Which U.S. Airline Offers the Best Basic Economy Experience?

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best basic economy experience

The Best Basic Economy Experience: A Comparison

It’s been a “race to the bottom” over the past few years as pretty much all carriers in the U.S. have introduced a basic economy product. JetBlue is the most recent airline to do so, introducing their “Blue Basic” fares. But not all basic economy is equal, and I want to highlight which airlines offer the best basic economy experience.

Why We’re In the Basic Economy Boat

The success of low cost carriers shows that the thing passengers still care about most is price. I can personally say that a $38 Spirit nonstop from Denver to Detroit appeals over the $78 Delta departure, even if it arrives at 12:45 AM. The major airlines have had to compete more fiercely, offering cheaper fares but cutting back the passenger experience.

Flying basic economy means you’ll lose things like:
  • Seat selection
  • Ability to change or cancel (even for a fee)
  • No carry-on bag
  • Early boarding privileges

While the general passenger might not care much about these things, basic economy hurts frequent flyers the most. Those with status no longer enjoy some of their benefits. But the difference in price may still be worth it, especially if you’re flying an airline that offers one of the best basic economy experiences, if there is such a thing. Let’s take a look at each.

Delta Basic Economy

Delta was the first major carrier (I think) to roll out basic economy. They’re also the first carrier to start implementing basic economy award tickets. I’m not a fan of the latter, but Delta’s basic economy isn’t all that bad.

Here are the ways Delta basic economy differs from their Main Cabin tickets:

  • Ticket changes and refunds not allowed after booking (you still have 24 hours to cancel)
  • No seat selection. Seat assignment after check-in
  • No complimentary upgrades
  • Last to board

With Delta basic economy, checked baggage fees are no different than Main Cabin or Comfort+ tickets. You can still bring a carry-on on board for free. Your ticket also accrues Medallion Qualifying Miles and Medallion Qualifying Dollars like any other ticket.

The difference between Delta Basic Economy and Main Cabin honestly aren’t all that substantial. If you don’t care about upgrades or the seat you’re assigned, it may be worth saving the money over Main Cabin. I find that Basic Economy is typically ~$35 cheaper each way, at least for coast-to-coast tickets.

United’s Crappy Basic Economy

United has offered basic economy tickets since early 2017, launching these fares around the same time as American. They’ve expanded to pretty much all routes and to international long-haul as well. Like other carrier’s basic economy, fares are non-refundable and non-changeable.

Overall, United basic economy is the most restrictive. Unlike Delta, they do not let you bring a carry-on bag for free on domestic routes. You only get a personal item that must fit underneath the seat in front of you. The only ways to sidestep this is to have a co-branded United card, be a Premier member, or be a Star Alliance Gold member.

You also board last and receive no Premier Qualifying Flight credit, which is dumb, considering that in their roll-out of Premier qualification changes, United states “a flight is a flight”.

The most annoying aspect of United basic economy is that you must check-in at the airport unless you indicate you’re checking a bag. This is likely to prevent you from showing up at the gate with a carry-on you intend to take on board. Frustrating, to say the least.

Here are the ways United basic economy differs from their standard economy tickets:
  • Ticket changes and refunds not allowed after booking (you still have 24 hours to cancel)
  • No carry-on bag on domestic flights (unless you qualify as stated above)
  • No seat selection. Seat assignment after check-in.
  • Must check-in at the airport unless you’re checking a bag
  • No complimentary upgrades
  • Last to board
  • No Premier Qualifying Flight (PQF) credit

An interesting play here if you fly United some, but not all that often, is to try to qualify for Star Alliance Gold with another program. This will let you enjoy a checked bag, carry-on bag, earlier boarding, and even United Club access. You’ll still forfeit seat selection and economy plus access flying United basic economy, which I know is still huge for some folks.

American Basic Economy

American Airlines has also offered basic economy for a few years, following the lead of both Delta and United. They rolled out a very restrictive product, but then walked back a bit. It became clear that the “no carry-on bag” restriction was losing them money. United has still held to this, however, which surprises me.

American’s basic economy is also non-refundable and non-changeable, like that of Delta and United. Elite members and co-branded cardholders keep boarding and checked bag benefits.

