Why Basic Economy Fares Are Even Worse Now

Airlines continue their race to the bottom of the bargain bin.
Dec 28, 2021

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Here’s the saddest part about basic economy airfares: Even the airlines don’t like them. Check out what happens when you try to book basic economy on Delta Air Lines:

Like a Jane Austen matron, Delta tries to usher you away from its ugly, basic stepchild and into the respectable arms of its normal main cabin fare.

The reason for this is simple: Airlines don’t actually want you to book these low-cost fares; they just want to show them on travel search engine results to compete with the likes of Spirit Airlines.

I’ve written a lot about basic economy and when you should or shouldn’t book it, but airlines keep changing the rules — by making basic economy even worse. It’s almost enough to make me feel bad for those scrappy little fares. Almost.

You can’t change or cancel them

It was always true that you couldn’t change or cancel most basic economy fares, but that wasn’t a big deal. Why? Because you couldn’t change or cancel main cabin fares without incurring huge fees, either.

But all that changed during the pandemic, when airlines began offering far more flexibility on non-basic fares. This was seen as a big win for travelers, who needed better options for rebooking tickets when their plans were perma-scrambled by wave after wave of the pandemic.

Yet throughout all this fanfare, nobody paid any attention to basic economy fares. Sitting alone in the basement with a mop, these fares maintained their no-change policies while flexibility was expanding to other fares.

This is a big deal. By improving the flexibility of non-basic economy fares, airlines made it even less appealing to book basic ones. Only travelers who are completely sure of their plans (and honestly, please put me in touch with such a traveler if you find one) can now possibly justify purchasing basic economy fares.

The rules are all over the place

My friend asked me recently whether United basic economy fares earn miles or not. My answer: Google it.

That’s not (just) because I’m lazy, but because the rules governing these fares vary enormously from airline to airline. And they change constantly. Delta recently decided that basic economy fares would no longer earn redeemable or elite qualifying miles and neglected to mention it to … anybody. (Because Delta hates basic economy fares.)

Here’s the current state of the basic economy multiverse:

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

  • Fee for changes/cancellations.

  • No seat selection.

  • No standby.

  • No upgrades for elites.

  • Does not earn SkyMiles or credit toward Medallion elite status.

  • Overhead carry-on bag.

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.

Do basic economy fares earn miles? It depends. Are they even called “basic economy” fares? It depends. Can any mortal be expected to remember this complex landscape of rules? Definitely not.

It’s impossible to price compare

Back in the good old days when airfare made sense, you’d make a search on Kayak or whatever and choose the lowest fare that best matched your preferences. These days, that’s effectively impossible.

Why? A couple reasons. First, airlines charge different amounts for the markup between basic and regular economy, even across the same routes. We dug into the numbers and found some pretty stark differences.

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.

Second, airfare search tools are bafflingly bad at providing meaningful comparison tools. For example, is a $69 flight on Spirit Airlines actually cheaper than a basic economy flight on United? After factoring in baggage and other fees it should be fairly easy for engines like Google Flights to solve for this. But as yet, they haven’t.

Because each airline has different rules for basic economy, and marks up the difference between basic economy and main cabin at different rates, it’s up to us — the travelers — to decode the mystery. This is a lousy system.

End rant

I used to like basic economy fares. Under certain circumstances, they offered a way for price-conscious flyers to get cheap flights without the frills. But those days are officially over now that airlines have allowed free changes and cancellation on most non-basic economy fares.

What we’re left with now is a hassle. There’s no good reason to buy a basic economy flight, yet most flight search tools still show and compare basic economy prices. This is like going to a donut shop and seeing only the price for the plain, unglazed donuts. Nobody wants those, and nobody cares how much they cost.

Sorry, basic economy fares. Your own airlines don’t like you. Customers don’t like you. Now I officially don’t like you. Looks like nobody’s taking you to the soirée.


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