Money expert Clark Howard is not a fan of Delta, American and United’s basic economy fares, yet I continue to book them anyway to save money on travel.
A basic economy fare may show up as the cheapest option when you’re searching Google Flights, but there’s a catch.
Basic economy vs. low-cost airlines comparison: What you need to know
Delta, American and United have placed so many restrictions on passengers with basic economy tickets. Travelers don’t get to pick a seat, can’t get a refund or make flight changes and may face additional baggage restrictions.
Sounds a lot like Spirit and Frontier, doesn’t it? Clark says basic economy fares were introduced in the first place to compete in search results with those low-cost carriers.
However, once a passenger clicks on the low fare, they see the list of restrictions and are offered a main cabin ticket.
“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.”
An argument for booking basic economy over low-cost airlines
Despite Clark’s warning, I’ve flown as a basic economy passenger on Delta a handful of times. It’s the least restrictive of the three full-fare airlines because the carrier allows a full-sized carry-on bag.
After American recently changed its policy, United is the only one that limits basic economy passengers to just a single personal item.
Baggage policies aside, there’s another reason why I prefer to book a basic economy ticket with one of the full-fare airlines over a low-cost carrier — and it’s something maybe you haven’t considered.
Think about this: When a flight is canceled for weather or mechanical issues, how will you get to your destination?
I remember standing in line to board a Spirit plane a few years ago when a gate agent said the flight was being canceled. Passengers could either rebook for the next day or get a refund.
I didn’t want to wait 24 hours, so I took the refund and got a last-minute flight with Southwest. Not cheap!
Since Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant don’t operate as many flights as the full-fare airlines, getting booked on the next available flight could still mean being stranded for a day or two.
On the other hand, the full-fare airlines may offer a dozen flights a day on some popular routes.
The bottom line is that Delta, American and United — along with mid-priced carriers like Southwest — are massive airlines that have enough resources in place to quickly bounce back when things go wrong.
This basic economy strategy can help you avoid travel nightmares
It may seem a bit extreme, but that one canceled Spirit flight changed the way I book travel forever. Let me explain…
When I reserve non-refundable mystery hotel deals through Hotwire or Priceline, I avoid flying Spirit or other low-cost carriers in case the flight is canceled and I can’t be rebooked quickly.
This is about risk. If a flight delay or cancellation will cost me a lot of money, I fly basic economy or on Southwest.
On the other hand, I don’t hesitate to book with low-cost airlines like Spirit when my travel itinerary is more flexible and I’m planning to stay with family or friends instead of paying for a hotel.
So far, my basic economy strategy has allowed me to travel more often on a tight budget. Why not give it a try?
Have you booked a basic economy fare with Delta, American or United? Let us know about your experience and how it compares to the low-cost airlines!