Just when you thought the airline industry couldn't get any worse, the bean counters that run the airlines somehow invent a new low.
All three of the major "legacy" carriers (American, Delta, and United) have now rolled out what they term as "Basic Economy" fares. We take a look at what these fares mean, why they are a bad idea, and what you can do to avoid them.
A Brief History Of The Airline Industry
When the airlines were deregulated by Congress in 1978, Southwest Airlines adjusted their business model with the aim of providing a low-cost product. They did this by keeping service simple: no first class, no expensive crowded hubs, no on-board meals, no partnerships with other carriers, a single type of aircraft, and fast turnaround on the ground (that's why they don't assign seats). JetBlue came along in 1999, providing a slightly higher level of service but still keeping costs (and fares) low.
Those two carriers, along with a handful of others both domestically and overseas, were labeled "Low-Cost Carriers," or LCCs. While they eschewed fancy perks, they mirrored many of the generous policies of the major network legacy carriers—for example, JetBlue only recently started charging for checked baggage, and it's still free (even now!) on Southwest.
Then, in 2001, Allegiant Air came out of bankruptcy and decided to take a page from the playbook of RyanAir, a profitable Irish carrier that had some brash ideas about super-cheap fares and steep add-on fees. Gone were things like free bags and free sodas and even seats that reclined. Later in the 2000s, Spirit Airlines followed suit, and then most recently, Frontier Airlines transitioned. These carriers have been labeled "Ultra-Low-Cost Carriers." A large portion of their profits came from the sale of ancillary products like baggage fees (for both checked and carry-on baggage), snacks and drinks on-board, and eventually even help from airport agents (if you didn't print your own boarding pass at home and prepay for things like baggage, you often faced downright punitive fees for those things at the airport).
With the advent of these so-called ULCCs, the traditional full-service network legacy carriers began to feel pressure to lower their fares. To keep profits up, they started stealing some ideas from the ULCCs, like charging for baggage. (That left the industry in an awkward position, where there were often fewer ancillary fees at LCCs than on the full-service carriers.)
We thought that was where things would end up, but first Delta, and then United, and finally most recently American decided to meet the ULCCs on their home turf.
What Is Basic Economy?
Basic Economy is the product that all three of the traditional network legacy carriers have created that aims to match the experience of flying on a Ultra-Low-Cost Carrier. In other words, the last shred of humanity left in the flying experience is now gone.
(We'll ignore the fact that all three carriers implemented similar policies in quick succession and named the product the exact same thing—analyzing whether it's chance, copying, or outright collusion is beyond the scope of this article. What is clear is that no bad idea in the aviation industry is below being copied across the board.)
What can you expect when booking a Basic Economy ticket?
- No changes. (Use it or lose it. If you want to change anything, you'll have to book a new ticket.)
- No seat selection. (Your seat will be assigned from what's left over when you check in. There's a good chance you won't be able to sit next to your family.)
- No carry-on baggage. (You're only allowed one personal item that fits under the seat in front of you. You aren't allowed access to the overhead bin, and if you bring a full-size carry-on to the gate, you'll pay twice as much to check it than you would have checking it at the ticket counter. Note that Delta does allow a standard carry-on, but the others do not.)
- Last to board. (Though without access to the overhead bins, boarding early isn't much of a benefit.)
- Few, if any, frequent flyer perks, and if you're an elite member, no upgrades. (You'll also earn few—and maybe no—frequent flyer miles or elite-qualifying miles, except at Delta, where regular earning rates apply.)
- Bad (or no) service recovery. (This is one area the legacy carriers have traditionally had a huge advantage over the LCCs and ULCCs on—if your flight is delayed or canceled, you can get rebooked on other flights even if they're on other airlines; whatever it takes to get you there ASAP. Now, American Airlines says that they won't rebook Basic Economy passengers on other carriers, and they'll be the very last to get accommodated on future AA flights. In some cases, you could end up stuck en-route for days.)
Sounds a lot like a ULCC, right? That's the intent. They're selling this to their investors as competing against Allegiant, Frontier, and Spirit.
(One thing they still do better than the ULCCs: at least your soda is free. Unlike the ULCCs, once you're in your seat, service is the same for all economy passengers. You'll get the same snack and soda selection as the person sitting next to you who paid full fare.)
