Basic economy fares: Are the savings worth the hassle?

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Basic economy fares: Are the savings worth the hassle?
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Delta, American and United are in the process of either rolling out or expanding a low-cost fare called “basic economy” — as a way to compete with discount airlines like Spirit and Frontier.

When you search for a flight on Kayak, these fares will often have the lowest price. But there’s a catch.

Read more: The safest airlines to fly in 2017

What to know before you fly basic economy 

As Clark has explained on the radio show, basic economy fares take away a lot of the ‘frills’ that passengers of the major airlines have come to expect, like choosing a seat so you don’t get stuck in the middle. 

Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know before booking a basic economy ticket:

Delta (Select routes only)

  • No seat assignment until after check-in or at the gate.
  • Families may not be seated together.
  • No same-day changes or ticket refunds.
  • Board in the last zone.
  • No paid or complimentary upgrades or preferred seats.

American (Selects routes only) 

  • Seat assigned at check-in.
  • Not eligible for upgrades.
  • Tickets are non-refundable and cannot be changed.
  • Part of the last boarding group.
  • One personal item (18 x 14 x 8 inches) that fits under the seat.
  • No access to overhead bins.

Basic economy fares: Delta vs. United vs. American

Image credit: American Airlines

United (Select routes; coming soon)

  • Seat automatically assigned prior to boarding.
  • Group and family seating not available.
  • No flight changes and refunds.
  • Full-sized carry-on bags are not allowed for most passengers. 
  • One personal item (9 x 10 x 17 inches) allowed.

Read more: This is the only airline that offers free Wi-Fi at every seat

Carry-on restrictions 

If you’re planning to book a basic economy fare, Delta is the only one of the three airlines to allow a full-sized carry-on. If you book with American or United, you may want to buy a bag like the small one pictured below. 

There are carry-on bags designed specifically to fit under the seat and meet personal item size requirements. (You can find great deals on these at Costco!)

Basic economy fares: Delta vs. United vs. American

Read more: Use this packing trick to avoid a checked bag fee

Beverage and snack service included

When you read through the list of things that the airlines restrict for basic economy passengers, it begins to sound a lot like what you’d expect when you fly Spirit Airlines.

However, the major airlines won’t make you pay more for a soda or coffee! 

Delta, American and United all say that with basic economy you’ll receive the same beverage and snack service that other coach passengers get, plus in-flight entertainment options.

On the other hand, here’s what a drink will cost you on Spirit: 

Basic economy fares: Delta vs. United vs. American

Image credit: Spirit 

Delta basic economy vs. main cabin 

When you think about everything you’re giving up with a basic economy fare, including seat selection, are the savings really worth it? Maybe not.

We priced out five trips on Delta.com to see the difference: 

Atlanta to Los Angeles, 3/9/2017 to 3/13/2017

  • Basic economy: $303.40
  • Main cabin: $363.40
  • Savings: $60

Miami to New York, 3/9/2017 to 3/13/2017

  • Basic economy: $136.40
  • Main cabin: $156.40
  • Savings: $20

Atlanta to Cleveland, 3/9/2017 to 3/13/2017

  • Basic economy: $160.40
  • Main cabin: $190.40
  • Savings: $30

Minneapolis to New York, 3/9/2017 to 3/13/2017

  • Basic economy: $312.40
  • Main cabin: $337.40
  • Savings: $25

Los Angeles to Las Vegas, 3/9/2017 to 3/13/2017

  • Basic economy: $193.40  
  • Main cabin: $202.40  
  • Savings: $9

Read more: Follow these 5 rules before reclining your airplane seat

How to get the cheapest airfare

To get the lowest ticket price, Clark recommends starting with Kayak. After entering your to and from destinations, be sure to include nearby airports and flexible dates if possible. 

Remember, the results are likely to include these basic economy fares. 

This airline is shrinking the size of free carry-on bags

Next, go Google.com/flights and select the ‘track prices’ option for your desired trip. Switch it to ‘on’ and receive email updates when the price changes! 

This airline is shrinking the size of free carry-on bags

As a general rule, airfares tend to be the cheapest on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. You can save money by booking your ticket at least 21 days in advance.

Read more: TSA PreCheck vs. Global Entry vs. Clear: Which is best for you?

How to avoid a checked baggage fee

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Mike Timmermann About the author: Mike Timmermann
Michael Timmermann paid off his mortgage in two years. Now, he shares his money-saving tips on his blog, Save on Almost Everything.
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