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There’s no doubt: basic economy is infuriating. From no carry-on baggage allowance to lack of seat selection, it’s a huge step down from what travelers are used to getting when flying.

The legacy airlines (American, Delta and United) made it seem that basic economy was necessary to compete with low-cost carriers. American even is on record telling its shareholders that it’s matching the LCCs with its basic economy fares, though our data proves otherwise.

However, just like with the introduction of checked baggage fees, there’s a way to use credit cards to avoid some of the pain points of basic economy. Let’s go airline by airline to see how to do so:

In This Post

American Airlines

Standard economy legroom.
Prepare to sit in the middle seats with AA’s basic economy.

American Airlines launched its basic economy fares in February and has rolled out only a few dozen routes since. These fares restrict you from bringing a carry-on bag on board, assign you a seat at check-in (likely a middle seat), aren’t upgradeable, earn fewer elite-qualifying miles/segments, relegate you to the final boarding group (9 of 9) and don’t allow any flight changes or refunds.

But, further down on American Airlines’ basic economy overview, you’ll find that there’s a caveat: “AAdvantage elite status members and eligible Citi/ AAdvantage or AAdvantage Aviator Mastercard cardmembers are exempt from certain restrictions.”

Sure enough, those with AA elite status get to maintain their boarding group, checked bag benefits and carry-on allowance. But, what if you don’t have status? Then you can use one of the eligible cards to get an even better boarding group than standard economy, earn back your carry-on bag and get the checked baggage allowance allotted by the credit card.

Eligible Cards:

Passengers Without Status Basic Economy Standard Economy Basic Economy +
Co-Branded Card
Boarding Group 9 6-8 5
Assigned seat Assigned. Fee to change Limited selection
at booking
Assigned. Fee to change
Carry-on Baggage Allowance 0 1 1
Checked Baggage Allowance 0 0 1
Extra Cost vs. Basic Economy N/A $20-30/flight Starting at $0 for first year.
Then $95 per year.
Flight changes or refunds None Fees apply None

Rather than paying $20-30 more per flight for standard economy, you can use a co-branded credit card like the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select to earn back that carry-on bag — and get a free checked bag too. Instead of group 9, you jump the bulk of economy passengers (in groups 6-8) and board in group 5, where you’ve got a great chance of having space in the overhead bins.

You don’t have to pay for your flights with the co-branded card to get these benefits — American Airlines will tie your credit card to your AAdvantage account and apply these benefits automatically. This allows you to use a credit card with better travel protection when booking flights — like the Citi Prestige Card that offers up to $500 of expense reimbursement for delays of over three hours.

The downside of the co-branded card approach: You still don’t get to pick your seat. AA will assign you a seat at check-in, and you’d have to pay to change your seat.

Delta

This flight has slightly more legroom than competitors.
At least with Delta’s basic economy fares, you might be able to snag a window or aisle seat at check-in.

The O.G. of legacy carriers for basic economy is Delta. Launched in February 2012, Delta’s basic economy has the widest network of fares and arguably the least-harsh restrictions. With Delta’s version, you don’t get advanced seat assignments, upgrades or any changes to the flights (after the required 24-hour period). That said, you still get the option to choose your own seats at check-in, and you get a carry-on bag.

But, there are still advantages to getting a co-branded credit card if you’re considering basic economy. While you get a carry-on bag with Delta’s basic economy fare, you’re likely going to have to gate-check it, as you’ll be boarding in the last group. With a co-branded card, you’ll get a free checked bag and priority boarding to have an almost-sure spot in the overhead bins.

Eligible Cards:

  • Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
  • Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
  • Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express
  • Gold Delta SkyMiles® Business Credit Card from American Express
  • Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Business Credit Card from American Express
  • Delta Reserve for Business Credit Card
Passengers Without Status Basic Economy Standard Economy Basic Economy +
Co-Branded Card
Boarding Group 3 2-3 1
Assigned seat Choose at check-in Choose at booking Choose at check-in
Carry-on Baggage Allowance 1 1 1
Checked Baggage Allowance 0 0 1
Extra Cost over Basic Economy N/A $25-45/flight Starting at $0 for first year.
Then $95 per year.
Flight changes or refunds None Fees apply None

That’s right: you can get a $95 annual fee (free the first year) credit card — like the Gold Delta SkyMiles card — to avoid first checked bag fees and having to gate-check your bag. As an added bonus, the Gold Delta SkyMiles card is offering 30,000 bonus miles for spending $1,000 in the first three months.

As with American, you don’t have to purchase your ticket with your Delta credit card to get the free checked bag — just having the card and including your Delta SkyMiles number in your reservation is enough.

The downside of going the co-branded card approach? Still no advanced seat selection. However, Delta’s basic economy fares let you change seats at check-in. So, this isn’t as bad as on other legacy carriers.

United

img-united-ps-economy-seats-featured
While you might not be able to select your seat, you can use a co-branded card to board early to get your bag in the overhead bins.

In unofficial polling of the TPG office, we agree that United’s basic economy is the worst. Not only are these fares expanding to more routes, but the fares are also getting absurd. TPG Editor-In-Chief Zach Honig found one basic economy option for $1,172 round-trip — for a 300-mile flight.

And what do you get with United’s basic economy? Not much: auto-assigned seat at check-in (with no chance to change), no carry-on bags, no elite-qualifying credit, no upgrades and no changes/refunds.

But, a United co-branded card can help ease some pain. Like on American and Delta, you’ll jump from the last boarding group to one of the first. And, you’ll earn back a carry-on bag and get a first free checked bag — or two with certain cards.

Eligible cards:

Passengers Without Status Basic Economy Standard Economy Basic Economy +
Co-Branded Card
Boarding Group 5 3-5 2
Assigned seat Assigned at check-in Choose at booking Assigned at check-in
Carry-on Baggage Allowance 0 1 1
Checked Baggage Allowance 0 0 1
Extra Cost over Basic Economy N/A $15-25/flight Starting at $0 for first year.
Then $95 per year.
Flight changes or refunds None Fees apply None

However, it’s important to note that you need to use your co-branded United card to book flights in order to get the checked baggage allowance.

Unfortunately, the co-branded card approach isn’t going to let you select a better seat, get upgrades or earn any elite-qualifying credit.

Bottom Line

Now that basic economy fares have spread from Delta to American and United, this is something that all legacy airline travelers have to be wary of. Thankfully, using an airline co-branded card can ease some of the pain of these basic economy fares.

If you like to carry on a bag — and not have to gate-check it — and get a free checked bag as well, all you need is to get a co-branded card and buy the cheapest fare. Thanks to priority boarding benefits, you’ll get access to the overhead bins before those without a co-branded card but who paid extra for standard economy.

However, co-branded cards can’t overcome some of the other issues with basic economy: lack of assigned seating (until check-in for Delta), lack of upgrades and reduced/eliminated elite-qualifying earning. However, if you don’t mind these, the basic economy + co-branded card strategy could work for you.

Featured image courtesy of Getty Images.

This story has been updated to correct Delta’s requirements — you do not need to book your flight with your Delta credit card to get a free checked bag. You only need to be a Delta cardholder and have your Delta SkyMiles number in your reservation.

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