You do get a carry-on bag, but like other basic economy, you forfeit the ability to select a seat ahead of time. You can also buy a seat ahead of time on North America flights, but only within 7 days of departure. On other international tickets, you can pay for a seat anytime.

American is clear that they will seat children under 15 next to at least one adult. This may not mean that everyone is together. But they will accommodate families at time of check-in.

You also see reduced elite earnings with American Airlines basic economy. Elite Qualifying Dollars are the same (as they are based on ticket price), but Elite Qualifying Segments and Elite Qualifying Miles credit cat 50% of the standard rate.

Here are the ways American basic economy differs from their Main Cabin tickets:

  • Ticket changes and refunds not allowed after booking (you still have 24 hours to cancel)
  • No seat selection. Seat assignment after check-in
  • No complimentary upgrades
  • 50% EQM and EQS credit
  • Last to board (boarding group 9)

The one thing that makes me open to booking American basic economy is the commitment to keeping kids with parents.

best basic economy experience

The Alaska Basic Economy Experience

Alaska calls their basic economy “Saver” fares, and they are typically priced a bit under their standard Main Cabin offering. Alaska basic economy mirrors most of the same restrictions as the other carriers, with a few notable differences.

Like other basic economy, Alaska Saver fares are neither changeable nor refundable after the initial 24-hour window. Elites do not enjoy standby nor same-day changes, nor do they receive preferred seating or upgrade benefits. Elites do receive baggage benefits and bonus miles.

One of the main ways Alaska basic economy differs from other carriers’ products is that you do have the ability to select seats. Well, you might. The options are limited, and they may fill up. This may still make Alaska the best basic economy experience among the major carriers, as you might be able to seat your party all together.

I pulled up a potential flight to Boston, and for parties of two, there were some seat choices. You’ll have to suffer near the bathrooms, but hey, you can at least sit together.

best basic economy experience

The other cool thing about Saver fares is that Alaska doesn’t reduce the mileage earnings at all, which is nice, especially for longer flights often available for just $99 on select dates, like San Francisco to Boston. You’ll earn ~2,700 Mileage Plan miles flying this one-way, which I value at ~$50. This is an excellent return on a $98.30 flight.

Here are the ways Alaska basic economy differs from their Main Cabin tickets:

  • Ticket changes and refunds not allowed after booking (you still have 24 hours to cancel)
  • Limited seat selection. It’s possible you don’t get to select seats.
  • No complimentary upgrade benefits for elites
  • Last to board

You do get a carry-on bag with Alaska, which is nice. I see little downside to booking Alaska basic economy.

miles to memories recap

JetBlue “Blue Basic” Economy

JetBlue is the most recent of U.S. carriers to introduce a basic economy fare, dubbed “Blue Basic”. It’s a stripped down version of their “Blue” fare, which is JetBlue’s standard economy experience.

With Blue Basic fares, you’re missing several items. They do let you bring a cabin bag, but you’ll have to pay for seat selection if you want to pick a seat before the check-in window. You also board last, and essentially all Mosaic benefits (if you hold JetBlue’s status) are forfeited.

You’ll also earn just 1 TruBlue point per dollar spent, as opposed to the 3 points per dollar with the Blue fare.

Here are all the ways “Blue Basic” differs from a Blue ticket:

  • Ticket changes and refunds not allowed after booking (you still have 24 hours to cancel)
  • No advance seat selection (without paying a fee)
  • No complimentary upgrade benefits for Mosaic elites
  • Just 1 TruBlue point per dollar earned
  • No same-day changes or stand-by for Mosaic elites
  • Last to board

In general, I’d be willing to fly JetBlue basic economy, given the other superior aspects of the product. I would shy away as a family. The Blue Basic fares hurt Mosaic members the most, who lose most of their best perks if they book JetBlue’s basic economy experience.

best basic economy experience

Which is the Best Basic Economy Experience? Here’s the Verdict:

Based on what each airline offers, I can definitely say that United offers the worst basic economy experience. Not being able to bring a carry-on bag without paying a fee is a huge turn off. I was able to sidestep this as a Premier Silver member this year, but that won’t be possible moving forward in 2020, as I lose the status.

