Back in 2012, Delta Air Lines became the first major US airline to introduce basic economy fares. In this post I wanted to go over the details of the SkyTeam carrier’s most restrictive ticket types. What restrictions are there when booking basic economy fares, and are these tickets worth it? Let’s go over all the details. Separately, I’ve written about similar fares offered by Alaska, American, JetBlue, and United.
In this post:
What is basic economy?
Basic economy was introduced many 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 Delta basic economy fares 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.
Airline revenue management is quite an art, and it’s all about getting as much revenue as possible from each customer. Basic economy fares are a major part of that, and Delta is particularly punitive with its basic economy fares, especially for elite members.
Restrictions with Delta basic economy
If you’re shopping for a Delta flight and see a basic economy fare, should you consider booking it? Let me go over the major restrictions of these kinds of fares.
Before I do, let me cover the things that aren’t different about basic fares compared to regular economy fares (marketed as “Main Cabin”):
- Passengers traveling on basic economy fares still get a regular carry-on allowance, so there are no limitations in place there, unlike at some other carriers
- Passengers traveling on basic economy fares get the same perks once onboard, from complimentary non-alcoholic drinks and snacks, to free Wi-Fi for SkyMiles members, and more
I should also mention that with Delta, basic economy is available on both revenue tickets and award tickets, as there aren’t many airlines that sell award tickets in basic economy. It’s also nowadays available not just on domestic flights, but also on many long haul international routes.
Now let’s talk about what is different with these fares…
Basic economy fares offer no mileage earning or elite credit
Delta is the single most restrictive US airline when it comes to being rewarded for basic economy tickets. Basic economy tickets aren’t eligible for any sort of SkyMiles mileage earning, and won’t count toward SkyMiles Medallion elite status. So even the amount you spend on your ticket wouldn’t qualify as Medallion Qualifying Dollars (MQDs) toward your status total.
If you care at all about earning status or miles, then you’ll definitely want to avoid Delta basic economy fares.
Basic economy fares have seat assignment restrictions
When traveling on Delta basic economy fares, you’ll only be assigned a seat at check-in, up to 24 hours before departure. It doesn’t matter whether you have elite status or not, as that policy applies regardless.
The only exception is that within a week of departure, you’ll sometimes be able to pay to assign a standard seat. However, even then, elite members can’t assign seats for free.
Basic economy fares come with last group boarding
When traveling on basic economy fares, Delta passengers can only board with the last boarding group, which is group nine. So while those on basic economy fares have the standard carry-on allowance, expect that you may have to gate check your bag periodically, since airlines often run out of overhead bin space toward the end of boarding.
However, if you’re eligible for priority boarding with Delta (either on account of elite status or based on having a co-branded credit card), you would be able to board in a priority zone, so that wouldn’t impact you.
Basic economy fares provide limited ticket flexibility
Nowadays Delta no longer has change fees on most kinds of tickets, meaning that if you need to cancel a ticket, you’ll be issued a credit that you can apply toward a future reservation.
The one exception is on basic economy fares, which don’t have the same flexibility. However, they are a bit more flexible than in the past. You can apply credits from Delta basic economy fares toward a future ticket, but at a cost — you’ll generally pay a $99 fee to change a domestic or short haul international basic economy ticket, while you’ll pay a $199 fee to change a long haul international basic economy ticket.
For award tickets, you can expect to pay a penalty of 9,900 SkyMiles for a domestic or short haul international basic economy award, or a penalty of 19,900 SkyMiles for a long haul international basic economy ticket.
Basic economy fares allow no upgrades or premium seats
This is an area where Delta is really restrictive. Delta basic economy fares aren’t eligible for upgrades to first class or Comfort+. It doesn’t matter if you’re a SkyMiles Medallion member, or even if you’re trying to pay to upgrade. These tickets simply aren’t upgradable, and that’s a major restriction.
Basic economy fares don’t allow Sky Club access
There are many ways to access Delta Sky Clubs, from having a membership, to having a premium credit card, to having elite status. However, regardless of the entry method, being on a basic economy ticket restricts you from getting Sky Club access.
Are Delta basic economy fares worth it?
The answer is obviously “it depends.” There are lots of factors here, like how much cheaper a basic economy fare is, if you have elite status, how much you value flexibility, etc.
I will say that I think in the case of Delta, the answer of whether or not to book a basic economy is more obvious than with other airlines.
If you’re just a casual traveler, have firm plans, don’t value earning miles or elite status, don’t want to access Sky Clubs, and just want the best deal, then absolutely book a basic economy fare.
However, if you have elite status, care about where you sit, want to access Sky Clubs, etc., then there’s a huge incentive to “buy up” and avoid basic economy on Delta. That’s the case much more so than for travel on other US airlines, where the restrictions aren’t as great for elite members.
As you’d expect, the price premium for avoiding basic economy fares varies, though I find that for most domestic and short haul international itineraries, it’s roughly in the range of $30-50 one-way. I think for many consumers, that’s money well spent.
Delta was the first US legacy airline to introduce basic economy fares, and suffice it to say that this is a concept that has caught on. Delta’s basic economy fares are quite punitive. While you do get a free carry-on bag, everything else about these fares is restrictive.
Tickets don’t come with free changes, you can’t assign seats in advance, you earn no miles or elite qualification, you can’t upgrade, and you can’t access Sky Clubs.
If you’re just the occasional Delta traveler who values getting the best fare, booking basic economy is fine, if you’re familiar with the restrictions. However, if you’re an elite member, then basic economy fares are most definitely worth avoiding.
What’s your take on the value proposition of Delta basic economy fares?