But here's the dirty part: they're not only filing these lower Basic Economy fares on routes they compete with the ULCCs on, they're also taking existing (i.e. non-super-cheap) fares on routes that the ULCCs don't even serve and converting them to Basic Economy…with all the applicable restrictions.
Basic Economy might be palatable if the legacy airlines were offering dirt-cheap $39 base fares like Spirit or Frontier. But in many cases, they're not. Want to fly from Atlanta to Orlando for Halloween? Spirit'll get you there for $45, while Delta charges $70 for Basic Economy. Why pay $25 more for the same experience?
$70 is still pretty cheap, so some extra fees are somewhat understandable. But what about other routes? The cheapest $300 round-trip from Orlando to Las Vegas on Delta in November is now a Basic Economy fare, with service and amenities not much better than the $190 trip on Frontier.
The $200 round-trip from Philadelphia to Los Angeles next February on United is at least an attempt to match the lowest fare available on Spirit ($199), but I've paid $150 round-trip several times to fly from the east coast to the west coast and back, so it's a bit of salt in the wound to pay $50 more than I used to and now not be able to choose a seat or bring a bag.
Here's the most egregious example, though:
$295 round-trip from LAX to Anchorage on Delta in February.
Why is that egregious? Anchorage isn't even served by any ULCCs. And that fare is $18 more expensive than the advance-seat-selectable fare on Alaska Airlines. So Delta is charging a higher price for asignificantly inferior product to a city it doesn't even indirectly compete with a Ultra-Low-Cost Carrier in. This is clearly a pure money-grab.
Fortunately, one of the more traditional LCCs, JetBlue, serves Anchorage seasonally, and they regularly run some pretty spectacular sales between Anchorage and Southern California. I've seen (and paid) as little as $79 each way on that route both on JetBlue and on Alaska (which often matches JetBlue's sale fares). And both JetBlue and Alaska are a much better experience than Delta's Basic Economy.
When Is Basic Economy Worthwhile?
To keep the sanity and humanity in the travel experience, we'd like to say, "Never." But reality is that sometimes fares are too good to pass up, even when they exclude a lot of services. You might consider booking a Basic Economy fare or a flight on a ULCC when:
- You're going on a very short trip and can keep everything you need in one, small personal item (like a backpack)
- The fare is truly a spectacular deal (like the $39 fare from Atlanta to Tampa I booked a couple years ago on Frontier). You can put up with a lot of annoyance and a few extra fees when it's really cheap.
- The other options are really expensive. Always research what you need and decide if you can live with the restrictions. Then, do the math: calculate your carry-on baggage fees and seat assignment fees (including upgrading to a bigger seat on a longer flight) and make sure that booking the cheaper fare actually ends up being cheaper.
One cautionary note: while the three legacy carriers haven't (yet) stooped to punitive surcharges for paying at the airport, if you book a ticket on a ULCC, make sure you take care of everything in advance. Print your boarding pass at home, and if you need to pay for baggage or other services, do it in advance on the airline's website. You'll pay extra (sometimes a lot more) if you do it at the airport.
How to Deal With Basic Economy
Option 1: Avoid booking Basic Economy fares.
This can be a little harder than it sounds. Most of the major travel sites we checked do indicate at some point in the search process if a price is a Basic Economy fare. Unfortunately, none of the major sites (Expedia, Orbitz, or Priceline) offer an easy way to filter out Basic Economy fares, so you just have to keep scrolling down until you find one that isn't labeled "Basic Economy." (The worst of these is Priceline, which doesn't even show you whether it's Basic Economy until after you click to view the fare details.)
(Also, note that the major online travel agencies won't label flights with ULCCs like Allegiant, Frontier, or Spirit as "Basic Economy," even though they're functionally equivalent to the legacy carriers' Basic Economy fares. So pay attention to the carrier, too—don't just assume that if it's not labeled Basic Economy, it's safe to book.)
It's easier to avoid Basic Economy when booking through the airlines' own sites, though that of course makes it harder to compare fares and options on multiple carriers. But at least American, Delta, and United all make it pretty obvious you're booking Basic Economy and make an attempt to upsell you to the cheapest standard fare. It's often not much more.
