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3 things I think about when booking basic economy

Oct. 09, 2022
7 min read
plane at gate Dulles
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As most frequent travelers know, basic economy has evolved quite significantly since airlines began adding the low-cost fare option over the course of the last decade.

Originally seen by airlines as a way to compete with low-cost carriers, the general principal has remained pretty consistent: you pay a lower ticket price than you would for a main cabin ticket, but you'll lose some of the services on your flight — or at least lose complimentary access to them.

On the other hand, airlines have made quite a few changes when it comes to what all is included with a basic economy fare, what isn’t, and what you can add for a fee after choosing the lower-priced ticket.

TPG has guides with everything you'll need to know when it comes to the rules of basic economy with American, Delta and United.

However, considering how basic economy policies differ from one airline to another, not to mention how they've changed through time, I've personally found it helpful to have a mental checklist of factors I consider when evaluating whether it's worth saving a little (actually, sometimes it’s a decent amount) by booking a basic economy ticket, or if I'm better off going with a full-fare economy ticket.

A Delta Air Lines plane at the gate at Dulles International Airport (IAD). SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

Knowing what factors are most important to you is crucial to making the best decision on the right airline. Below are the top factors I consider.

1. The complimentary full-size carry-on bag

Whether you’ve always shied away from checking a bag whenever possible or moved in that direction after the baggage chaos of this past summer, going without a checked bag can be a great way to go. But unless you can stuff all of your belongings into a small backpack or purse, you’ll need a carry-on suitcase; preferably one that can fit in the overhead bin.

Historically, a common policy among airlines’ basic economy classes has been restricting your free baggage to just a personal item that can fit under the seat and charging for anything more.

Personally, on most trips, I’ll need a full-sized bag in some form or another. With that in mind, if I’m traveling on an airline with restrictive baggage policies, I’ll stay away from basic economy unless it’s an airline with which I have elite status or a co-branded airline credit card checked baggage perk that supersedes that airline’s basic economy restrictions (more on that in a moment).

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Fortunately, today these types of carry-on baggage restrictions are less common on the biggest U.S. airlines compared to a few years ago. Among the Big Three U.S. airlines, United is the only one that restricts complimentary overhead bin access as part of basic economy.

An American Airlines plane at the gate at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW). SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

2. Loyalty perks and earning

A second key factor I think about when deciding whether to book a basic economy fare or not is whether I’ll be able to enjoy my loyalty perks, earn miles and make progress toward elite status while traveling on a basic economy fare.

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In 2018, when I was first chasing elite status with American Airlines, knowing I'd be 'on the bubble' come December, I stayed away from basic economy at all costs because at the time, AAdvantage members only got half credit on elite qualifying segments when flying with a basic economy ticket. American has since ended both elite qualifying segments (in favor of its Loyalty Points system) and the handicap on AAdvantage earnings for basic economy flyers, so you now earn miles and Loyalty Points even when flying basic economy.

But other airlines do have restrictions in place, still. United’s basic economy flyers earn MileagePlus miles and Premier Qualifying Points but their trip doesn’t count toward Premier Qualifying Flights. Delta does not allow its SkyMiles members to earn any miles or credit toward elite status when flying basic economy.

While you'd rather pay the lowest fare, you'd also hate to pay for a flight and not have it fully count in an airline's loyalty program, so I'll consider how the airline handles this in making my decision.

I’ll also weigh the other benefits I enjoy during a flight in my decision, whether it’s from elite status or a co-branded airline credit card. Sometimes, airlines will put stringent rules in place for basic economy tickets but allow exemptions for elite members on certain policies; this certainly differs from one airline to another.

To that end, I weigh a few factors: Will my typical benefits still apply, despite basic economy restrictions? Will I be able to enjoy complimentary upgrades? Will I be able to board in my typical priority group as opposed to the last group on board, as is almost universal with basic economy tickets? If I need to check a bag, does my free checked bag benefit still apply?

If the answer to all those questions is “yes,” I might well go with the cheaper ticket.

ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

3. Itinerary flexibility

Another hallmark of basic economy tickets is that they have traditionally lacked much in the way of flexibility when it comes to making changes beyond the 24-hour grace period after booking.

The inflexibility of basic economy tickets compared with other tickets is all the starker, now: airlines have, overall, relaxed their change and cancellation policies on most tickets, compared with before the pandemic, but basic economy is generally the exception to that flexibility.

While you may be able to get some of your investment back when canceling a basic economy ticket voluntarily, you’ll often pay a steep percentage of the ticket as a cancellation fee. You’ll typically also be mostly or completely restricted in your ability to change your trip.

If I have some inkling that I may end up needing to change or cancel my trip before departure, basic economy probably isn’t a good idea. If I’m confident the trip will go on as planned, and have little fear I could end up forfeiting all or most of what I paid, I might be willing to book basic economy.

Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL). SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

One thing to always keep in mind

Ironically, whether I can select my own seat on a flight hardly ever figures into my basic economy decision equation. That’s because the airlines do, and pretty much always have excluded complimentary seat selection from these discount tickets.

That means you likely will not be able to guarantee that your family sits together when traveling basic economy. You'll often get assigned — or perhaps you'll be able to pick — a seat at check-in, at which point there will be far fewer seat options available.

For that reason, if seat selection is important to you, you may not even need to weigh a checklist of factors: basic economy may simply not be right for your travel needs.

Bottom line

With varying policies through the years and from one airline to another, basic economy versus full-fare economy policies can be a lot to keep track of. For that reason, it's a good idea to know what services and benefits are most important to you, so you can make the best decision on the right type of ticket.

Featured image by SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Best for the well-traveled foodie
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.
4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
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    Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.

    60,000 bonus points
  • Annual Fee

    $250
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

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  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees