Basic economy fares: Delta vs. American vs. United

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Delta, American and United are offering controversial low-cost fares called “basic economy” in select markets to take on the threat from discount airlines like Spirit and Frontier.

When you’re searching for a cheap flight online, these fares will often have the lowest price. But there’s a catch!

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Basic economy fares: Are the savings worth the hassle?

Basic economy fares take away a lot of the amenities that passengers of the three full-fare 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 Air Lines 

  • Full-sized carry-on bag and personal item are allowed
  • Seats will be assigned 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
Delta Air Lines
Delta Air Lines

American Airlines

  • One carry-on bag and personal item are allowed
  • Seats assigned at check-in
  • Fees to choose a specific seat
  • Not eligible for upgrades
  • No flight changes or refunds
  • Board in the last group
American Airlines
American Airlines

United Airlines 

  • No complimentary seat selection
  • Advance seat assignments available for purchase
  • No group or family seating
  • No full-sized carry-on bag
  • One personal item (9 x 10 x 17 inches) that fits under the seat
  • No refunds or flight changes
  • No Premier qualifying credit or lifetime miles
  • Last boarding group
United Airlines
United Airlines

Airline loyalty program and credit card members may be exempt from some basic economy restrictions. Read the fine print from Delta, American and United

Carry-on bag restrictions

Delta and American will allow a carry-on and personal item for basic economy passengers. However, if you book with United, you may want to buy a bag like the small one in the picture below.

There are carry-on bags designed specifically to fit under the seat and meet personal item size requirements.

Basic economy fares: Delta vs. United vs. American

Not following the carry-on rules will cost you! If a United passenger takes a full-sized carry-on bag to the gate, they’ll have to pay the checked bag fee plus a $25 gate handling charge.


In some cases, that extra fee alone can make the basic economy fare more expensive than a main cabin ticket!

Beverage and snack service included

After reading 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 a seat in the main cabin and free snacks, soft drinks and in-flight entertainment.

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

Spirit Airlines
Spirit Airlines

Clark’s bottom line 

When you think about everything you’re giving up with a basic economy fare, are the savings really worth it? Money expert Clark Howard says the answer is probably no.

“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.”

Basic economy fares were introduced because Delta, American and United need to compete with discount airlines in search results. To exclude basic economy from search results, download the Hopper app.

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