Travel Tips

The Complete Guide to Basic Economy on International Flights from the US

By 
Scott Keyes
Co-Founder & CEO
12 min read
Last Updated 
April 10, 2019
complete guide to basic economy

With a growing number of fare options available on international flights, it can be hard to determine what’s the best deal—and which option, ultimately, is best for you. If you’re a frugal traveler who doesn’t need perks, basic economy might be all you need on your international flight. You’ll sacrifice some basic amenities, though, so it’s important to weigh the pros and cons before you pull the trigger.

Here, we break down everything you need to know about basic economy on international flights from the US.

What is basic economy?

Basic economy, also called light or saver economy, is a restrictive class of fares that offers maximum savings to customers in exchange for a no-frills travel experience. You’ll sit in the same economy section of the plane as travelers who’ve purchased “main” economy seats, but you’ll miss out on a few benefits (or pay extra for them).

For example, most regular economy fares include early seat selection and allow for flight changes (for a fee), but basic economy fares typically don’t follow those rules. Basic economy often doesn’t allow for upgrades or frequent flyer mile accrual, either.

While it’s always important to read the fine print before you book a ticket, it’s even more so with basic economy as what’s included—and not—can vary widely by airline and route.  

Basic economy first began as a pushback by major airlines against the eye-catching ticket prices of ultra-low-cost carriers like Spirit Airlines, Allegiant, Norwegian, Frontier and the now-defunct WOW Air. In 2012, Delta became the first major US carrier to introduce basic economy to travelers looking to save money on its North American flights, then it expanded that fare class in 2018 to include transatlantic flights, as well. American and United both followed suit, adding their own version of basic economy to international flights in 2018, too.

Basic economy, in some form or another, can now be found on almost every major US carrier and shows no signs of going away.

Crucial to note is that basic economy is not the same on every airline—in other words, they don’t all refer to this fare class by the same name—so check the airline’s website to figure out which is which. TAP Air Portugal, for example, has a basic economy fare that includes carry-on and checked bag but also offers a discount basic economy fare that only includes a lighter, smaller carry-on.

Which international flights have basic economy as an option?

Basic economy is usually found on longer-haul flights: it’s generally offered on flights to Europe and the Caribbean and Central America. On flights to some destinations, however, like South America, Asia, and Africa, only main (regular economy), premium or comfort, and business and/or first class are offered. Basic economy is also available on a majority of flights within the US.

Are carry-ons allowed with basic economy?

Most basic economy tickets include a carry-on bag; however, some routes on United only include a personal item and no full-size carry-on unless you’re a MileagePlus Premier member or companion on the same reservation. These routes tend to be within North America (including flights to Hawaii or Alaska from other states), the Caribbean and Central America. Transatlantic basic economy fares are the same as regular economy on United and include a carry-on bag.

What should I know before I book basic economy?

Advance seat assignments are not included in basic economy, though many (but not all) airlines allow basic economy passengers to choose a seat at check-in. Ticket changes or refunds are not allowed, and basic economy travelers will not be allowed paid or complimentary upgrades to premium seats.

Pay attention to the details of what's included, especially the size and weight of carry-on bags. Some only include a small personal item or have lower weight limits on your carry-on than main economy. You’ll want to compare the cost of adding the bag to the cost of upgrading to main economy before booking. Sometimes the difference is minimal, or it might even be cheaper to upgrade than to pay for your bags a la carte.

I booked basic economy, but I would love to pre-select my seats...

This part can be tricky. In general, the answer is no. Some carriers allow basic economy passengers to pre-select seats for an additional fee while others, such as Alaska’s new “saver” fare, have a limited number of seats at the back of the plane you are able to reserve ahead of time on most routes. For most airlines, you won’t be able to select your seats until check-in, and often, they are assigned to you.

I booked basic economy but still have a checked bag, what do I do?

You can still check a bag with a basic economy ticket; however, it will cost you, and the total depends on your destination and airline. The checked-bag cost associated with basic economy is typically the same as the cost to check a bag in main economy: around $60 USD to Europe for a first bag and $100 for a second, and $30 for a first bag and $40 for a second for most of the Caribbean and Central America.