One great option we've found is Kayak. It's not obvious at first, but after clicking the "More Filters" option, you can de-select Basic Economy. Once nice thing about Kayak's implementation is that de-selecting Basic Economy will also hide results from ULCCs, so anything Kayak shows when Basic Economy is de-selected will be a traditional fare on which you'll get a seat assignment and can bring a carry-on.
All else being equal, if you must book a Basic Economy fare, Delta's offering is less bad than the others, as they don't restrict carry-on bags or mileage earning.
Option 2: Support carriers that don't offer Basic Economy.
Skip the airlines that behave like customers are sponges to be wrung out and support the carriers that treat people like humans. We're big fans of Alaska Airlines and JetBlue. Both carriers are known for providing excellent service. Alaska's biggest benefit is their very generous Mileage Plan program and their footprint on the West Coast, and JetBlue shines with great fares and a strong network on the East Coast.
While we don't fly them much (because their fares actually often aren't cheaper than other options and their fares are hard to compare, since they don't list on any consolidated fare search sites), we appreciate Southwest's commitment to not nickel-and-diming its customers. They also have a very wide reach and have the most domestic flights of any carrier, though flying between any two given points will often require a connecting flight in some very odd places. (Want to fly Seattle to New Orleans on October 4th? Prepare to go via both Oakland and San Diego if you want the lowest fare of $161…though American has a one-stop flight through Dallas that's not in Basic Economy for $130, or you can go non-stop on Alaska for $159.)
Option 3: Prepare To Travel In Basic Economy
If the fare difference is too big to ignore, or if you're going on a short trip and can pack light, Basic Economy—or a ULCC—can make sense. Here are AutoSlash's tips on making the experience as tolerable as possible.
- Travel light. Unless you're on Delta, Basic Economy does not include a carry-on bag. Pack a couple of changes of your undergarments in a backpack that'll fit under the seat in front of you. Otherwise, you'll be stuck paying for a checked bag—or an even higher price for a carry-on.
- Don't make mission-critical plans right after landing. With the legacy carriers, you'll get last priority for rebooking on other flights if yours is delayed or canceled. With the ULCCs, it's even worse: there's often only one flight a day, and they absolutely will not transfer you over to another airline to complete your journey.
- Bring your own beverages. Not alcohol—that's illegal—but if you're flying a ULCC, bring a water bottle and fill it up before boarding, since most of them charge for all drinks, even water. A snack wouldn't hurt, either. However, the legacy carriers' Basic Economy options don't restrict in-flight services, so you can still get your pretzels and Coke.
- Bring a book. The ULCCs don't have anything to watch on-board. There's no on-board power, either, so plan for what to do when your battery runs out. The legacy carriers often do have screens, but it's not guaranteed. (The same goes for power—outlets are less common in the back rows where you'll almost certainly be sitting.)
- Book a better seat. While you can't get any kind of upgrade on Delta or United, even if you want to pay, American will let you pay extra for a seat assignment. And most of the ULCCs have an option to pay for an upgraded seat, though it's usually just a bigger seat and doesn't come with any perks. (Spirit's Big Front Seat, for example, is similar to a first-class seat on a legacy carrier, but you don't get free meals or drinks or even priority boarding unless you pay for those separately.)
- Pre-pay for options at least 24 hours in advance. With ULCCs, you often save quite a bit of money by buying extras like checked bags, carry-on bags, seat upgrades, and more in advance. They can be more expensive the day of departure and are often punitively priced if you buy them at the airport from an agent. Some ULCCs have package deals that come with a bigger seat and a free bag for less than buying the two separately.
Here at AutoSlash, we're experts in getting the best deals on rental cars, but as frequent travelers ourselves, we also know how to snag deals on flights. That said, if you have questions about getting the best airfares or what airlines to book, we recommend checking out online travel forums that cover that market. One that all of us here at AutoSlash frequent is flyertalk.com.
Whether you're booking Basic Economy or something less restrictive on your next flight, you're probably going to need a rental car once you touch down. By using AutoSlash, you can thankfully get premium service at "basic" prices. Get all the luggage space you want, reserved seating, and never a fee to change or cancel your reservation! Request a car rental quote now.