How I Outsmarted a Basic Economy Fare — Reader Success Story

Jun 5, 2019

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Today I want to share a story from TPG reader Zac, who found a way to score a better seat without paying for it:

Since my girlfriend lives in Chicago and I am in Raleigh, I fly roughly twice a month to Chicago and back. I have status with both Delta and Southwest, but to maximize my time in the Windy City, I usually fly American as their schedule works best with ours. Flights usually cost $200-300 in basic economy, or an additional $60 round-trip for economy. That adds up, so I choose on these flights to fly basic economy.

It seemed like American would give me the worst seat available when I checked in, so I started to see what would happen if I checked in later than usual. As check-in progresses, the seats in the aft of the plane get assigned first, then seats more toward the front, and finally the Main Cabin Extra section. By waiting to check in, I’ve been placed either in Main Cabin Extra or an aisle or window seat in the front of the plane on my last five flights. So not only am I saving $60 dollars versus an economy fare, but I’m also getting a seat you’d normally have to pay extra for without status.

I would never fly this way with a family, but when it’s just me, it’s a great way to save money and maybe get upgraded to Main Cabin Extra (or at least a more desirable seat).

With nearly all major US airlines fully on the basic economy bandwagon, it’s clear that à la carte airfare is here to stay. The good news is that when you book a basic economy fare (whether by design or by accident), there are a variety of strategies you can use to make the experience more palatable. Zac’s approach is a good example, though it carries some risk. Basic economy passengers generally have to pay to select a seat; otherwise, seating is assigned at check-in. You can twist that process in your favor by waiting to check in, since the least desirable seats fill up first. However, this is most likely to work if your flight is close to (but still under) capacity.

When seats are widely available, odds are the airline can still find a middle seat in the back for you regardless of when you check in. Waiting won’t help much in that scenario, though it also shouldn’t hurt. The real risk comes if your flight is oversold, in which case both your discounted fare class and your late check-in time could make you more likely to get bumped from your flight involuntarily. My advice is to check how full your flight is before you decide to delay check-in. If it’s sold out and you can’t afford to gamble, then you should check in as early as possible. If there are still tickets available or you don’t mind getting bumped, then you can see if waiting gets you a better seat.

Related: How to Use Credit Cards to Defeat Basic Economy

I love this story and I want to hear more like it! In appreciation for sharing this experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending Zac a $200 airline gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I’d like to do the same for you. Please email your own award travel success stories to info@thepointsguy.com; be sure to include details about how you earned and redeemed your rewards, and put “Reader Success Story” in the subject line. Feel free to also submit your most woeful travel mistakes. If your story is published, we’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure. Due to the volume of submissions, we can’t respond to each story individually, but we’ll be in touch if yours is selected.

Safe and happy travels to all, and I look forward to hearing from you!

Featured photo by JT Genter / The Points Guy.

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