Everything you need to know about flying basic economy on American Airlines

Jan 1, 2021

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Basic economy fares are often the least expensive fares you’ll find. If you’ve booked a basic economy fare on American Airlines, you may have some questions. Specifically, you may wonder what restrictions you face and whether there are ways to avoid these restrictions. This guide aims to answer all of your questions about American Airlines’ basic economy.

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In This Post

What’s basic economy?

American Airlines’ basic economy is the carrier’s lowest main cabin fare. It comes with some restrictions on baggage, seating, boarding order and your eligibility to change. Starting Jan. 1, 2021, American Airlines AAdvantage members won’t get any elite status earnings on basic economy fares. This guide will answer common questions about these restrictions.

American Airlines basic economy restrictions
(Screenshot courtesy of American Airlines’ web page, taken on Dec. 23, 2020)

American Airlines waives some basic economy restrictions for elites and holders of eligible AAdvantage Aviator or Citi/AAdvantage credit cards. I’ll discuss these exceptions in sections dedicated to elites and cardholders near the end of this guide.

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 the 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, $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 tickets issued on or before April 20, 2020, and $75 for tickets issued after April 20, 2020, 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. 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. Meanwhile, your carry-on bag must fit in the overhead bin and cannot exceed 22 x 14 x 9 inches.

Related: Keep calm and carry on: Our 13 favorite travel carry-ons

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.

American Airlines main cabin extra seats
Main cabin extra seats provide a bit more legroom. (Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy)

If you don’t choose to pay to select a seat, American Airlines will automatically assign you a seat 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. Instead, they’re the seats that aren’t selected by other passengers before you check-in. Contributor Brian Biros recommends not picking a seat in hopes of scoring a free upgrade. After all, you might luck into a preferred seat or a main cabin extra seat. But I recommend paying to select seats if you really want a window or aisle seat, need extra legroom or want your group to sit together.

Related: A beginner’s guide to American Airlines economy seats

When can I board?

Basic economy passengers generally 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. You may be required to gate check your carry-on bag, but doing so will be free. However, if you are an AAdvantage member, you’ll board in Group 6.

Related: Why I always board last, no matter where I’m sitting on the plane

Can I change my flight?

Economy seats on American Airlines Boeing 787-8
Economy seats on American Airlines Boeing 787-8. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Although American Airlines recently removed most change fees, the carrier excluded basic economy. American Airlines doesn’t allow any changes basic economy fares within the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. And although American Airlines allows travelers to change after paying a fee when traveling to/from Europe, South America and Africa, the American Airlines’ 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.

However, thanks to American Airlines’ global coronavirus waiver, you can change basic economy tickets booked between Mar. 1, 2020 and Jan. 31, 2021, without a fee.

Related: How to avoid airline change and cancellation fees

Can I cancel my flight?

No, except if 1) you cancel the ticket 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.

However, thanks to American Airlines’ global coronavirus waiver, you can cancel basic economy tickets booked between Mar. 1, 2020 and Jan. 31, 2021, for any reason.

Related: Leniency in basic economy: TPG readers share success stories and tips

Do I still earn miles?

No, as of Jan. 1, 2021, you’ll no longer earn any elite-qualifying miles, segments or dollars when flying on American Airlines basic economy tickets.

Related: Where to credit your basic economy flights for maximum returns

Does having a cobranded credit card help?

Woman with a card on a city street
Having an American Airlines credit card can decrease the negatives of flying on a basic economy fare. (Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)

Yes, having one of the eligible cobranded American Airlines credit cards can 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. So you can get the boarding and baggage benefits of a cobranded American Airlines credit card even when you pay for your 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 Select card, CitiBusiness AAdvantage Platinum Select 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: AA, Delta and United lounges have limited access to customers flying with them: Here’s what to do

Does having elite status help?

Yes, having AAdvantage or Oneworld elite status helps. Specifically, elites get the following benefits even when flying on a basic economy fare:

In short, the primary reasons an AAdvantage elite wouldn’t want to book a basic economy fare are (1) no elite earnings and (2) restrictive change policies once American Airlines’ global coronavirus waiver ends.

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

Bottom line

American Airlines’ basic economy fares come with restrictions. But, travelers with elite status or an eligible 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. So, you could get enough value to justify the card’s annual fee after saving checked baggage fees on just a couple of domestic flights.

Related: Why now is the perfect time to reconsider basic economy fares

Featured photo 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 $815. 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 up to two guests or immediate family members traveling with you
  • 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
  • Earn 1 Loyalty Point for every 1 eligible mile earned from 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 17.49% - 26.49% based on your creditworthiness. Citi Flex Plan offers are made available at Citi's discretion.
Regular APR
17.49% - 26.49% (Variable)
Annual Fee
Balance Transfer Fee
5% of each balance transfer; $5 minimum.
Recommended Credit
Excellent, Good

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.

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