The carrier that offers the best basic economy experience across the board is Alaska Airlines. With the potential to select seats (if available), a free cabin bag, and no reduction to mileage earning or credit toward MVP status, there isn’t much of a downside to booking a ticket you know you’re going to fly.

I may be slightly biased due to my love for the carrier, but I think that Delta offers the next best basic economy experience. Between having access to overhead bin space and full Medallion Qualifying Miles accrual, you’re really only losing seat selection and must board last. Traveling solo, I could easily live with that. It does hurt a bit more as an elite, as you lose the potential for upgrades.

Conclusion

I’m not necessarily a fan of basic economy, but I understand why the full-service carriers are offering it. In some cases, they offer an experience on par with low cost carriers, and for roughly the same price. In other cases, there’s not much of a downside to booking the fares, depending on the carrier and benefits you have as an elite or co-branded cardholder.

The upside of booking with a major carrier is that you have a greater number of flights and more robust route network in case things go wrong. This is the main reason I would opt for a full-service basic economy experience over Frontier or Spirit. I know Delta will take care of me during irrops.

I’ve flown basic economy with only Delta and United, and neither was a bad experience. Just know what you’re getting into. The best basic economy experience is on par with any other standard main cabin experience.

Ian Snyder
After igniting his passion for award travel while planning his honeymoon, Ian now enjoys using points and miles to see the world with his wife and three internationally adopted kiddos. He loves dissecting loyalty programs to find maximum value. His goal is to demonstrate that extraordinary travel is possible for the ordinary family.

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33 COMMENTS

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33 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve flown Basic Economy on all three legacy carriers (Delta, United and American) and I have the $99 annual fee co-branded cards from all three. For all three, if you have the co-branded cards you still receive the same boarding groups as regular economy (Delta-Main1, United-Group 2, American-Group 5). United and American auto assign seats at check-in. United and American gives me a window seat (my preference) when available, otherwise, it’s a middle seat. Delta allows me to select my seat for the first leg (both times a window seat was available) but unassigns the second leg which is assigned when you visit the second leg gate.

    • I hadn’t run across the “unassigned” issue until I headed to the airport with a friend yesterday (different trips, different flights for us) and his tickets came out exactly like this. So odd.

  2. Although Delta BE is listed as one of the best, I’ve always discovered that Delta is one of the highest airlines. Their tickets are always way more expensive than anyone else so I guess that’s why I don’t even consider looking at their BE tickets.

    • Delta fares do generally command a bit of a premium, and sometimes their basic economy is comparable to other carriers “normal” economy.

  3. Should have gone a step further and compared the major carriers’ basic economy product to the ULCCs, which are 100% “basic” economy.

  4. You briefly mentioned this in the intro but didn’t go into detail. If you are elite (at least on AA and DL which I’m most familiar with) you can still check a bag free and also board with your group based on priority (not at the end with the regular basic economy people). This ensures, at least for those of us with lifetime at least mid-grade status, we can always find a place for our carry on bag. Also, if you are an Amex card holder with their airline credit the seat fee for basic economy counts against that fee. I have a hard time using the fee since I’m elite and don’t usually get charged fees so this is a good way to use it. Out of CLT I find great BE fares on AA (most recently $94 r/t to Las Vegas). Outside of a chance at upgrade (good luck on that flight even for Executive Platinum members) there is really no change for BE. I book it, buy an aisle seat (or even main cabin extra) 7 days out (which is reimbursed by Amex) and board in group 2 as always.

    • Nice. If I see us booking more basic economy, I might go with this strategy for reimbursing the seat fee. Hadn’t thought of that angle, and it prevents you from getting stuck in a middle.

  5. W Delta skymiles select for $59 you get upgraded to zone 1 for entire year – even in basic economy. Pays for itself plus get 8 free drinks.

    • That sounds like an excellent deal if you fly enough to make it worth it, yet not enough to really hit Silver status or so.

  6. @Mike
    The goal of basic economy is to make airlines more money. Remember that basic economy fares are not new cheaper fares – they are simply what previously used to be the cheapest fare with all the benefits. By taking away the benefits from those cheap fares the airlines are hoping that people will book the more expensive fares.

  7. I don’t get how basic economy is saving the airlines money. For the last 10 years most flights have flown full. So charging less and giving less benefits does not make more money for the airlines.

