The major US airlines have been making a big push to add basic economy options to their routes in an attempt to attract more customers who may not want to pay for some of the frills. All three carriers, Delta, United, and American, now offer some form of basic economy so I wanted to check it out on a flight and see what it was all about. I am personally not a big fan of the trend–for a few reasons I will mention below–but on a recent flight at the end of the 2017 elite qualification period I took the chance to test out the product. Since I had already qualified for Platinum but was still a decent way from reaching American’s newest elite status level addition, Platinum Pro, I found it to be the perfect opportunity.
Since a large number of the basic economy offerings on American are on flights from DFW it was rather easy to find the option for a flight to St. Louis. I started the booking process on their website and both flight times I needed offered the basic economy option so I selected them to reserve the booking. I had heard stories of people booking a basic economy flight and not realizing it until they arrived at the airport only to realize they couldn’t bring their carry-on unless they paid a fee to check it at the gate. So I wanted to see how plausible that might be.
While I can see how this might possibly happen if booking through a third-party there is pretty much no way someone can book this flight on the American website and not know it is basic economy. It all starts at the very beginning of the trip selection with the statement “Basic Economy” at the very top–it’s almost as if they are trying to guilt you into paying for regular economy–but it doesn’t stop there as they add in that it is the lowest fare with the following restrictions:
- Only allowed 1 item that fits under the seat with no access to overhead bins
- Seats are assigned at check-in
- The fare is not eligible for upgrades
- No flight changes or refunds
- And finally, you will board in the last group
The only caveat to these restrictions is for elite members who can still place a carry-on in the overhead bin and board with their normal group. The big kicker for elite members is the whole—not eligible for upgrades part.
And once you get past the first warning they immediately give you another one detailing all of the restrictions of your ticket while trying to convince you to purchase the main cabin fare. As a single passenger I don’t find the typical savings of $20 each way to be worth the restrictions but I could see how a family of 4 or 5 could really take advantage of this on a trip.
Lastly, once I accepted the restrictions they gave me one final warning of what I was getting myself into before purchasing the ticket. At this point I fully understood that I was in basic economy with multiple restrictions for my upcoming trip.
A few days before my trip I received another email from American informing me of the restrictions related to my ticketed fare class. It reminded me to read up on the basic economy rules and said I could either purchase a seat now or wait for one to be automatically assigned at check-in.
I simply thought “I will wait until check-in to have my seat assigned and then use my AAdvantage Platinum status to switch myself to a better seat”. Unfortunately, it didn’t end up going as planned, but those were exactly the type of things I was trying out Basic Economy to learn about.
During check-in they offered me the choice of a few different middle seats near the back of the plane for $12. Not wanting to pay $12 to select a middle seat in the back of the plan I skipped the selection and was eventually assigned seat 27E after checking in. The part that I found even more interesting was that they wouldn’t even let me switch from one middle seat in the back to a different middle seat in the back without paying $12.
And then to select the main cabin extra seat–one that normally comes complimentary for platinum members–they wanted $35 for the one way flight. It was only $20 cheaper each way to book basic economy so that seemed a little ridiculous! That certainly put an end to my plan of moving up to a different seat after check-in. Since I wasn’t willing to pay any extra I stuck with my assigned seat in 27E.
When it was time to board they started calling the groups and everything started with group 1 and I boarded with group 3 before making my way back to the middle seat in row 27. I was by far the first person in the area so I waited for the seats to fill in and as luck would have it the person in the aisle seat didn’t show for the flight! This allowed me to move over and enjoy an empty middle seat.
Ended up with an entire row to myself on my return flight in Basic Economy!
And then I was lucky again on the return flight and I actually ended up with an entire row to myself. So all things considered, I would say things turned out very well. With the exception of not getting to choose my seat and having less leg room–which didn’t really matter with nobody sitting next to me on both flights–there was no real difference during the flight between this and sitting closer to the front of economy. I still received my complimentary drink and snack, albeit a little later, and was able to put my carry-on in the overhead bin. But ultimately I think the length of the flight had a major factor in the comfort level.
