Over the past several years we’ve seen most major US airlines introduce basic economy fares. In this post I wanted to take a detailed look at American Airlines basic economy, to reflect what it’s like nowadays, especially as some changes have been made over the years.
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.
Restrictions with American basic economy
If you choose to book an American Airlines basic economy ticket, what restrictions are you agreeing to? Below is what you can expect, in no particular order.
Pay for seat assignments
American Airlines basic economy tickets don’t allow free seat assignments in advance for most customers. You’ll be automatically assigned a seat at check-in (which can either be at the airport, or starting 24 hours out via online check-in).
However, when booking a basic economy fare:
- All passengers 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
Board the plane last
If you book a basic economy fare on American Airlines, you’ll generally be in boarding group eight or nine, which are the last boarding groups. The downside to boarding last is that there might not be space for your carry-on, so you may have to gate check it.
However, when booking a basic economy fare:
- AAdvantage elite members and those with a co-branded AAdvantage credit card that has an early boarding benefit are exempt from this
- All AAdvantage members can at least board with group six
- Basic economy passengers can pay for priority boarding, with the cost varying by flight
No ticket changes
During the pandemic we saw American Airlines eliminate change fees on a vast majority of fares. This is great, because it means you can cancel your ticket, and then apply the credit toward a future itinerary. American Airlines basic economy fares don’t allow ticket changes, so the tickets are very much “use it or lose it.”
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
- The ability to earn Loyalty Points and AAdvantage redeemable miles for your travel, just as you usually would
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, South America, Europe, and Asia. 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 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, it’s not uncommon to see sub-$100 fares that are in regular economy, rather than basic economy.
How much cheaper are American basic economy tickets?
The price premium for avoiding basic economy on American Airlines can vary significantly. As of now, I’d say it’s most common to see a $30 one-way premium for regular economy over basic economy. For example, take the below flight from Miami to Seattle, where the cost is $138 vs. $168.
Then take a New York to London flight, where the price difference is $150 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?
Basic economy fares to most regions don’t allow a free checked bag. While that would otherwise be the case on most fares within the US, this even applies on most international flights.
There are two exceptions, which allow you to have free checked bags:
- You’re allowed one free checked bag on basic economy tickets to Israel, as well as basic economy tickets to Asia
- 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 as usual
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?
When American Airlines first launched basic economy, it was extremely restrictive — you wouldn’t get a carry-on bag, and almost no elite benefits were honored. Fortunately basic economy isn’t nearly as punitive as it used to be.
In many ways that makes it 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 the ability to make ticket changes.
Let me share my take on the value of basic economy, both for elite members and non-elite members.
Basic economy as an AAdvantage elite member
As an Executive Platinum with American AAdvantage, I’d have no qualms booking basic economy. Not only do you receive all your elite benefits, but you even earn Loyalty Points and redeemable AAdvantage miles.
There’s just one thing you’re giving up, and that’s ticket flexibility. Basic economy tickets can’t be changed, while regular economy tickets can be changed for free. With basic economy often costing $30 less than regular economy, it comes down to whether it’s worth paying that much extra for ticket flexibility. In most cases I would say that it is.
Basic economy if you don’t care about status
Aside from 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; for that matter, becoming a member of AAdvantage allows you to board with group six
- Even on regular economy tickets, there are few seats that can be assigned for free
Using the same example where the price difference is $30, I had a look at the cost to assign seats on a basic economy ticket. Standard seat assignments cost $9-10.
So you’d pay $30 extra one-way to avoid basic economy, or alternatively you could pay $9-10 to assign a seat. However, you’d still be left without ticket flexibility, which is the biggest restriction.
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.
In the case of American Airlines, the biggest distinction with basic economy nowadays is that these tickets have no flexibility. So while other tickets can be changed for free, basic economy tickets can’t. Personally I think it’s worth paying the premium for flexibility, but everyone will have to crunch the numbers based on their own situation.
Under what circumstances do you end up buying basic economy tickets? How do you do the math?