Comparing Basic Economy Fares Across Airlines

Jan 18, 2017

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Say what you will about Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit, but these ultra-low-cost carriers are earning serious profits and growing quickly. The three major US legacy airlines have noticed their success, and are now scrambling to offer their super-low fares while imposing more fees. DeltaUnited  and most recently American Airlines have done so by introducidng Basic Economy fare classes.


In today’s post, I want to examine what you get when you buy a ticket on the three major ultra-low cost carriers, as well as the Basic Economy fares offered by American, Delta and United.

Allegiant Frontier Spirit American Delta United
Seat Assignments Pay or auto-assigned at check-in Pay or auto-assigned at check-in $1-$50 Auto-assigned at check-in; available for purchase 48 hours in advance Choose your own seats at check-in Auto-assigned at check-in
Carry-on Baggage $10-$75 each way $30 -$60 each way $35 at booking,
$100 at gate (each way)
Personal items only except for elite members and co-branded cardholders One free full-size carry on and a personal item Personal items only except for Premier members,
Star Alliance Gold members and MileagePlus cardholders
Ticket Changes
(After 24 Hours)
$75 before 7 days from departure,
none permitted within 7 days
$99 (same-day changes are free for elites) $90 online No No No
Award Miles N/A Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Elite-qualifying Credit N/A Yes N/A Yes Yes No
Upgrades (Each Way) Up to $80 From $20 $12-$199 No No No
Credit Card Holder Benefits Priority boarding N/A Priority check-in and
preferred boarding
Priority boarding and a free checked bag with the the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard and the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard. Priority boarding and a free checked bag with the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American ExpressPlatinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card and the Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express (the latter also offer in-flight savings). Priority boarding and a free checked bag with the United MileagePlus Explorer Card. 2 free checked bags, priority check-in and security with the United MileagePlus Club Card.

What makes an economy class fare “basic?”

Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit were the first US carriers to offer a new kind of airfare that didn’t include the ability to bring aboard a standard sized carry-on without paying extra (a smaller “personal item” such as a backpack or purse is permitted, but it must be able to fit underneath the seat in front of you). This model is based on European discount airlines such as Ryanair and easyJet, and now American, Delta and United are applying many of the same rules to their own Basic Economy fare classes.

Another concept introduced by some ultra-low-cost carriers is the inability to select standard seats at the time of reservation, or even at check-in, without paying additional fees. Also, an ultra-low-cost carrier or a Basic Economy fare offered by a legacy airline may not allow you to make any voluntary changes — not even for a fee. Finally, American, Delta and United don’t offer any seat upgrades to passengers booked in a Basic Economy fare, even if they have elite status.


This ultra-low-cost carrier is known for offering just a few flights a week between airports in small communities and major vacation destinations. Examples include Roanoke, Virginia to Orlando-Sanford and Bozeman, Montana to Las Vegas, both of which operate just twice a week. Because of the very low flight frequencies Allegiant offers, you’ll have very few options if your trip is severely delayed or canceled for any reason.

When you book a flight on Allegiant, you can pay to choose a seat, including extra legroom seats, or you’re randomly assigned a seat at check-in. You can also make changes to your flight for $75, so long as your departure is more than seven days out. There are no changes within seven days. The charge for carry-on bags is between $10 and $75 each way.

Allegiant doesn’t have a standard frequent flyer program, but it does offer a rewards credit card. You can read my review of the Allegiant World Mastercard from Bank of America. To sum it up, it’s not a very compelling offer.


AA was the final legacy carrier to announce a Basic Economy offering — these new fares will go on sale in February 2017. While not quite as restrictive as United’s version, American’s fare is more limited than Delta’s. Basic Economy travelers can select seats up to 48 hours in advance for a fee, or will have a seat assigned automatically at check-in. Larger carry-on bags are not allowed, but passengers can bring aboard a purse or small backpack that can be stored under the seat in front. Elite members and customers with a co-branded card, such as the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard and the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard, will be exempt from this restriction.

Elites and co-branded cardholders will also have access to their regular priority screening and boarding benefits, but all other Basic Economy customers will board the plane last. No customers will be able to make any changes to these tickets, including same-day changes or standby, and elite members will not be eligible for any upgrades. Fortunately, customers will still earn miles and elite-qualifying credit — 100% elite qualifying dollars (EQDs), but only 50% elite qualifying miles (EQMs) and elite qualifying segments (EQSs).


I was seated near the back of the aircraft.
Economy seats on Delta’s 737-800.

Delta was the first legacy airline to offer Basic Economy fares, and it can be a surprisingly good option in certain circumstances. You receive the same seating, food and service that you would if you bought a regular ticket (which Delta calls Main Cabin). You also receive the same carry-on allowance as every other passenger — a full size carry-on plus a smaller personal item.

