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Is Basic Economy Airfare Worth It?

With the end of the year approaching, it’s time for many people to start planning holiday travel. There’s no denying that we are currently living in the golden age of air travel. If it’s been a while since you’ve flown, you will want to make sure you understand the basic economy ticket.

What is Basic Economy?

Basic Economy is a type of airfare that generally is priced the lowest of all airfare. Basic Economy tickets get their history from ultra low-cost airlines like Frontier, Spirit and Allegiant. These ultra low-cost carriers have unbundled their airfare so that buying a ticket comes with only the airfare itself. Extra costs can be found in seat selection, checked or carry-on baggage, and even onboard snacks.

The legacy airlines (United, American and Delta) found that they were losing market share to the low-cost carriers because many people were choosing their airline based solely on price. These airlines have to balance low prices with providing the service that their elite loyalty members expect. This prompted a new type of airfare called “Basic Economy”.

How does Basic Economy compare across airlines?

Basic Economy airfare generally works in a similar fashion across airlines, though there are a few differences. Generally, you can expect a Basic Economy ticket to only come with the airfare itself. You will have to pay for any checked luggage. American, Delta and Alaska allow both one carry-on and one personal item, while United Airlines will limit you to only a personal item on a Basic Economy fare, unless you’re a United elite member.

Seat selection is another extra that will cost you on a basic economy ticket. When you book your basic economy ticket, you can choose to pay to choose your seat. If you don’t pay for a seat, you’ll have a seat auto-assigned when you check-in. This could mean you may not be sitting with the rest of the members of your traveling party. Changing or cancelling your basic economy ticket may not be possible. If you’re an elite member, you may earn miles at a lower rate.

When is it worth it to upgrade your ticket?

When basic economy first came out and was unfamiliar, there was often confusion when passengers got to the airport and realized that they couldn’t bring their carryon or sit next to the rest of their traveling party. Now, airlines and online travel sites have become more transparent about which fares are basic economy and the accompanying restrictions. That way you can examine the options and decide what makes sense for you.

There may be times where it’s worth it to pay a little bit extra to upgrade your ticket, and other times where you’ll want to save money and just fly in Basic Economy. If you’re traveling by yourself for the weekend, the restrictions on seat selection and carry-on baggage may not matter much to you. Compare that to a weeklong family vacation, where the extra baggage allowance and the peace of mind knowing you’ll all be sitting together might be worth the extra money to fly a regular economy ticket.

Time vs. cost investment

At the end of the day, like many financial decisions, it all comes down to a time vs. cost investment. Take a look at the benefits that come with buying a regular economy ticket and how much extra the airfare is. Consider not only the time that you’ll gain by buying an upgraded ticket but also the peace of mind. Traveling can be a stressful time, especially during a pandemic, so it may be worth the extra money to know that you don’t have to worry about cramming all of your luggage into one personal item.

Pro-tip: Use our free travel budget calculator to help plan your next trip.

The Bottom Line

The cheapest airfares nowadays are almost all Basic Economy fares — meaning that they will come with certain restrictions. While that isn’t always a bad thing, it is important to understand what your ticket does and does not include BEFORE you get to the airport. Understanding your baggage allowance and the other rules of your ticket as soon as possible will help you know how to plan for your day of travel. Flying can be a stressful experience and knowing what to expect can help lower your stress levels and get you to your destination safe and sound.

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