What Europeans Need to Know About the “Basic Economy” Fares Available in the U.S.

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I have recently been researching domestic flights in the United States, and have come across a concept that is relatively new to me: Basic Economy. In Europe, we have grown accustomed to “Basic”, “Lite” and other similarly-named fares that strip out many of the perks that used to differentiate between a low-cost carrier and a full-service one. The likes of British Airways, however, still manage to retain the fiction that they are “competing with the low-cost carriers” by offering frills-free fares (rather than the truth, which is to boost ancillary revenue). But ultimately these fare types work just fine if you travel with hand baggage only on a short 60-120 minute flight.

In the United States, the introduction of “Basic Economy” is a clear attempt by airlines to scare customers into spending more money by “buying up” to a regular, normal, boring Economy fare. (which, for the avoidance of doubt, still doesn’t include checked luggage or food) How else can you explain this?

You might even receive an email after booking that asks you whether you wish to reconsider your choice. I find it odd that airlines are reminding passengers of their right to cancel a paid booking within 24 hours, but I suppose the strategy must be resulting in more people paying extra than cancelling…

Anyhow, not only do the U.S. airlines charge for checked luggage, but now United Airlines and American Airlines want to prohibit you from bringing a full-sized carry-on when travelling on a Basic Economy fare (i.e. you are prohibited from using the overhead bins). They also make it clear that they do not intend to seat a group together! It’s no wonder that people pay the extra $20-50, or fly with a different airline. United Airlines even reported a reduction in revenue due to this policy… oops… (not that this is stopping them from bullheadedly continuing with it)

But what happens if you have status with British Airways Executive Club, or other shiny cards from a Star Alliance or SkyTeam airline? You might be unsure which rules are going to apply to you; after all, British Airways won’t let elites check a bag on Basic fares and they even attempted to deny seat selection to Gold members traveling on a Basic fare until the backlash forced them to bring it back.

Since I had to do the research for myself, I thought I’d share it with readers…

Seat Selection

In a European context, you might expect to pay for seat selection, or to receive it for free thanks to elite status.

With a Basic Economy fare in the U.S., forget it! You cannot make a seat selection in advance (a standard practice in the U.S. at no additional charge), nor can you change your mind later (after the 24-hour cooling-off period) and pay for seat selection and/or upgrade to a regular Economy fare.

If you check -in online 24 hours before your flight, American and Delta will allow you choose a seat. However, Oneworld Emerald and Sapphire passengers will still be barred from selecting a Main Cabin Extra seat (additional legroom seats) for free on American.

United will under no circumstances let you choose your own seat. Moreover, you might not even be assigned a seat at check-in, leaving you to wait anxiously at the gate to see whether a middle seat will come free (or whether you will be bumped to a later flight). At least without a seat assignment you can’t be dragged off the plane kicking and screaming like the now presumably very rich Dr. Dao…

Carry-on Baggage

As mentioned, both American and United prohibit Basic Economy passengers from using the overhead bins. If you nonetheless choose to bring a roll-aboard to the gate, you will be charged a $25 penalty, in addition to the standard checked luggage fee.

Delta Airlines still allows a roll-aboard on a Basic Economy fare.

Fortunately, this draconian restriction is waived by United Airlines for passengers with Star Alliance Gold status. The same waiver is provided by American Airlines for the benefit of those with Oneworld Emerald or Sapphire status (i.e. BA Gold or Silver)

Boarding Priority

All three airlines promise to allocate Basic Economy passengers to the last boarding group, which is usually enforced quite rigorously. This might not matter much, since such BE passengers are already prohibited from fighting over the overhead bin space!

This threat is waived by all three airlines for members with elite status (whatever normally gets you higher in the ranking). For Delta, status with Virgin Atlantic should work fine, but you can also take advantage of Crossover Rewards from Starwood Preferred Guest for SPG Platinum members.

Checked Luggage

Basic Economy fares obviously don’t provide a checked luggage allowance. But neither do the standard Economy fares in the United States, as free checked luggage is often offered as an incentive to tempt passengers into applying for a co-branded credit card.

This means that elite status passengers receive their usual one-extra-bag allowance, even when flying on a Basic Economy fare.

In this aspect a Basic Economy fare provides more than a British Airways “Basic” or Lufthansa “Lite” fare, where checked baggage is never provided for free, even to top elites.


American Airlines Basic Economy fares book into “B” class. You won’t earn ANY Avios or Tier Points from British Airways for this fare. Wheretocredit might give you ideas for alternative options. Even though both Wheretocredit and Iberia.com suggest that B class fares earn 100% Avios from Iberia Plus, I would be shocked if this was actually anything other than Iberia Plus being lazy with their website updates. But it’s obviously worth trying anyhow.

United Airlines Basic Economy fares book into “N” class. You won’t earn any miles from Miles & More, but you might get some miles from Turkish Miles & Smiles or a few other airlines – check wheretocredit yet again.

Delta Airlines Basic Economy fares book into “E” class. Your main options appear to be earning 50% of miles flown from Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, or 25% from Air France / KLM Flying Blue. Wheretocredit is yet again a great resource.

Cancellation / Change Policy

U.S. airlines and travellers have more of a “standby” mindset than their European equivalents. You go to the airport and you catch the next flight with an available seat. This might come with a charge or be offered for free to elite status passengers. This works both for airlines – an empty seat leaving now can never be sold, whilst an empty seat in three hours might be sold or useful for accommodating somebody who misses a connection – and passengers, who appreciate getting where they need to go faster.  British Airways has a similar “same-day change” policy and I wrote about it a few months ago.

Regular economy fares also come with change fees, allowing you to change the dates of your flights in exchange for a penalty fee.

With Basic Economy fares, neither is possible. This certainly wouldn’t matter much on a $50 leisure ticket that you might be willing to throw away. But the BE option is being offered on very expensive, cross-country fares as well. No changes, no refund on a $900 ticket? Now that should focus the mind…


This doesn’t really apply to Europeans travelling in the U.S. with status from an alliance partner. You won’t be on the upgrade list. (or in the case of Delta / SPG Crossover Rewards you’ll be right at the bottom of the list)

But even those Americans with elite status from the appropriate airline won’t be upgraded on a Basic Economy fare.

Reward Flights

If you are thinking of using Avios or some other mileage currency to book rewards flights within the United States, you can breathe a sigh of relief. These rewards are booked as standard Economy tickets so you don’t need to worry about the draconian restrictions of Basic Economy fares when using your miles.


Basic Economy fares are becoming more common in the United States. For those Europeans with elite status, Basic Economy might work just fine for a short flight – the main element lost is advance seat selection. For those Europeans without status, it is worth considering Alaska / Virgin America, JetBlue and Southwest, all airlines who are ignoring the Basic Economy trend and appear to be winning business as a result.



  1. Richard G says

    I was a bit concerned that the US leg of an upcoming trip I’m taking could end up as basic economy, but I’m assuming no main carrier (BA / Virgin / Whoever) is stupid enough to do that?

    • Craig Sowerby says

      Basic Economy has not yet made its way to international flights, so you are safe there. (Although AA are apparently considering a 2018 roll-out to compete with the Norwegians and Wows)

      Even a connecting flight after a long-haul should book into regular economy. You can confirm by checking the fare code of your flight ticket and making sure it’s not in one of “B”, “N” or “E” (depending on the airline)

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