Once you have booked your flight, you sometimes can use your airline confirmation code to pre-pay for a bag on the airline’s website for a small savings. If the airline does not let you pre-pay online, you will be able to pay for your bags during online check-in or at the airport.

Pro tip: If you have a credit card with an airline, you are often entitled to one free checked bag. On some airlines, you’ll have to use the airline credit card to buy the tickets to get the perk, while on others the perk is tied to your frequent flyer number and you can pay for the ticket however you like and still get the free checked bag.

checked luggage on the carousel

What is included in basic economy?

Most airlines have similar offerings when it comes to basic economy, but there are some differences so here’s a rundown of the major carries so you know exactly what to expect. We still recommend checking the airline’s fare class restrictions before booking or traveling.

Aer Lingus

  • Carry-on bags: Basic economy (or “Saver Fare”) on Aer Lingus includes a personal item and a full-size carry-on that must be 10 kilograms (22 pounds) or less.
  • Seats: Basic economy does not include a seat assignment.
  • Food: Snacks, beverages and an on-board meal are included in the flight.
  • Checked bags: A checked bag on Aer Lingus is $45-$60 each way.

Air Canada

  • Carry-on bags: Basic economy on Air Canada includes a personal item and a full-size carry-on with no maximum weight.
  • Seats: Basic economy does not include early seat assignment.
  • Food: When you travel on a direct international flight that includes a stop in a Canadian city, you will be offered a complimentary snack and a complimentary meal item on the domestic portion of your flight. On flights to Europe, Canada, the Caribbean, and Latin America, an onboard meal, snacks and drinks are available for purchase
  • Checked bags: On flights to Europe, a checked bag costs $60 each way.  On flights to Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America, a checked bag costs $30 each way.

Air France

  • Carry-on bags: Basic economy on Air France is called “Light Fare” and includes a personal item and a full-size carry-on that must be 12 kilograms (26.5 pounds) or less.
  • Seats: Light Fare allows you to select your seat at check-in.
  • Food: Snacks, beverages and an on-board meal are included in the flight.
  • Checked bags: A checked bag on Air France is $60 each way.

Air Italy

  • Carry-on bags: Basic economy on Air Italy includes a personal item and a full-size carry-on that must be 8 kilograms (17.6 pounds) or less.
  • Seats: Basic economy does not include a seat assignment.
  • Food: Snacks, beverages and an on-board meal are included in the flight.
  • Checked bags: A checked bag on Air Italy is $50 each way.

Alaska Airlines

  • Carry-on bags: Basic economy on Alaska Airlines is called “Saver” and includes a personal item and a full-size carry-on with no maximum weight.
  • Seats: Saver does include a seat assignment, though your seat will always be in the back of the plane with this fare class.
  • Food: Meals are available for purchase depending on the trip length.
  • Checked bags: A checked bag on all Alaska Airlines flights is $30 each way.

American Airlines

  • Carry-on bags: Basic economy on American Airlines includes a personal item and a full-size carry on with no maximum weight.
  • Seats: Basic economy does not include early seat assignment.
  • Food: On flights to Europe, an onboard meal and drinks are included. On flights to Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America, there is no meal, but drinks are served.
  • Checked bags: On flights to Europe, a checked bag is $60 each way. On flights to Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America, a checked bag costs $30 each way.

British Airways

  • Carry-on bags: Basic economy on British Airways includes a personal item and a full-size carry-on that must be 23 kilograms (50.7 pounds) or less.
  • Seats: Basic economy does not include a seat assignment.
  • Food: Snacks, beverages and an on-board meal are included in the flight.
  • Checked bags: A checked bag on British Airways is $55 each way.

Delta Air Lines

  • Carry-on bags: Basic economy on Delta includes a personal item and a full-size carry on with no maximum weight.
  • Seats: Basic economy does not include early seat assignment.
  • Food: On flights to Europe and North Africa, an onboard meal and drinks are included. On flights to Canada, the Caribbean, Mexico, Colombia, and Central America, there is no meal, but drinks are served.
  • Checked bags: On flights to Europe and North Africa, a checked bag is $60 each way. On flights to Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America, a checked bag costs $30 each way.

