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What Is Basic Economy? An Airline-by-Airline Guide

Remember the race to the bottom the airlines took us on starting a few years ago?

You know, the trend we outlined here when JetBlue, horror of horrors, began charging for checked bags?

Well, with United and American introducing “Basic Economy” fares this month — a new class of service most easily explained as “you get a seat and that’s it” — we’ve made it. Welcome to the rock bottom!

With American rolling out its plan in February in 10 markets, and United getting under way soon after, this is coming our way rapidly. And not everyone is happy about it, with Congressmen Chuck Schumer and Al Franken both registering opposition, as well as USA Today.

Once discount airlines started charging for every possible “frill” (as if using the overhead bin above your own seat is a frill), and the larger airlines responded by “unbundling” their existing fare structures to compete, the current situation was inevitable. So rather than complain about what we should have all seen coming, let’s take a look at what the major airlines are actually offering in Basic Economy and how you might choose among them.

But first, here’s an example of how different things will be.

The Gate Check Trick Is Done

Ever since airlines started charging for checked luggage, many travelers have used the following trick to have their bags make it to the destination airport luggage carousel without incurring a charge. When the gate agent announces that the flight is full and overhead space will be limited, anyone who is willing to check their carry-on luggage may do so for free at the time of boarding.

The folks who take advantage of this offer all seem to have the largest carry-on luggage — bags similar to those that most of us already checked for $25 back at the check-in desks.

Some of the airlines’ upcoming changes will penalize these actics. For example, if you’re flying in American’s new Basic Economy class, which will permit no use of overhead bins at all, you will pay a $25 penalty (on top of the usual $25 checked bag fee) if you have to check your bag at the gate.

United has the same policy — $25 for the checked bag, plus an additional $25 service fee if you check the bag at the gate. In addition, United will restrict online check-in to those who buy fares that include a free carry-on or who pay to check bags during online check-in, reports Business Insider. Anyone who wants a “no bags at all” Basic Economy fare will have to check in at the airport — so you can’t get away with saying no bags, then showing up with bags.

The whole “gate check” phenomenon caused endless headaches and stink-eye glances between gate agents, flight attendants and travelers at boarding time, but despite the new fees it’s not clear this will end; the airlines have been hard-pressed to say exactly how they will enforce the overhead bin policies. For example, both American and United have stated that flight attendants will not be required to enforce the policies once onboard. Eek.

Okay, on to the airlines. Below are the current Basic Economy (or equivalent) fare classes on offer by the main U.S. airlines. Note that there are occasional exceptions to some of the restrictions for loyalty program members and/or airline credit card holders, so if you fall into one of those categories you should check the fine print on your carrier’s policy.

Alaska Airlines: No Basic Economy

Alaska Airlines is in the process of merging with Virgin America, and at present neither airline offers a version of Basic Economy. Alaska does, however, apply bonus miles at different levels based on multiple tiers between each class of service.

American Airlines Basic Economy

American went public with details of its upcoming Basic Economy class earlier this month. Here are the restrictions:

– Seat assigned by the airline at check-in
– No overhead bin use; you may bring only a personal item that can fit under a seat
– Standard checked bag fee, plus $25 if you try to check at gate
– Last boarding group
– Reduced qualification toward elite status, based on pricing

Delta Basic Economy

Delta was the first legacy carrier to introduce Basic Economy back in early 2015, and it’s a bit more generous than American’s and United’s, without the specific restrictions on carry-on luggage. The main rules are as follows:

– Seat assignment at check-in, with no option to choose online in advance
– Passengers traveling together, including families, might not be seated together
– No eligibility for same-day changes or ticket refunds after the standard 24-hour cancellation period
– Last boarding group
– No eligibility for paid or complimentary upgrades or preferred seats, despite loyalty program status

JetBlue: No Basic Economy

JetBlue offers no sub-Economy, “basic” level of service. Despite eliminating free checked bags and changing to a per-dollar points system a couple years ago, inspiring one travel expert to accuse the airline of defecting to the dark side, the airline offers policies that look downright generous these days. For now your carry-on and personal item are included in all fares.

Southwest: No Basic Economy

Southwest, which doesn’t offer Basic Economy fares, has always had a different approach to many of the components of air travel that are affected by these new offerings. Here are the key differences:

– Seating is not assigned but rather available on a first-come, first-served basis, depending on your boarding group
– Boarding order is determined by how early you check in (with options to pay for a higher boarding position)
– One carry-on bag and one personal item are included for all travelers

United Basic Economy

United‘s new Basic Economy will be rolling out in the next couple of months, apparently on a more widespread basis than with American. Restrictions include:

– Seat assigned at check-in
– No family or group seating
– No overhead bin use
– No upgrade eligibility
– The usual checked baggage fee, plus a $25 penalty for checking at the gate
– Redeemable award miles granted, but with significant restrictions
– Last boarding group

Discount Airlines: Basic Economy by Default

Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit are your primary discount domestic airlines, on which “basic economy” is more or less the default purchasing option. These airlines charge extra for pretty much everything, including:

– Checking in at the airport
– Paying for bags at the airport
– Carry-on bags that can’t fit under a seat
– Seating assignments
– Boarding priority
– You name it

Of course, the one silver lining of Basic Economy will be if these fares are actually lower — and stay lower — than current regular Economy fares. Not everyone is convinced, with discount airline pricing offering a case in point.

I’ve learned from experience that while the discount airlines have tantalizing base fares, by the time you add in most of the components of a typical (well, non-Basic) fare, the price gets pretty close to competing regular Economy fares on a major airline.

For example, a sample booking I did on Frontier will cost $9 each way to get a window or aisle seat in the back of the plane (only middle seats have no extra charge), a checked bag costs $30 each way and a carry-on bag is $35 each way. So to get anything but a middle seat near the back with no luggage, it will cost an extra $88 if I have a carry-on or $148 if I also have a checked bag (and those prices go up if paid at the airport).

And that, in a nutshell, is how things will work from here on out — welcome to the bottom!

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