While flying in basic economy isn’t the most luxurious way to travel there are definitely times when it can make sense. But I would say these circumstances would vary based upon whether someone has status with American, trying to qualify for status with American, or someone who has no status with American, as explained below.
AAdvantage Elite Members
For this section I am going to make the assumption that anyone who has AAdvantage Elite status is hoping to re-qualify for it again in the following year. For this reason I would say the flights for which it might make sense to fly Basic Economy are pretty slim. For Executive Platinum & Platinum Pro members I see no reason for booking a ticket in Basic Economy because it would mean you aren’t eligible for upgrades, which are normally complimentary and auto-requested.
For Platinum & Gold members there aren’t too many times when I would recommend picking a Basic Economy seat either. Anything under 500 miles is out because those are the flights that qualify for the complimentary auto-requested upgrades. I think the sweet spot for booking basic economy falls on flights in the range of 501-700 miles. The flight is too far to receive the complimentary upgrade option but short enough that it’s not the best value for using 2 500 mile upgrades. But this also comes with the caveat that you are late enough in the elite qualification period that you know you won’t reach the next status level, for example, having 53,000 EQM’s in November but knowing you can’t get 75,000 by the end of the year. Another thing to consider is if you have tons of 500 mile upgrades then it makes sense to request on every flight, which isn’t possible if flying in Basic Economy.
Trying to Qualify for Status on American
I would argue if you fall in this category that you should never fly basic economy because you only earn 0.5 EQM’s [Elite Qualifying Miles] per mile flown. To qualify for their lowest level Gold status American requires 25,000 EQM’s and spending $3,000 during the qualification year. If you were to book all basic economy flights then you would end up flying 50,000 miles before having enough EQM’s for Gold. Combine this with the fact that Basic Economy tickets are generally only $20 – $40 cheaper each way and you’ll find yourself paying significantly more per EQM earned than if you were to book the main cabin seat.
Non-Status Flyers on American
If you fall in this category then it literally comes down to your personal preference and how you plan to pack for the trip. But I think there are three main considerations when making the decision; checking a bag, using the overhead bin, and purchasing a seat rather than having one assigned.
Since anyone flying in American Airlines basic economy still pays the same baggage fee it could make sense to book the basic economy fare and pay the $25 ($50 roundtrip) to check a bag. This difference would essentially cover the checked bag fee and then the no overhead bin space doesn’t matter. It could also make sense for someone to book basic economy if they want to pay for the extra legroom seats. Rather than paying the full fare plus fee for extra legroom you can purchase the discounted ticket and use these savings to buy up to the main cabin extra seats. There are really multiple options for anyone traveling under this headline but the biggest reason for booking the regular main cabin fare is if you absolutely need a carry-on in the overhead bin.
- Cheaper than booking a regular main cabin ticket and the savings can add up for a family needing to pay for multiple people
- If you don’t have American Airlines status then basic economy fare almost acts as a discount on purchasing up to main cabin extra seats
- On my return flight–which was a half empty plane–they still assigned me to the second to last row in the middle seat
- Cannot use the overhead bin unless you have airline status
- Not able to pick any other seat except for the one assigned without paying extra
- Only earns 0.5 EQM’s, which can make earning or re-qualifying for status difficult
Overall I am not a big fan of this additional option when searching for tickets and I am afraid the basic economy fare is going to cost the same as the old main cabin fare. I can see how some passengers may benefit from this option on certain routes but the majority of frequent flyers are better off avoiding basic economy. However, if you do decide to book your next trip in this fare class make sure you know the restrictions and unless you have elite status don’t show up at the gate with more than a personal item because it will end up costing you more to gate check it ($50) than you saved on the ticket. If anyone has any opinions or questions themselves on the basic economy seats feel free to share them below!