    • It was a re-price more than a price cut. Basic E was pegged at the old economy price, and standard E is now more. Basically an incentive for people to book a more expensive fare.

  8. I have 3 young kids. Did I understand correct that American is the only carrier that will seat us all together if we book basic economy?

    Thanks

    • That’s my understanding based on what they have published. Flying solo parent style with three kids, they should keep them all close to you. With your spouse, they may split you up, with some next to you, others next to her.

  9. I live in Snohomish Co, WA and nothing has improved the quality of life around here than the opening of the new PAE Paine field Everett WA Airport. So far there are only 24 departures per day, but if you’re going to San Fran, Portland, San Diego, Phoenix, Las Vegas Los Angeles or Orange Co. no more setting aside 2 hours To fight your way through the nightmare that is Seattle traffic to Sea-Tac. The only airlines servicing this Airport are Alaska and United, initially SouthWest had been onboard but relinquished their flights to Alaska. I fly to SFO frequently and while I have been a long time Alaska customer, United has the better flights to SFO. So, at least until the FAA authorizes more flights from this new airport I am going to be forced to do business with United, and Just for that reason have obtained a United credit card. We will see how things go with United.

    • As with any airline things can be mixed depending on the day, etc. but if a flight and airline saves you time and makes your life easier than that is the flight/airline to go with! I hope United treats you well.

  10. @A – Great experience in UA BE? How so? Just curious as I haven’t flown them BE but they seem to be the most restrictive.

  11. I say it depends on your needs. Granted I have never flown basic economy but I fly a lot. From my experience what I have seen delta offers the best experience. I say that as I have seen gate agents etc go out of their way to seat people on an aisle or window even if it is towards the back. They also seem to treat people like an actual person. I fly AA and I Would absolutely never fly them BE unless flying an embraer as you’re almost guaranteed a middle seat. They frankly just don’t GAF. Now I’m sure there are some AAngels where others have had a nice experience but I’m speaking across the board. And I agree UA is just a cluster F across the board so no surprise their BE is just slightly below their standard experience.

    • Interesting. Even though I love Delta and their service, their planes fly so full that I’d be more worried booking basic economy with them, unless on a regional jet as you describe.

  12. From my experience, I prefer Jetblue basic economy the most for the simple fact that I can still select my seat (fee varies but for my flights they tend to be $10-$15).

  13. I ask myself this question often for flights from the US to Asia and Europe. I’m 6’2″ and really can’t take an 8 to 15-hour non-stop flight, so I upgrade to business. If any flight, international or domestic is over 90 minutes, I opt for business. But like brick and mortar stores, it all boil down to $$$$/sq. ft. of space.

    First class seats are disappearing on many long-haul flights, where we see only business, premium econ. and econ. With the advent of basic economy how soon will it be before we see “Pole Economy”, where one is essentially standing the entire flight and strapped to a pole? We’ll then have 3-class service; premium economy, basic economy, and pole economy……$$$$$

  14. Completely disagree. I’ve had great experiences with United in basic economy. Alaska is by far the worst. They purposefully put you in the worst possible seats and will not allow you to buy up to normal seats excluding their comfort seats which are usually over $100 per person each way for my routes. I can get Economy plus for $50 or less on United on basic economy fares and free checked bag with their credit card and priority boarding. AS is purposefully mean to anyone who books their basic dares. I’m disgusted that I’m more or less captive to AS and usually will take a connection on UA to avoid their terrible basic fares. And I refuse to pay AS a dime more than I should.

    • AS is best BE “Saver” product hands down…………. including full mileage credit!! I fly 1-2 times a week on AS and I’ve NEVER seen any overtly rude or mean actions towards BE passengers, that load last. Good, I hope you fly UA more and enjoy your BE seat, graded the worst!! You deserve it…… :-/

    • Well, I guess that is the other side of the coin. AS lets you pick seats, but they are at the back. And you’re right that you can’t buy up into anything else.

      My understanding is that Alaska would still give you a free bag with their card, though. Surprised if that is not the case.

  15. Good summary.
    AFAIK JetBlue does not provide complimentary upgrades to Mosaic members so “No complimentary upgrade benefits for Mosaic elites“ isn’t really any different than with a regular fare.

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