Finnair

  • Carry-on bags: Basic economy (or “Economy Light”) on Finnair includes a personal item and a carry-on that combined must be 8 kilograms (17.5 pounds) or less.
  • Seats: Basic economy does not include a seat assignment.
  • Food: Snacks, beverages and an on-board meal are included in the flight.
  • Checked bags: A checked bag on Finnair is $55 each way.

Hawaiian Airlines

Hawaiian will be rolling out basic economy this year.

  • Carry-on bags: Basic economy will include a personal item and a full-size carry on with no maximum weight.
  • Seats: Basic economy does not include early seat assignment.
  • Checked bags: On flights to and from Hawaii, a checked bag costs $55 each way.

Icelandair

  • Carry-on bags: Basic economy (or “Economy Light”) on Icelandair includes a personal item and a full-size carry-on that must be 10 kilograms (22 pounds) or less.
  • Seats: Basic economy does include the ability to pre-select seats.
  • Food: Beverages are included in the flight, and meals are available for purchase.
  • Checked bags: A checked bag on Icelandair is $55 each way.

Iberia

  • Carry-on bags: Basic economy (or “Basic Fare”) on Iberia includes a personal item and a full-size carry-on with no weight restrictions.
  • Seats: Basic economy does not include a seat assignment.
  • Food: Snacks, beverages and an on-board meal are included in the flight.
  • Checked bags: A checked bag on Iberia is $55 each way.

KLM

  • Carry-on bags: Basic economy (or “Light Fare”) on KLM includes a personal item and a full-size carry-on that together must be 12 kilograms (26 pounds) or less.
  • Seats: Basic economy does not include a seat assignment.
  • Food: Snacks, beverages and an on-board meal are included in the flight.
  • Checked bags: A checked bag on KLM is $60 each way.

Lufthansa

  • Carry-on bags: Basic economy (or “Economy Light”) on Lufthansa includes a personal item and a full-size carry-on bag that must be 8 kilograms (17.6 pounds) or less.
  • Seats: Basic economy does not include a seat assignment, though a preferred seat can be booked up to 48 hours before departure.
  • Food: Snacks and beverages are included in the flight.
  • Checked bags: A checked bag on Lufthansa is $60 each way.

SAS

  • Carry-on bags: Basic economy (or “SAS Go Light”) on SAS includes a personal item and a full-size carry-on bag that must be 8 kilograms (17.6 pounds) or less.
  • Seats: Basic economy does include the ability to choose a seat for free when you book.
  • Food: Snacks and non-alcoholic beverages are included in the flight.
  • Checked bags: A checked bag on SAS is $40-$65 each way. You’ll save money if you pay for your bags more than 22 hours before departure.

SWISS

  • Carry-on bags: Basic economy (or “Economy Light”) on Swiss includes a personal item and a full-size carry-on bag that must be 8 kilograms (17.6 pounds) or less.
  • Seats: Basic economy does not include a seat assignment, though a preferred seat can be booked up to 48 hours before departure for a fee of $12 to $40, depending on the leg.
  • Food: Snacks and beverages are included in the flight.
  • Checked bags: A checked bag on Swiss is $16-$60 each way; you’ll save money if you pay for your bag online before arriving at the airport.

TAP Air Portugal

  • Carry-on bags: Basic economy (or “Discount”) on TAP includes a personal item and a carry-on bag that must be 8 kilograms (17.6 pounds) or less.
  • Seats: Basic economy does not include a seat assignment, though a preferred seat can be booked up to 48 hours before departure.
  • Food: Snacks and beverages are included in the flight.
  • Checked bags: A checked bag on TAP is $70 each way.

United Airlines

  • Carry-on bags: Basic economy on United Airlines includes a personal item and a full-size carry on with no maximum weight on flights to Europe; on flights to Canada, the Caribbean, and Latin America, basic economy includes only a personal item.
  • Seats: Basic economy does not include early seat assignment, though you can pay $5 to $10 within 48 hours of departure to select your seat.
  • Food: On flights to Europe, onboard meals and drinks are included.  On flights to Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America, there is no meal, but drinks are served.
  • Checked bags: On flights to Europe, a checked bag is $60 each way.  On flights to Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America, a checked bag costs $30 each way.