And when the carrier offers Basic Economy fares on regional jets, there’s no chance you’ll be stuck in a middle seat. Delta even lets travelers with Basic Economy fares choose their own seat at check-in, which is more than what United and Spirit offer.  Best of all, you’ll enjoy Delta’s reliable service and be able to fall back on its extensive route network if your flight is delayed or canceled.

Delta still awards redeemable miles and credit toward elite status, and if you have a Delta SkyMiles credit card from American Express, you’ll still receive a free checked bag and priority boarding. Just note that the companion certificates offered by the Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card and the Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express are not valid for Basic Economy fares.

Delta’s Basic Economy fares are non-refundable and non-upgradable, even if you’re an elite. Elites can’t select preferred seats or those with extra legroom. You can’t even pay extra to choose your seat in advance to upgrade. But if you don’t have Medallion status, there are few drawbacks to purchasing one of Delta’s Basic Economy fares, especially if you hold a Delta SkyMiles credit card or are traveling on a regional jet.


This Denver-based ultra-low-cost carrier can be an attractive option, but passengers need to be aware of its fees. The price of a carry on bag starts at $30 each way and can be much more if you don’t pay online in advance. Customers can pay for advanced seat assignments and seats with additional legroom, or are randomly assigned a seat. You will receive miles from your flight, but Frontier’s miles aren’t worth much and expire after six months. Frontier’s change fee is $99, which is often more than its ticket prices.


Spirit seats
No-frills seats on Spirit Airlines.

This is an airline that some people love to hate, yet somehow it continues to profit and grow. Seat assignments start at $5, or you’ll have a seat assigned to you at random when you check-in. Ticket changes are $90 when made online, and for what it’s worth you do receive award miles for each flight. Upgrades to larger seats are available for $12-$199 each way. And if you have the Spirit Airlines World Mastercard, you’ll always receive priority check-in and preferred boarding.


United announced its Basic Economy program late last year, which will be more like purchasing a ticket from Spirit than one of Delta’s Basic Economy fares. Some United passengers may be in for a shock when they find out that they can’t choose their own seat at any price! Imagine a Premier 1K or a Global Services member being seated in a middle seat in the back of the aircraft and separated from their spouses.

Travelers on a United Basic Economy fare can’t carry on a bag, or even pay for the privilege, unless they have United elite status, are Star Alliance Gold members or United MileagePlus cardholders. With United Basic Economy fares, there are no ticket changes at any price, and you won’t earn any credit toward elite status, though you do earn award miles. However, United Explorer cardholders still receive a free checked bag and priority boarding. United Club cardholders receive a second free checked bag, priority check-in, security and baggage handling.

Tips for Basic Economy Fares

Basic Economy fares can fit the bill for regional jet travel.

1. Don’t rule them out — Some travelers are repulsed by the idea of potentially being unable to bring a carry-on or being stuck in a middle seat. Still, it could be worth considering this option depending on the situation. For example, Delta still allows seat selection for free at check-in and free carry-on bags for Basic Economy fares. And if you’re making a quick trip with little luggage, you could save hundreds of dollars compared to a standard economy fare.

2. Consider them for short-haul flights and regional jet travel — It’s not a great sacrifice for those with elite status to pass up the chance for an upgrade on a very short flight. And when it comes to the ultra-low-cost carriers, an ultra-low amount of legroom could be tolerable for an hour or two, especially when you’re saving money on airfare. Plus, smaller regional jets seat four across at most and have fewer passengers, so you’ll never be stuck in a middle seat or behind 180 other people slowly exiting the plane when you book a Basic Economy ticket.

3. Avoid them when traveling with families, for now — When traveling with small children, there doesn’t seem to be any accommodation to have adjoining seats on United, even if you want to pay extra. It’s unclear what action, if any United would take if a toddler was assigned seats apart from his or her parents.

However, the FAA Extension, Security, and Safety Act of 2016 requires the DOT to come up with new rules that force the airlines to seat children 13 and under with an accompanying adult. When these new rules finally take effect, it will remove a major hurdle for families purchasing Basic Economy fares and traveling on ultra-low-cost carriers.

4. Look for Basic Economy fares in the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel center — Instead of transferring your Ultimate Rewards points to miles with one of 11 travel partners, you can save a lot of points when you book a basic economy fare directly through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel center. You receive 1.25 cents in value per point with cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and new Ink Business Preferred Credit Card. With the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you’ll get 1.5 cents in value per point redeemed. For a flight that costs $50, you’ll only need to redeem 3,333 Ultimate Rewards points from your Sapphire Reserve account.

5. Stow your personal item wherever — Your “personal item” (backpack, purse, laptop, etc.) must be able to be stored beneath the seat in front of you, but you don’t actually have to put it there. This can be an important consideration on an airline like Spirit that offers barely any legroom to begin with. And when airlines charge for carry-on bags, you’ll be surprised how much extra space there is in the overhead bins.

Have you ever flown on a Basic Economy fare or with an ultra-low-cost carrier? What has your experience been?

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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