What is Basic Economy?

A quick overview on Basic Economy and how it affects travelers in 2019.

What is Basic Economy? + main

Basic economy has crept it way into nearly every major airline worldwide. In this post, I will walk you through the background of Basic Economy, as well was what to expect on the three major US carriers (American, Delta, and United).

Quick History of Basic Economy

The concept of Basic Economy traces back to European discount airlines such as EasyJet, Ryanair, and Wizz. Here in the US, as major carriers increasingly felt pressure from Sprit, Frontier, and Allegiant, they responded by unbundling their economy offerings on several popular routes. By unbundling airfares, the airlines hoped to show customers that it was possible to fly on American/Delta/United for the same low cost of flying on Spirit/Frontier/Allegiant.

United was the first to test it out and it turns out that it worked.

Basic Economy has been such a success that it has since been rolled out by all major US carriers on both domestic and international routes.

Differences in Basic Economy

Each airline has a slightly different definition and set of restrictions with their Basic Economy fares. I wrote a dedicated post about United, American, and Delta's Basic Economy offerings to give you a better idea of the ins-and-outs of each.

The main thing to pay close attention to is baggage restrictions. American and Delta both allow you to bring a full-size carry-on (roller) and one personal item (backpack/purse).

United is the most strict and only allows Basic Economy passengers to carry-on a single personal item. United pays close attention to this at check-in and during boarding, so don't expect to go gaming the system anytime soon.

My Tips for Flying in Basic Economy

1. Pack smart & light - Baggage restrictions vary from airline-to-airline, with United being the strictest. If you have an airline credit card that gets you a free checked bag, consider checking your carry-on ahead of time to avoid the headache. Since you will be boarding in the last group (unless you have status) be prepared to gate-check your carry-on and make sure you have any essentials in your smaller personal item. I cannot tell you how many times I've heard about gate-checked bags gone missing.

2. Set low expectations - When flying Basic Economy (yes, I do this quite often) I try to set my expectations low, remember that my ticket was dirt cheap, and prepare for the worst. I mentally imagine sitting in a middle seat, in the back of a full wide-body jet, for 10+ hours. That way, if I get randomly assigned a window seat at the back of the plane, I'm pleasantly delighted. It's a fun mind game to play.

3. Avoid Basic Economy when traveling with kids - Since seats are randomly assigned at check-in, the odds of getting multiple seats together is slim. If you are traveling with kinds, I would recommend either pre-paying for seat assignments or avoiding Basic Economy entirely.

4. Visit a lounge before and/or after - If you have access to an airline or credit card lounge be sure to use it. I find visiting a lounge before departure to grab a drink and some food dramatically increases my happiness level...even when I land that dreaded middle seat.

5. Ask & be polite - So what do you do when you get assigned to a middle seat? I always check with the gate agent shortly before boarding. Asking nicely (with a smile) for a different seat often works if the flight is not fully booked. Most importantly, I have learned that the worst that can happen is they say no.

6. Be prepared - Prior planning goes a long way. As do noise cancelling headphones. Be sure to pack a pair, download some good movies on your mobile device, or bring a book. Remember it's just a flight and you'll be at your destination in no time.

Other Questions

Have additional questions? Send me a note — chase@usealtitude.com — and I'll happily help you out.

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