How to Take Advantage of New Dirt-Cheap Airfares Without Getting Screwed

Painfully low prices with even-more painful seats aren’t just for Spirit anymore! Starting this spring your favorite legacy carriers -- American, Delta, and United -- are joining the bare-bones fare game. And while their enticing sub-$100 fares might look like a great deal to fly a non-discount carrier, are they really? Or are they just a sneaky way of getting you to pay even more for a coach ticket and still get stuck in a middle seat.

If you fly coach in this country, nothing should surprise you by now. Especially when something has all the hallmarks of another scammy airline move (checked bag fees, anyone?).

“It’s definitely not a scam. It’s the airlines coming up with a product to target travelers to whom price is more important than other factors,” says Jeremy Quek of American Express Global Business Travel. “Legacy carriers have seen an erosion in this segment, so they’re unbundling their traditional product to capture this segment.”

In other words: Cheapskates, rejoice. What the legacies are euphemistically calling “Basic Economy” fares aren’t a straight copy from the Spirits and Frontiers of the world. While discount airlines quote a stupid-cheap base fare, then tack on extra charges for everything from seat selection to onboard snacks to checked bags, Basic Economy doesn’t do that.

Here’s what you’re giving up

Basic Economy is the same experience as your typical coach cabin -- soft drinks and snacks included, same sized seats, free reruns of Big Bang Theory -- just a lot more restricted. So you won’t be paying extra for that Biscoff cookie and the wisdom of Sheldon Cooper. But you also won’t be paying extra to pick your seat or carry on a bag, either, because you won’t be able to at all.

Though the Basic Economy fare rules differ from airline to airline (and always read them before you book), most allow only a small personal item to be carried on. None allows you the option to select your seat when you buy the ticket, and only American gives the option to do it at all, 48 hours before check-in, for a fee. All Basic Economy fares place you in the final boarding group, though again with American, elite members keep their priority boarding.

All airlines allow you to check a bag for a fee, but if you show up at the gate with a large carry-on, they not only charge you the $20-25 checked bag fee to put it on the plane, they also charge a “service fee” of up to $35.

Essentially, the old “I’ll just check it at the gate” hack doesn’t work if you’re flying Basic Economy. Your best move here is to just check your bag for the usual fee (elite members and credit card holders still get this waived on airlines where it’s applicable) and stick with your laptop bag as a carry-on.

You’re almost guaranteed a middle seat

The middle seat is kind of like traffic: Nobody likes it, some people just hate it more than others. If you’re in the “hates it more” category, do not ever be tempted by Basic Economy. The seats are almost exclusively middle seats in the back of the plane, and though you might luck out and be on an empty flight with available seats elsewhere, don’t count on it.

Basic Economy fares are ineligible for upgrades anywhere on the plane, regardless of status. Even if you’re an elite flier who gets free upgrades to exit rows, that’s negated with a Basic Economy fare. So are subscriptions to United’s Economy Plus service. And you can’t make any changes or cancellations of any kind after the usual 24-hour free change period. Though with $300 change fees on most tickets now the norm, this isn’t really much of a change.

And your instant math on this is probably correct: There’s very little chance that you and boo are going to get to sit together if you book in tandem. Thus this isn’t a great option for families with kids or for co-dependent couples who can’t stand to be apart for two hours of napping on the way to Denver.

cheap airfares
Chris Parypa Photography/Shutterstock

So are the savings worth the hassle?

Well, that depends. The legacies are rolling these out slowly to gauge consumer reaction. American is only offering them on about 10 routes, mostly within the Southeast and up to Baltimore and Philadelphia. United is testing Basic Economy on routes from Minneapolis. And Delta is rolling it out slowly nationwide.

Because the test routes are all relatively short, the price difference now only looks to be about $25-$40 per flight segment. So if you’re the type who typically doesn’t check bags -- but still needs more than you can fit in a purse -- the savings seem to be negated by the checked bag fee. And you’re still stuck in a middle seat.

But as Basic Economy is introduced to longer flights, more customers may see a value. “The most important thing is to be sure you know what you’re purchasing,” says Quek. “Understand the rules and restrictions, then from there you can make a decision in terms of what you’re trading off to get this super-low fare. What is a seat assignment worth? What is boarding first worth? That’s an individual decision, and to some it’s worth more than others.”

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Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer to Thrillist who’s trying out Basic Economy for the first time this May.