Virgin Atlantic

  • Carry-on bags: Basic economy (or “Economy Light”) on Virgin Atlantic includes a personal item and a full-size carry-on bag.
  • Seats: Basic economy allows you to select your standard seat at check-in.
  • Food: Snacks, an on-board meal and beverages are included in the flight.
  • Checked bags: A checked bag on Virgin Atlantic is $60 each way.

What about full or regular economy flights—does Scott’s Cheap Flights still send those?

Yes, Scott’s Cheap Flights still searches and sends out full economy flights. For deals where basic economy is the lowest price, regular economy is always still available for a little bit more—and we’re always explicit about what fees you’ll pay for seats and luggage if you do opt to go with the basic economy fare. If basic economy is not right for you, you can simply choose main economy when selecting your flight on Google Flights or your preferred flight search engine or OTA.

Additionally, most flights to Asia, the South Pacific, South America, Africa and occasionally Eastern Europe remain regular economy.

Can I upgrade from basic economy to main economy. If so, how?

In most cases, yes, but you need to do it at the time of booking; most airlines won't let you upgrade from basic economy after the flight is ticketed. For many routes, Google Flights offers an easy way to do so. After selecting your flights, you may see this “Basic Economy” drop-down box, which will then show you how much it costs extra for round-trip in regular economy.

google flights shows the class of fare when booking


After clicking the drop-down bar, you can select the economy fare and the Google Flights checkout page will update accordingly.


google flights offers upgrades from basic economy to economy


Oftentimes, the airline’s website will also have a pop-up or ad prompting you to upgrade to regular economy. It's always a good idea to check how much the upgrade is if you know that you will be traveling with checked bags. In some cases, an upgrade to main cabin can be equal to or less than the cost of a single checked bag.

I bought a basic economy ticket, but need to cancel or change my plans…

Unfortunately, most basic economy fares are not eligible for refunds in the event of cancellation, though a federally-mandated rule does allow you to cancel all tickets within 24 hours of booking, no matter the airline, as long as you booked directly with the airline and at least a week out from travel. Some airlines like Avianca allow changes, but for significant fees. The cancellation or change policy for your ticket can typically be found under the fare rules and varies per airline.

I booked basic economy, and now I'm dreading my flight. What can I do to prepare?

  • Pay to pick your seat in advance or check in early. Airlines such as American will allow you to pay between $10 and $40 to choose your own seat 48 hours before your flight.
  • Bring your own entertainment, like a book and a laptop or phone loaded with music, TV shows and movies. Be sure and pack your own headphones, as some airlines charge for those, too.
  • Stock up on snacks. Most airlines will provide you with water and soft drinks, but you can bring an empty insulated water bottle through security then fill it up on the other side. Packing enough snacks to get you through the flight will keep you from having to spend unnecessary money if the airline does charge for food.
  • Pack light. The less you are traveling with, the less burdensome the experience will be in more ways than one. On airlines like United, if you didn’t pay for your carry-on in advance on a non-transatlantic, international flight, they’ll gate-check it and require you pay the checked bag fee plus a $25 handling fee on-site.
  • Ask a ticketing or gate agent for help. Airline employees are people, too, and many will go out of their way to help you if it’s within their means. Didn’t get the seat you want? Ask the gate agent if there’s anything he/she can do to change your seat.

>> Read our guide to preparing for and enjoying a flight in basic economy.

Is Basic Economy right for me?

Yes, you may be happy to save with a basic economy ticket if you:

  • travel light
  • have travel plans that are set in stone
  • have no strong preference on seats
  • love saving money and will give up some benefits to do so

No, you may want to upgrade to main economy and avoid basic economy if you:

  • travel with checked bags
  • may cancel or have to change plans
  • are traveling with a family or group and must sit together
  • don’t mind higher price tag for more amenities

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Last Updated 
April 10, 2019
Scott Keyes
Co-Founder & CEO

Scott has traveled to 46 countries (and 46 states!), living in California, to Oaxaca, to Oregon. He’s left-handed, drinks five cups of tea daily, and holds a vendetta against the “Happy Birthday” song. On a dare, he once ate 13 hot dogs (and a bowl of Dippin’ Dots) at the ballpark. He grew up in Ohio and founded Scott’s Cheap Flights in a Denver coffee shop. Favorite airport: PDX.

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