Travel alert: Clark Howard warns about American, Delta and United’s cheap fares

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When you’re on the lookout for a cheap flight, there’s a relatively new type of fare that may seem too good to be true.

American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines have recently introduced or expanded “basic economy” fares to compete in search results with discount airlines like Spirit and Frontier.

Basic economy is marketed by the full-fare airlines as a way for budget travelers to save money, but sometimes they’re actually spending more.

RELATED: Use this packing trick to avoid a checked bag fee

Basic economy warning: What you need to know before you book with American, Delta or United 

Like economy or coach class, rock-bottom basic economy tickets offer a seat in the main cabin and free snacks, soft drinks and in-flight entertainment. However, basic economy passengers may face restrictions like these:

  • No full-sized carry-on bag
  • No advance seat assignment
  • No ticket changes or upgrades
  • Last boarding group 

Airline loyalty program and credit card members may be exempt from some basic economy restrictions.

It’s those baggage rules that are catching some travelers by surprise. Delta’s basic economy allows for one carry-on bag and one personal item at no additional charge, but United is far more restrictive.

United Airlines: No full-sized carry-on bags permitted; one personal item that fits under the seat in front of you is allowed

American changed its policy in September 2018 and now allows a free carry-on in addition to a personal item to all destinations.

Here’s where basic economy can get expensive. If a United passenger takes a full-sized carry-on bag to the gate, they’ll have to pay a checked bag fee plus a $25 gate handling charge.

Money expert Clark Howard says those extra fees make basic economy a bad deal for many passengers.


“American, United and Delta have come up with something to try to make flying as miserable as they possibly could — called basic economy. They’ve been bragging to Wall Street that when people get burned by basic economy, the next time they go to book a flight they may click on that airline because they see a low fare and then they sell them up to a higher one.”

RELATED: Basic economy fares: Delta vs. American vs. United

Here’s an example… 

Take a look at an example of how this game is played. Team Clark went to Google Flights and searched for a round-trip flight from Atlanta to Chicago. Delta’s cheapest fare was $5 lower than Spirit.

Google Flights
Google Flights

When we selected the Delta flight, the next page indicated that this was a basic economy fare. Other travel websites like Kayak and Expedia also now clearly identify basic economy tickets.

Google Flights
Google Flights

Once we clicked through to Delta’s website, a pop-up displayed everything that people hate about basic economy. Delta offered to upgrade to the main cabin fare for an additional fee of $20 each way.


Clark’s key takeaway

That brings us back to Clark’s main point. The full-fare airlines really don’t want you to book a basic economy fare! They’re offered to keep deal-seeking travelers from going to the discount airlines when searching for cheap tickets.

Excluding basic economy flights from search results isn’t an option with most online tools, but the Hopper app will filter them out.

“Pay close attention to this any time you’re doing a fare search and you’re looking at one of the three full-fare airlines. The cheap fare you see is a gotcha,” Clark says.

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