Basic economy is a restrictive airfare class that offers passengers the lowest ticket price available in exchange for giving up some of the standard amenities of an economy ticket. In most cases, a basic economy fare only covers the ticket itself and rarely includes amenities like advanced seat assignment, automatic upgrades, and checked luggage.
Passengers traveling on a basic economy fare are seated in the economy or coach cabin alongside customers who’ve purchased regular “main” economy tickets. However, basic economy passengers usually board last and either miss out on main economy benefits like advanced seat assignments and standard bag allowances or must pay extra fees if they want to receive them.
Different airlines refer to their basic economy fares by different names. Other names for basic economy include “Economy Light,” “Saver Fare,” “Economy Basic,” “Grab & Go,” and “Bare Fare.”
Generally speaking, flying basic economy is like a legacy airline’s version of a budget carrier experience (though some budget carriers do offer their own basic economy fare in addition to bundled packages).
Several amenities included in main economy fares are left out of the basic economy fare in order to cut costs, like advanced seat assignments, priority boarding, the ability to upgrade, and maximum luggage allowances, depending on the airline. These amenities are often offered a la carte during the booking process for separate added fees as opposed to being folded up into the single price of a main economy fare.
If you’re interested in purchasing a basic economy ticket, make sure to compare the amenities you might want to add to your basic economy fare to the price of upgrading to an amenity-inclusive main economy ticket before confirmation, as it can sometimes be cheaper to upgrade than to add extras a la carte. Also note that depending on the airline, some basic economy fares don’t allow for loyalty program mileage accrual, complimentary upgrades, or priority boarding no matter what status you hold.
Most basic economy tickets include one full-sized carry-on bag and one small personal item, though this policy differs depending on airline and route. Make sure to read up on your flight’s baggage allowance rules when booking a basic economy ticket so you know exactly what to expect and don’t get stuck checking your bag at the gate for an inflated fee.
For instance, on flights within North America, the Caribbean, and Central America, United limits basic economy passengers to a single personal item and no full-sized carry-ons unless you’re a MileagePlus Premier member or are a MileagePlus Premier member companion traveling on the same reservation. Customers flying basic economy on transatlantic routes enjoy the same baggage allowance as main economy passengers (one carry-on bag and one small personal item).
Advance seat selection—whether it’s allowed at booking or check-in, for free or for a fee—can vary widely by airline and route.
For example, American lets basic economy passengers select seats in advance for a fee (passengers traveling to Europe can select their seats at booking while those traveling within the US, Canada, Central America, Mexico or the Caribbean can choose their seats 48 hours before their flight). Otherwise, basic economy passengers get assigned seats at check-in. Sun Country allows Grab & Go passengers to add a reserved seat for an extra charge during the booking process, as do some basic economy fares on United. Alaska’s basic economy fares allow passengers to choose seats (from a limited selection) for free at booking, while Delta doesn’t allow any seat selection at booking, even for a fee. Instead, basic economy passengers can pay a fee to select a seat 7 days to 24 hours before the flight (varies by route) or else seats are assigned after check-in.
Basic fare tickets are typically non-refundable and ticket changes or cancellations are not allowed. If the airline does allow changes on basic economy reservations, it most likely comes with a hefty fee. As mentioned, basic economy fares aren’t eligible for complimentary upgrades no matter the passenger’s status and paid upgrades are also a rarity. Basic economy passengers with loyalty program memberships generally earn significantly fewer miles than main economy passengers, if they’re able to earn any miles at all. Finally, basic economy passengers are almost always the last fare class invited to board the plane.
Basic economy fares can represent a great value by allowing you to pay only for what you need. If you’re not worried about changes, upgrades, or mileage accruals, the main differences between basic economy and regular economy (in most cases) is whether or not you can check a bag for free and whether or not you can choose a seat for free at the time of booking. If advance seat selection and checked luggage are must-haves for you, compare the cost of upgrading to main economy vs. adding these amenities a la carte, as it may be cheaper (or the same price) to upgrade.
But, if you’re content to wait until close to departure to choose (or be assigned) a seat and you’re traveling light, basic economy can offer significant savings over main economy tickets.