Mainly for the benefit of our European readers, or for those who are not aware, Basic economy, also called light or saver economy is the buzzword out of the big three North American airlines (Delta, American Airlines, and United) to compete against budget carriers like Spirit, Frontier, Allegiant, and Sun Country that offer no-frills fares.

It isn’t technically its own cabin class but it is the most restrictive class of the main economy fares that American Airlines offers and comes with maximum savings to customers in exchange for a no-frills travel experience but with the comforts of an established airline.

Although United Airlines were the first to coin the idea and put it into practice, the term has spread across the US aviation industry, and not surprisingly, has made its way across the Atlantic and Pacific with carriers such as British airways offering a Basic Economy choice on both their short and long-haul services to compete with the likes of Easyjet, Ryanair, and Norwegian.

Other Airlines like the Lufthansa Group with Eurowings and Singapore Airlines with Scoot, have not only created a Basic Economy class in so far as setting up their own No-frills Airline.

The Catch of American Airlines Basic Economy

On American Airlines, Basic Economy books you into Fare Class “B”, so it’s pretty easy to remember.

The keyword to also remember is “restrictions”, as in, you get the same hard product – you sit in the same “main” economy cabin as the other people who bought regular economy tickets – but there are restrictions that come with your basic economy ticket which makes it cheaper (and objectively less desirable).

However, in short, the restrictions can be broken down into four main groups:

On American Airlines, Basic Economy always books you into Fare Class “B”, so it’s pretty easy to remember.

American Airlines

Baggage Restrictions

When American first offered Basic Economy tickets, it only allowed passengers to carry on one “personal bag” with the ticket. However, 2019 saw American Airlines offering carry-on plus one personal item at no additional cost. This sets American airlines apart from many other carriers, which often don’t allow a carry-on bag with their lowest price fares.

Checked bags cost extra, but this too is a cost with regular economy as well.

Seat Selection Restrictions

With a Basic Economy ticket, your seat will be assigned at check-in or at the gate. Therefore, with all things considered, you could be placed in the middle seat, or at worst in the middle seat at the back of the plane.

Basic economy tickets are usually assigned from the back to front first and note you are not safe from being split up if you booked as a group (with exceptions to minors under 15).

Boarding Restrictions

This is more so a first-world issue. Booking a basic economy ticket places you in dead last when boarding the plane (either in group 8 or 9). This is only a major issue if you are one of those people who REALLY want their hand-carry on the plane, but at the end of the day, if you check in early enough, 9/10 times you are given a seat so you are getting on the plane one way or another – so what is waiting a bit longer to get on?

Although this is a minor issue in the grand scheme as there are multiple ways that this can be circumvented if you hold the right status with a credit card or airline.

Change/ Cancellation Restrictions

One of the biggest restrictions is the inability to change, alter or upgrade your ticket what so ever. this rule is strictly enforced and there is no way around it.

There are no changes available for domestic flights and international flights are allowed but at a HEFTY fee.

Note you also won’t be eligible for same-day changes or standby’s.

Practical Tips to Survive Basic Economy

There are many ways to make your trip on basic economy more comfortable – some are pragmatic while others are aided by status or with the help of a credit card so it’s important to maximise the benefits on such a restrictive ticket.

Before Getting To The Airport

At The Airport

On The Flight

American Airlines Basic Economy vs Economy

At the end of the day, it is important to know the difference in what you get and evaluate it accordingly. Paying for Economy over Basic economy may make economical sense or if you require the flexibility of doing so.

Things to consider are:

Further Reading

American Airlines
Basic Economy: Reference Guide for Agency Partners
January 2017

If you want to learn more about the restrictions, the PDF has the original reference guide for travel agents and outlines several FAQ’s that would be faced by travel agents. Note some of the information is slightly outdated – such as no cabin luggage – but the general idea is there.

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