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Here’s a Comprehensive Overview of Basic Economy Fares* (They Suck.)

If you want to cheap it out, basic economy fares may be the wrong choice for that next adventure. That’s because there are extra fees for almost everything, from bringing carry-on bags to picking seats and possibly even breathing air.

Alaska, Delta, United and American have begun offering basic economy fares in addition to “standard economy” options in an effort to attract cost-conscious travelers. But when you break it down, the fees add up. If you really do want to save on your next trip, it’s important to know a couple things.

In a change from the initial basic economy offerings, United is now the only carrier that prohibits basic economy travelers from bringing a carry-on bag onboard, without a fee. United requires that all luggage fit under the seat in front of you, and if it doesn’t—well, guess what—there’s a checked bag fee. Passengers won’t be allowed to take that luggage on the plane; instead, the luggage will have to be checked. (No carrying on.)

United is the only one so far that doesn’t allow basic economy fares to count toward status.

Though Delta rolled out basic economy fares back in February 2015, United and American Airlines jumped on the bandwagon in February 2017 in an effort to compete with budget airlines, such as Spirit and Frontier. But for many, those airlines have been nearly indistinguishable from the rest for a long time.

There is, however, one important difference between the budget airlines and the legacy airlines: On Spirit and Frontier, certain changes can be made for a fee. On Alaska, Delta, United and American, you can’t make any changes to the ticket. Plus, United, Delta and American still only offer basic economy on select routes.1 

On the bright side, these airlines still offer food and beverages for basic economy passengers, as well as access to Wi-Fi on some flights.

Meanwhile, the middle ground ones airlines still offer standard economy. Southwest and JetBlue reportedly have both said they’re unlikely to add basic economy (though that seems to be changing), and Hawaiian has yet to make a move.

Here’s what to expect across the board for the (extreme) bottom of the barrel:

Airline Carry On Bag Checked Bag2 Award Miles Status Miles Assigned Seats3 Ticket Changes Standby4 Upgrades
American Airlines 5 50% 6
Frontier 7 8 9 10
Hawaiian 11 12
JetBlue 13 14
Southwest 15
Spirit 16 n/a 17 18 19 20
United 21
Virgin America 22 23 24

Bolded airlines are airlines offering basic economy fares. In all cases, we verified the information with a company representative or direct from the website.

24 footnotes

  1. There are reports United has rolled it out to every domestic route. For affected American routes, see this page.
  2. Airlines folllow the normal checked bag schedule.
  3. Can you choose for free?
  4. If yes, airlines folllow the normal standby fee schedule.
  5. In addition to the standard checked bag fee, there is an additional $25 fee if its checked at the gate. Yeah, you read that correctly.
  6. The fee for choosing ranges. American did not provide a clear response.
  7. There’s a $30-60 fee.
  8. The fee for choosing ranges between $6-$25.
  9. The fee is $99.
  10. The fee amount is unclear.
  11. Fees range from $30-$300.
  12. The fee starts at $50.
  13. Fees range from $75-150.
  14. The fee starts at $10.
  15. The fee ranges from $0-$50.
  16. There’s a $35-100 fee, depending on when it is decided.
  17. The fees for choosing start at $5.
  18. The fees is $125.
  19. The fee is $99; it’s not covered in our standby fee schedule.
  20. The fee starts at $12-199.
  21. There are reports that passengers can now pay a fee to select seats. The amount is unknown.
  22. The fee for choosing ranges between $10-$40.
  23. Fees range from $0-150.
  24. The fee starts at $39.

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