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

And the airlines are doing a good job of making basic economy sound really bad — which is what airlines want to do so you’ll buy up to standard economy. Even after getting rid of the carry-on bag restriction, AA boasts that more than 60% of passengers to buy up from basic economy to Main Cabin and the average fare increase between the two has increased to $26 each way.

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

Prepare to sit in a middle seat when flying AA basic economy. Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy.
Prepare to sit in a middle seat when flying AA basic economy. Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy.

American Airlines launched its basic economy fares on just 10 routes in February 2017 and has since expanded it to all domestic routesincluding Hawaii. Basic economy restrictions mean that you’ll be assigned a seat at check-in (likely a middle seat), you won’t be eligible for an upgrade, you’ll earn fewer elite-qualifying miles/segments, you’ll board in the final boarding group (9 of 9) and the ticket doesn’t allow any flight changes or refunds.

Although these fares used to restrict passengers from bringing a carry-on bag on board, that restriction was removed in September 2018.

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 Select within 48 hours for a fee, or assigned Limited selection
at booking
Select within 48 hours for a fee, or assigned
Carry-on Baggage Allowance 1 1 1
Checked Baggage Allowance 0 0 1
Extra Cost vs. Basic Economy N/A average $26+ each way Starting at $0 for first year.
Then $95 per year.
Flight changes or refunds None Fees apply None

Rather than paying $30+ more per flight for standard economy, you can use a co-branded credit card like the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard to avoid being regulated to group 9 boarding. Instead, 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. Plus, you’ll get a free checked bag on domestic flights.

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 for free. You’ll have the option to pay to select a seat at 48 hours prior to departure. Otherwise, AA will assign you a seat at check-in.

Delta

delta
At least with Delta’s basic economy fares, you might be able to snag a window or aisle seat at check-in. Photo by Benji Stawski / The Points Guy.

The O.G. of legacy carriers for basic economy is Delta. Launched in February 2012, Delta’s basic economy has the least-harsh restrictions. With Delta’s version, you don’t get advance 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.

As Delta President Glen Hauenstein put it recently on an earnings call with analysts, “our [Basic Economy] was the most humane of all of those as we didn’t try to charge for overhead baggage.”

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 might have to have to gate-check it as you’ll be boarding in group 8. 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:

Passengers Without Status Basic Economy Standard Economy Basic Economy +
Co-Branded Card
Boarding Group 8 6-7 5
Assigned seat Potential to choose at check-in, but may be assigned at gate Choose at booking Potential to choose at check-in, but may be assigned at gate
Carry-on Baggage Allowance 1 1 1
Checked Baggage Allowance 0 0 1
Extra Cost over Basic Economy N/A $15-35 each way 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 after you make $1,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Additionally, earn a $50 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new Card within your first 3 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 advance seat selection. Delta’s basic economy fares have the potential that you can choose seats at check-in, but it’s possible that you may not get a seat assigned until the gate.

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.

Of all the major airlines, United’s basic economy is the worst. While American Airlines relented and now lets basic economy passengers carry on a bag, United still doesn’t allow basic economy passengers anything larger than a personal item. Plus, the basic economy fares can be absurd. TPG’s United tracker 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 upgrades and no changes/refunds. And you can’t even check-in online unless you’re paying for a checked bag.

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 a much-earlier one. 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 $15-35/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 or get upgrades.

Bottom Line

Basic economy fares have become ubiquitous on US legacy airlines, covering all domestic routes and many international ones. It’s important that all travelers are aware of the restrictions, and that the airlines really want you to buy up from basic economy to main cabin. But, there’s a better way. By having an airline co-branded credit card, you can avoid some of the pain of basic economy without having to buy up to standard economy.

If you like to carry on a bag — and not having to gate-check it — as well as getting a free checked bag, 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 who paid extra to get standard economy but don’t have a co-branded card.

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

Featured image by asiseeit via Getty Images.

This article was originally published on June 1, 2017 and updated with the latest information as of May 3, 2019.

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