How to Survive Basic Economy on American Airlines

Jul 9, 2019

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®

So, you’re preparing for a trip and notice you’ve booked a Basic Economy fare on American Airlines. You may have a lot of questions about what this fare allows and how your experience may be different than any previous trips you’ve taken with American Airlines — this guide aims to answer all of your questions.

In This Post

What’s Basic Economy?

American Airlines has three main types of economy fares: Main Cabin Extra, Main Cabin and Basic Economy.

American Airlines’ Basic Economy is designed to be the lowest Main Cabin fare. This fare comes with some restrictions on baggage, seating, boarding order and your eligibility to change or upgrade. This guide will answer common questions about these restrictions and the Basic Economy experience, but be sure to also check out TPG‘s review of American Airlines’ Basic Economy.

Note that some Basic Economy restrictions are waived for AAdvantage elites, Oneworld elites and holders of eligible AAdvantage Aviator or Citi / AAdvantage credit cards. So, if you fall into one of these groups, see the specific section related to your group to see which restrictions are waived for you.

Can I check a bag?

Yes, but it’s going to cost you:

  • Within the US and Canada: $30 for the first bag, $40 for the second bag, $150 for the third bag and $200 for each additional bag
  • To/from Mexico: $30 for the first bag, $40 for the second bag, $150 for the third bag and $200 for each additional bag
  • To/from Caribbean: $30 for the first bag, $40 ($70 for travel to/from Port au Prince, Haiti and Cap Haitien, Haiti) for the second bag, $150 for the third bag and $200 for each additional bag
  • To/from Central America: $30 for the first bag, $40 ($55 for seasonal travel to/from Honduras) for the second bag, $150 for the third bag and $200 for each additional bag
  • Transatlantic: $60 for the first bag, $100 for the second bag and $200 for each additional bag

For most of these regions, the checked bag cost is the same for Basic Economy and Main Cabin fares. Transatlantic flights are the notable difference. American Airlines Main Cabin fares on transatlantic routes include one checked bag.

Can I bring a carry-on?

Yes, your ticket allows one personal item and one carry-on item. Your personal item must be no larger than 18 x 14 x 8 inches and should fit in under the seat in front of you. Your carry-on bag must fit in the overhead bin and be no larger than 22 x 14 x 9 inches.

Can I select a seat?

Yes, but it will cost you. For flights within the US, Canada, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, you can pay to choose a specific seat within 7 days of departure (previously restricted until 48 hours from departure). For flights between the US and Europe, you can choose a specific seat at any time for a fee.

If you don’t choose to pay to select a seat, your seat will be automatically assigned for free at check-in. American Airlines has the following policy for families traveling in basic economy:

If you’re a family traveling with children under 15, and do not already have seats assigned, our system will search for seats together automatically before the day of departure. We’ll try our best to keep you together, but if seats are limited, we’ll assign seats so children under 15 are next to at least 1 adult.

Basic Economy seats aren’t different from the other standard seats in coach — they’re simply the seats that aren’t selected by other passengers before you check-in. TPG‘s Brian Biros recommends not selecting a seat on American flights in hopes of scoring a free upgrade, so it’s possible you might luck into a Preferred or Main Cabin Extra seat. If you’re considering paying to choose a specific seat — perhaps because you want to make sure everyone on your reservation sits together — read TPG‘s guide to choosing seats on American Airlines first.

Main Cabin Extra seats have a little extra pitch. (Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy)

When can I board?

You’ll board in the last boarding group, which is Group 9 for flights within the US, Canada, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean and Group 8 for flights between the US and Europe. This means you may be required to gate-check your carry-on bag, but doing so will be free of charge.

Can I change my flight?

No changes are allowed for flights within the US, Canada, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Changes are allowed for a fee for flights between the US and Europe — but AA’s fee chart lists a fee of up to $750 for voluntary changes to an international ticket before the day of travel, so the change fee almost certainly won’t be worth it.

Can I cancel my flight?

No, except for when the ticket is canceled within 24 hours of purchase; American changes your flight schedule by 61 minutes or more; you or your traveling companion dies; or you have military orders. In these cases, American Airlines may refund the purchase price to your original form of payment if you are able to provide valid documentation.

Do I still earn miles?

Yes, but you’ll earn less elite-qualifying credit than standard Main Cabin fares. Award miles and Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) still earn based on ticket price, while Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) and Elite Qualifying Segments (EQSs) earn at a reduced rate of 0.5 per mile/flight segment flown.

Does having a co-branded credit card help?

Yes, having one of the eight eligible co-branded American Airlines credit cards can help you defeat Basic Economy. As a holder of one of these cards you’ll get the following benefits even when flying on a Basic Economy fare:

  • First checked bag for free for you and up to a set number of companions on the same reservation on domestic American Airlines operated itineraries (the eligible number of companions varies by card)
  • Group 5 boarding, except for the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard which provides Group 4 boarding

Note that you only need to have an eligible card — you don’t have to purchase your ticket with the eligible card. This means that you can get the boarding and baggage benefits of the co-branded American Airlines credit card while paying for the ticket with a card that provides travel protections such as trip delay protection and baggage delay protection.

If you’re looking for a card that provides Preferred Boarding and your first checked bag free on domestic itineraries, consider getting one of the following cards:

Related: The Best Cards for American Airlines Flyers

Does having elite status help?

Yes, having AAdvantage or Oneworld elite status helps. Although you won’t be eligible for upgrades (complementary, 500-mile, systemwide or paid), you do get the following benefits when flying on a Basic Economy fare:

  • Your normal boarding group
    • AAdvantage ConciergeKey: pre-boarding
    • AAdvantage Executive Platinum and Oneworld Emerald: Group 2
    • AAdvantage Platinum Pro, AAdvantage Platinum and Oneworld Sapphire: Group 3
    • AAdvantage Gold and Oneworld Ruby: Group 4
  • Your normal checked baggage benefits
    • AAdvantage Executive Platinum and Oneworld Emerald: First, second and third checked bag free
    • AAdvantage Platinum Pro, AAdvantage Platinum and Oneworld Sapphire: First and second checked bag free
    • AAdvantage Gold and Oneworld Ruby: First checked bag free

Bottom Line

American Airlines Basic Economy fares come with restrictions on seat selection and boarding zone, plus they don’t allow for upgrades and don’t include checked bags. Luckily, those with elite status or an eligible co-branded American Airlines credit card can escape many of the worst parts of Basic Economy. Specifically, these passengers maintain the baggage allowance and boarding zone provided by their elite status or eligible credit card.

In particular, having a credit card like the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard provides the first bag checked free on domestic flights and Preferred boarding. This means the card’s $99 annual fee, which is waived the first year, would be effectively paid for after saving checked baggage fees on just a few domestic flights.

If you want to learn more about defeating basic economy using points and miles, check out our Beginner’s Guide for more information.

Featured image of economy class on an American Airlines Airbus A321neo by JT Genter / The Points Guy.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.