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Delta Main Cabin. Credit: Delta.

Back to Basics: A Side by Side Comparison of the ‘New’ Economy Class Fare Buckets

Since United and American announced their new basic economy fares (something Delta has been toying with for the last few years), travelers (and the media to be frank) have been abuzz with the restrictions on these low priced tickets. It’s easy to get caught up in the flurry – at the surface, it sounds like no seat assignment, fees to check at the gate, and the one that’s on everyone’s mind – no carry on luggage allowed.

So first of all – everybody keep calm – (but some might not be able to bring a carry on). 

All these restrictions on tickets have been business as usual over at ultra low cost carriers Spirit and Frontier Airlines, who nickel and dime you for anything related to your flight other than allowing you to sit down at a seat of their choosing.

It comes as no surprise that the legacy carriers have attempted to sell a few seats that would have otherwise flown empty to the market that typically flies Spirit or Frontier – the biggest difference of course being complimentary snacks and beverages in flight, and, depending on the plane, potentially a personal TV and audio/video on demand.


The Scoop

So the question is – just how much are these Basic Economy restrictions like flying on Spirit or Frontier? Which legacy airline has the best/worst Basic Economy program?  Take a look at our comparison chart below to see how each airlines fares.

Personal Item AllowedYes*Yes*Yes**Yes**Yes**
Carry On Item AllowedYes, for a fee - $36Yes, for a fee - $30-$60No***YesNo***
Cost to Check Baggage Prior to Check-In$21+$25+N/AN/AN/A
Cost to Check Baggage at Airport$50$40$25+$25+$25+
Cost to Check at Gate$100$60Cost to check bag + $25 feeN/ACost to check bag + $25 fee
Eligible to Earn MilesYesYesYes, reducedYesLimited****
Seat selection at Booking$1-$50$6-25+NoNoNo
Seat selection at Check-InNo fee but randomly assigned$11-25+, no fee if randomly assignedSeat selection 48 hrs in advance for a fee, no cost for random assignment No fees - seats assigned at check-in or at the gateNo fees - seats assigned at check-in or at the gate
Seat Selection at GateSeats assigned at check inSeats assigned at check inSeat selection 48 hrs in advance for a fee, no cost for random assignment No fees - seats assigned at check-in or at the gateNo fees - seats assigned at check-in or at the gate
Snacks and Drinks on boardDrinks, snacks, and alcohol available for purchaseDrinks, snacks, and alcohol available for purchaseComplimentary soda and snacks, meals available for purchaseComplimentary soda and snacks, meals available for purchaseComplimentary soda and snacks, meals available for purchase
Fee to Print Pass at Airport$10N/AN/AN/AN/A
BoardingCharge for priority boardingEarly boarding for elite members or "The Works" ticketholdersLast zone to board***Last zone to boardLast zone to board
Complimentary Upgrade EligibleN/AN/ANoNoNo

*Sizing restrictions dictated by airline
** Must fit under seat
*** Does not apply to Elite Members or eligible airline card holders
****Redeemable miles eligible, no elite qualifying or lifetime points


The Takeaway

It’s tough to compare ultra low cost carriers to full service airlines in that the service offered is completely different, as are the expectations. Fortunately, on legacy carriers, they haven’t begun charging to print your airport at the ticket, though Spirit will hit you with a $10 fee if you do. You won’t be getting any free snacks and beverages on Spirit or Frontier, but these are things you can get when flying Delta, United, or American.

Both Frontier and Spirit are much stricter with their rules – but there is a ton of potential to score an incredibly great deal on a ticket, especially if you only need to bring a small personal item with you. While Spirit charges slightly less for items like your first checked bag, they also charge far more for to check a bag at the gate ($100?!). Between Frontier and Spirit, I’m not sure that there’s a clear winner here – but with whichever you go with, be sure to do your research and come prepared in order to avoid any surprise, last minute fees. 

Between the larger carriers, your best bet will depend on you situation.

Most Restrictions
United has the most restrictions – no carry on luggage, last zone boarding, and no option to  earn elite qualifying miles/dollars/segments (though does earn redeemable miles).

Best Carrier for Elite Passengers
If you do have status (or a qualifying AAdvantage credit card), flying American probably be a better option for you – since most of the restrictions (including the no upgrade rule) related to the Basic Economy fare don’t apply to elite members or cardholders.

Best for Passengers with No Status
If you don’t have status, Delta would be a better option – there’s no restriction on bringing carry on luggage in addition to a personal item (where neither UA or AA offers this option) – and having status or holding credit cards won’t offer you additional benefits.

Best for Passengers Qualifying for Status
From an elite qualifying perspective, Delta Medallions would benefit the most – Basic Economy fares are eligible for Medallion Qualifying Miles, Dollars, and Segments.
Meanwhile, American elites would only earn half the miles and segments. United comes in last here – no qualifying Premier miles or segments.

All legacy airlines calculate redeemable miles based on the cost of the ticket and since Basic Economy offers lower fares, this would equate to fewer miles (and Qualifying Dollars) earned.


In the end, I’d say the best Basic Economy ticket is the one that works best for you and your travel needs – going off first where you’re based and what your hometown airline/alliance is. Next, it’ll come down to the actual program itself – all things equal, it seems as though United is the worst off in this regard, with Delta coming out pretty tops in terms of generosity of their basic economy fares with American coming out somewhere in between. The other Ultra-Low Cost Carriers such as Frontier and Spirit of course continue to scrape the bottom of the barrel.

That all said, it mostly comes down the type of trip you’re on and adjusting your expectations on what kind experience you’ll have – if you’re traveling heavy, have a tight itinerary or if there’s a high chance you’ll need to adjust your flights midway through your trip, these tickets aren’t for you. But we would however recommend them for a quick weekend getaway or a trip you know you won’t have to alter. Basically, knowledge about your terms and conditions – what you are and aren’t entitled to – is absolutely imperative. It’s always important to do this whenever and wherever you travel, but it’s especially the case with these type of tickets. So keep an open mind and arrive equipped with a gallon of patience (and perhaps Xanax and wine) and you’ll do fine – and best of all, enjoy those cheap fares!


Have you purchased a Basic Economy fare or flown a low-cost carrier? How did you feel about the experience? Drop us a note in the comments! 

American Airlines AA Main Cabin

American Airlines Main Cabin seats. Credit: American Airlines

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