Over the past several years we’ve seen most major US airlines introduce basic economy fares. Since then we’ve seen significant changes made to how these fares work. In this post I wanted to take a closer look at American Airlines basic economy, to reflect what it’s like nowadays.
What is basic economy?
Basic economy was introduced several years back as a way for major US airlines to better compete with ultra low cost carriers, like Allegiant, Frontier, Spirit, etc. At least that was the claim, with the idea being that basic economy comes at a lower cost, but with more restrictions.
Basic economy is ultimately a tool for airlines to better segment the market. Those looking for the cheapest fares might book American basic economy rather than a competitor, while the airline hopes that most consumers are willing to “buy up” to more expensive fares, which come with fewer restrictions.
Basic economy is intended to compete with ultra low cost carriers, like Frontier
What are the restrictions on American basic economy tickets?
If you choose to book an American Airlines basic economy ticket, what restrictions are you agreeing to? In no particular order:
Pay for seat assignments
American Airlines basic economy tickets don’t allow free seat assignments in advance. You’ll be automatically assigned a seat at check-in, whether you do so online 24 hours out, or at the airport.
- You can pay to assign a seat at the time of booking
- AAdvantage elite members who are eligible can select Main Cabin Extra seats at the time of booking at no cost
You’ll be assigned a seat at check-in when flying basic economy
Board the plane last
If you book a basic economy fare on American Airlines, you’ll be in boarding group eight or nine, which are the last boarding groups. The downside to boarding last is that there’s less likely to be space for your carry-on, so you may be forced to gate check it.
- AAdvantage elite members and those with a co-branded AAdvantage credit card that has an early boarding benefit are exempt from this
- For a limited time, all AAdvantage members can at least board with Group 6
- Basic economy passengers can pay for priority boarding, with the cost varying by flight
Expect to board last when flying basic economy
No elite status mileage qualification
As of January 1, 2021, American basic economy tickets will no longer earn any sort of elite qualifying miles (EQMs), elite qualifying segments (EQSs), or elite qualifying dollars (EQDs).
You do earn redeemable miles for these tickets, though. With American you earn five redeemable miles per dollar spent (not including taxes and fees), and then elite members get bonuses on top of that.
American Airlines basic economy fares won’t help you earn status
No ticket changes (usually)
This is a bit tricky, because there’s the current policy due to coronavirus, and then the long term policy:
- American recently eliminated change fees for a vast majority of domestic and international tickets, though basic economy tickets are excluded from this policy
- However, for the time being American has a change fee waiver due to coronavirus, and that includes basic economy tickets
In other words, through December 31, 2020 (and that could be extended), basic economy tickets have flexibility, while after that you’ll have to book a non-basic economy ticket in order to get that flexibility.
American basic economy tickets will have more restrictive change policies
What’s not restricted in American basic economy?
If you book an American basic economy ticket, here’s what’s included as usual, among other things:
- The same food and drinks
- The same carry-on allowance as other passengers (one carry-on bag, and one personal item)
- The ability to standby for other flights at no cost
- Elite benefits, including eligibility for upgrades
Basic economy includes the same service as the rest of economy
American Airlines basic economy FAQs
Before I share my thoughts on the value proposition of basic economy, let me answer some common questions about American Airlines basic economy.
What American routes have basic economy?
American Airlines basic economy may be available on domestic routes, as well as flights between the US and Canada, Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Europe. On flights to Europe you may also find these fares on American’s transatlantic joint venture business partners, including British Airways, Finnair, and Iberia.
However, not all flights or markets will actually have basic economy available. If basic economy is available, you’ll see it listed as the first pricing option. Just because a flight doesn’t have basic economy doesn’t mean it won’t be cheap. For example, here’s a $36 fare from Miami to Chicago, which is not basic economy.
How much cheaper are American basic economy tickets?
It varies significantly. Before coronavirus airlines had much more pricing power, so the price differences were sometimes huge. Nowadays I’m largely finding the price difference to be fairly minimal. For example, between New York and Miami, a basic economy ticket might save you $15, as we’re talking about $49 vs. $64.
Then take a New York to London flight, where the price difference is $137 roundtrip.
Does American basic economy allow a carry-on?
Yes it does. When basic economy was first introduced, these tickets allowed you to bring onboard a personal item, but not a full size carry-on. That restriction is no longer in place.
Does American basic economy allow a free checked bag?
No, basic economy doesn’t allow a free checked bag. While that would otherwise be the case on most fares within the US, this even applies on transatlantic flights.
The exception is that if you’re an elite member or have a co-branded credit card with a checked bag benefit, you can still take advantage of that.
What’s the difference between main cabin and basic economy?
When I talk about basic economy, I typically compare it to “regular” economy. That’s simply marketed as “main cabin” at American Airlines. There’s nothing more to it. Main cabin is the same thing as economy.
Is there a difference between basic economy and economy?
This will sound silly to some, but some people do wonder “so where on the plane is the basic economy cabin?”
Basic economy is purely a different ticket type, and there’s not a separate cabin for basic economy passengers. Rather basic economy passengers are seated throughout the plane, like everyone else.
Is American Airlines basic economy worth it?
Back in the day, basic economy didn’t include a carry-on bag, and came with almost no elite benefits.
That’s not the case anymore, so in many ways it’s easier to calculate the value of basic economy. That’s especially true when you consider that you can now pay for seat assignments and other perks, meaning you can essentially recreate the “regular” economy experience on a basic economy ticket, with the exception of change fees.
Let me share my take on the value of basic economy, both for elite members and non-elite members. For the purposes of this example, I’ll use the New York to Miami flight above, where basic economy is $49, and regular economy is $64.
Basic economy as an AAdvantage elite member
As an Executive Platinum with American, I’d have no qualms booking basic economy, since I’d still receive most elite benefits. There are two considerations:
- Do you need the credit towards elite status, and how much are you willing to pay for that?
- In the long run, do you want the ticket flexibility to make changes for free?
I avoided basic economy in the past because I didn’t want to be randomly assigned a seat, but now that I can select a Main Cabin Extra seat and put myself on the upgrade list, there’s less downside.
Then again, if the price difference is only $15, I feel like I might as well go for the regular economy fare so that the ticket counts towards status. If the ticket were $50 more, it might be a different story.
Basic economy tickets are now elite upgrade eligible
Basic economy if you don’t care about status
In addition to ticket flexibility, as a non-elite member the biggest question is how much you value not boarding last and/or not being able to select seats:
- You can always pay for these things individually, and compare costs
- It’s not like you’d otherwise be among the first to board on a “regular” economy ticket
- Even on “regular” economy tickets, there are few seats that can be assigned for free
Using the same example where the price difference is $15, I had a look at some add-ons on a basic economy ticket:
- Paying to assign a seat starts at $10
- Priority boarding starts at $9
If you don’t really care about status, some may prefer to just book basic economy and then pay for what matters most to you.
Basic economy is a tool that airlines use to maximize yields. They know they’ll attract some people with very low fares, while they know that others are willing to pay a premium to avoid these restrictions.
The good news is that basic economy has become much less punitive since it was first introduced, in terms of taking advantage of elite benefits, and in terms of being able to customize your experience.
Even though I’ve been an American loyalist for years, up until now I’ve never actually booked a basic economy ticket. I think that will change in the near future.
Under what circumstances do you end up buying basic economy tickets? How do you do the math?