elite status, so most elite members will avoid these fares assiduously.
Yet these elite restrictions provide more incentive for those who don’t have elite status to book basic economy seats, since they have no impact.
The bottom line
Generally, airlines don’t want you to actually buy their basic economy offerings. They want to lure you in with lower fares, then upsell higher-priced main cabin alternatives. In many cases, this upsell is compelling, especially for those looking for flexibility.
That said, there are some conditions where choosing basic economy is the smarter approach. If you’re confident in your travel dates, unconcerned with the middle seat and uninterested in elite status perks, you should strongly consider opting for these cheaper fares.
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