How to survive basic economy on American Airlines

Dec 24, 2019

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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.

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. 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, but also check out Benji Stawski‘s review of American Airlines’ basic economy.

(Chart captured from American Airlines’ website on Dec. 22, 2019)

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: 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 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: 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 in size.

Related: 8 tips for traveling with only a carry-on

Can I select a seat?

Yes, but it will cost you. For flights within the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, you can pay to choose a specific seat within seven days of departure. For travel to/from Europe, you can choose a specific seat at any time 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 it’s possible 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: 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: 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: 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 are able to provide valid documentation.

Related: 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. 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.

Related: Last-minute elite status strategies for American Airlines AAdvantage

Does having a cobranded credit card help?

Select cobranded American Airlines credit cards can provide benefits that defeat some aspects of basic economy. (Photo by TPG staff)

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:

Related: Choosing the best credit card for American Airlines flyers

The information for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select, 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.

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: 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 (except for travel to/from Haiti and departing Cuba). 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 like 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, which is waived the first year, would be effectively paid for after saving checked baggage fees on just a couple of domestic flights.

If you’re new to 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.

Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®

Based on TPG’s most recent valuations, the 50,000 miles are worth $700. In addition, you can earn 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) toward elite status after spending $40,000 in a calendar year. As of July 23, 2017 this is the only card that offers Admirals Club lounge access so if you are an AA flyer this card might make sense for you.  Aside from lounge access the primary cardholder will receive a Global Entry application fee credit every 5 years, first checked bag free for up to 8 travel companions on domestic itineraries and a 25% discount on eligible in-flight purchases on American Airlines flights.

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More Things to Know
  • Earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after spending $5,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Admirals Club® membership for you and access for guests traveling with you
  • Complimentary Admirals Club® lounge access for authorized users
  • Earn 10,000 AAdvantage® Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) after you spend $40,000 in purchases within the year
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases
  • Earn 2 AAdvantage® miles for every $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases and 1 AAdvantage® mile for every $1 spent on other purchases
  • First checked bag is free on domestic American Airlines itineraries for you and up to 8 companions traveling with you on the same reservation
  • The standard variable APR for Citi Flex Plan is 17.24% - 25.24%, based on your creditworthiness. Citi Flex Plan offers are made available at Citi's discretion.
Intro APR on Purchases
Regular APR
17.24% - 25.24% (Variable)
Annual Fee
Balance Transfer Fee
3% of each balance transfer; $5 minimum.
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