How to survive basic economy on American Airlines

Mar 4, 2020

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So you’ve booked a basic economy fare on American Airlines — what restrictions do you face and are there ways to avoid them? This guide aims to answer all of your questions.

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What’s basic economy?

American Airlines’ basic economy is designed to be the lowest main cabin fare. It 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; for more you can also check out Benji Stawski‘s review of American Airlines’ basic economy.

(Image from American Airlines’ web page, taken on March 1, 2020)

Some basic-economy restrictions are waived for AAdvantage elites, Oneworld elites and holders of eligible AAdvantage Aviator or Citi/AAdvantage credit cards. More on that below.

Related reading: Comparing basic economy fares across U.S. airlines

Can I check a bag?

Yes, but it’s going to cost you:

  • Within the U.S. 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 (waived for travel to/from Haiti and departing Cuba), $40 for the second bag (waived for travel departing Cuba, $55 for travel to/from Honduras seasonally, $70 for travel to/from Haiti), $150 for the third bag and $200 for each additional bag
  • To/from Central America: $30 for the first bag, $40 for the second bag ($55 for seasonal travel to/from Honduras), $150 for the third bag and $200 for each additional bag
  • To/from South America: $45 for the first bag ($30 for travel to/from Colombia, Ecuador and Guyana), $65 for the second bag ($40 for travel to/from Ecuador and Guyana, $55 for travel to/from Colombia), $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

The costs for checked baggage are the same for basic-economy and main-cabin fares on most routes. Notable exceptions that waive the first checked bag fee for main-cabin fares include transatlantic flights, flights to/from South America (excluding Guyana) and flights to/from Panama. You’ll also get the second checked bag fee waived when traveling to/from South America (except Colombia, Ecuador and Guyana) on main cabin fares. See the chart for checked baggage fees on American’s website for more details.

Related reading: How to avoid checked baggage fees on major domestic airlines

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 under the seat in front of you. Your carry-on bag must fit in the overhead bin and cannot exceed 22 x 14 x 9 inches.

Related reading: Tips for traveling with only a carry-on

Can I select a seat?

Yes, but it will cost you. You can choose a specific seat at any time during or after booking for a fee.

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

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 other standard seats in coach — they’re simply the seats that aren’t selected by other passengers before you check in. Contributor Brian Biros recommends not selecting a seat on American flights in hopes of scoring a free upgrade, so you might luck into a preferred seat or a main-cabin-extra seat. But you may want to pay to select seats if you must have a window or aisle seat or if it’s important that everyone on your reservation sits together.

Related reading: Beginner’s guide to choosing seats on American Airlines

When can I board?

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

Related reading: Why I love checking bags when I fly

Can I change my flight?

No changes are allowed for flights within the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Changes are allowed for a fee for travel to/from Europe, South America and Africa — but AA’s fee chart lists a charge 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.

Related reading: The best ways to avoid airline change and cancellation fees on paid flights

Can I cancel my flight?

No, except if 1) the ticket is canceled within 24 hours of purchase; 2) American changes your flight schedule by 61 minutes or more; 3) you or your traveling companion dies, or 4) because of military orders. In these cases, American Airlines may refund the purchase price to your original form of payment if you can provide valid documentation.

Related reading: How to refund a nonrefundable airline ticket

Do I still earn miles?

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

Related reading: How to earn American Airlines AAdvantage status

Does having a cobranded credit card help?

(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)
Select cobranded American Airlines credit cards can provide benefits that defeat some aspects of basic economy. (Photo by John Gribben/The Points Guy)

Yes, having one of the eight eligible cobranded American Airlines credit cards can help you improve your basic-economy experience. 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 cobranded 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 Group 4 or 5 boarding and your first checked bag free on domestic itineraries, consider getting one of the following cards:

The information for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum card, CitiBusiness AAdvantage Platinum card, Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Red, and the AAdvantage Aviator Business card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Related reading: Choosing the best credit card 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 (complimentary, 500-mile, systemwide or paid), you do get the following benefits when flying on a basic-economy fare:

  • Your normal boarding group
    • AAdvantage ConciergeKey: Preboarding
    • 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

Related reading: Credit cards that can help you earn airline elite status

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 on most routes. Luckily, those with elite status or an eligible cobranded American Airlines credit card can escape many of the inconveniences of basic economy. Specifically, these passengers receive their customary baggage allowance and boarding zone provided by their elite status or eligible credit card.

In particular, having a credit card such as the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard provides the first bag checked free on domestic flights and Preferred Group 5 boarding. This means the card’s $99 annual fee would be effectively paid for after saving checked baggage fees on just a couple of domestic flights. Plus, the card is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 60,000 AAdvantage miles after you spend $2,500 in purchases in the first three months of account opening.

If you’re new to points and miles, check out our Beginner’s Guide for more information.

Featured photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy.

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