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How To Travel Basic Economy (And Not Have A Terrible Time)

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If you’ve recently considered booking a flight with a major airline, you might have been enticed by the incredibly affordable “basic economy” fares. These fares are now available as the most budget-friendly option when flying with carriers such as United, American, Delta, and even JetBlue. While they do provide an economical means to travel from one point to another, there are a few important considerations to keep in mind.

Having recently embarked on a cross-country journey using United’s Basic Economy option, I gained some valuable insights along the way. In this Penny Hoarder guide, we’ll provide you with everything you need to know before reserving a basic economy ticket, along with some helpful tips and tricks to enhance your experience and make it a bit more comfortable.

What is Basic Economy?

In recent years, basic economy airfare has become increasingly prevalent. Initially, it emerged as a response from major airlines to the competitive pricing of budget carriers but has rapidly evolved into the standard choice for cost-conscious travelers.

Basic economy is essentially what it sounds like – a ticket that provides you with a seat on an airplane without the additional amenities. The caveat is that what airlines now consider as ‘amenities’ are often quite fundamental accommodations.

For instance, many basic economy tickets do not grant you the privilege of selecting your seat on the aircraft, even if you’re traveling with a companion, and they may also restrict you from carrying a carry-on bag.

In the following section, we will provide crucial tips on how to make the most of your basic economy ticket.

How To Travel Basic Economy 

Opting for basic economy travel revolves around setting realistic expectations. If your primary requirement is just a seat on the plane, you might be able to overlook the additional inconveniences that accompany this no-frills airfare. However, if you anticipate more comprehensive services, you could end up feeling let down.

Having recently traversed the country using United’s basic economy option, I gained insights into what these tickets encompass and what they lack. Here’s a detailed breakdown.

1. Seating

One of the most significant distinctions between basic economy and higher-tier travel options is the seating arrangement. Likely, you won’t have the freedom to choose your seat on the plane without incurring an additional cost. This applies even if you and your travel companion book your tickets simultaneously.

Furthermore, you’ll probably be assigned to the less desirable seats on the aircraft, such as those located in the back rows near the restrooms. Consequently, you will board the plane last and be among the last to disembark upon landing.

In the event of a fully occupied flight, there’s limited room for maneuver. Your best action would be to pack some quality headphones or earbuds, dress comfortably, and hope for an amiable seatmate with a good sense of humor. However, if you happen to be on a flight with some vacant seats, you might be able to change your seat after everyone has boarded.

2. Baggage

Following the seating arrangement, luggage restrictions posed one of the most significant challenges during my basic economy flights. The key here lies in understanding your airline’s specific allowances and restrictions, often hinging on semantics more than anything else.

For instance, throughout all my United basic economy flights, I carried a 35L backpack. While a few flight attendants expressed mild surprise, I reassured them that my “personal item” would neatly fit under the seat in front of me. I also organized everything within my bag before approaching the boarding podium, ensuring it appeared as nothing more than my personal item.

This practice became somewhat bothersome around the third flight, as I had to fit my small crossbody purse, book, and water bottle back into the bag to board without causing any disruption. However, I realized that having a well-rehearsed explanation regarding my personal item was the key to successfully treating it as an equivalent to a carry-on, despite United’s no-carry-on policy for this fare class.

Please note: Nearly all airlines I researched impose additional charges for checked bags when traveling on a basic economy ticket, with fees ranging from $30 to $60 per bag depending on the advance payment period.

3. In-Flight Services

The silver lining throughout this experience is that, with basic economy, you receive the same in-flight services as other passengers in the main cabin. This entails access to the same snacks, beverages, and entertainment choices. Nonetheless, there has been a noticeable shift recently in what airlines provide regarding in-flight entertainment.

United offered in-flight entertainment via their dedicated app on most of my flights. This means you should have a fully charged device with the app pre-downloaded before the flight to enjoy their shows and movies.

Please note that you don’t need to purchase in-flight Wi-Fi to access this feature.

Additionally, most seats on the plane are equipped with charging stations beneath them, enabling you to keep your device powered throughout the flight, although I did hear some reports of certain ports not functioning. If you intend to watch anything during your flight, I recommend boarding the plane with a fully charged device, a good pair of headphones, and your airline’s app already installed.

The app is also convenient if you plan to make any in-flight purchases, like a glass of wine or a snack, as some airlines have transitioned to handling transactions exclusively through their mobile app.

4. Points

One more factor to consider when journeying through basic economy is that your eligibility to accrue points may vary. While United permits point accrual on basic economy tickets, other airlines either do not allow it or provide only a fraction of the standard points. If accumulating points during your travels holds significance for you, it’s crucial to review your airline’s specific policy before securing a basic economy ticket.

Airlines with Basic Economy Fares

As airlines prioritize cost-efficiency, an increasing number of companies now provide basic economy fares. Here’s a concise overview of some prominent airlines that offer these incredibly affordable tickets and what you should anticipate before embarking on your journey.

American Airlines

American Airlines’ basic economy offering is relatively more accommodating than many others. It includes the allowance for one carry-on item (must fit in the overhead bin) and one personal item (must fit under the seat in front of you) without incurring extra charges. Upgrades are attainable, and you can opt for seat selection when booking your ticket for an additional fee. Be prepared to board in the final group just before the jet bridge is closed.

Alaska Airlines

Known as their Saver fares, Alaska Airlines’ basic economy option similarly allows for one carry-on and one personal item. Seat selection prior to the flight is unavailable, and changes to your itinerary beyond the standard 24-hour cancellation window may not be feasible. Additionally, you might accrue fewer points compared to regular cabin flights.

Delta

The primary limitation when choosing Delta’s basic economy is the absence of points accrual. However, you are entitled to both a carry-on and a personal item at no extra cost. Prepare to board last and receive your seat assignment on the day of travel. Furthermore, ticket upgrades and post-booking itinerary modifications are typically not permitted.

JetBlue

JetBlue’s Blue Basic fare permits only one personal item and does not include a carry-on allowance. Points are earned at the standard rate of one point for every dollar spent. Additional fees apply for seat selection or making changes to your travel plans, and you can anticipate boarding in the final group.

United

United’s basic economy option encompasses a single personal item that must fit under the seat in front of you; carry-ons are not permitted. Seat selection is unavailable, and post-booking flight modifications are typically restricted after the standard 24-hour window. Your boarding sequence will typically place you in the final group.

Budget airlines such as Spirit and Frontier also provide their equivalent of basic economy fares. On these airlines, you can anticipate a comparable experience, but with even fewer amenities. Think: less comfortable seating, no in-flight refreshments, and even more limited legroom.

How to Travel Basic Economy: The Final Word

Basic economy travel may not suit every traveler, but it can save you significant money if you’re planning a short trip where traveling light is feasible. Before booking your ticket, take the time to acquaint yourself with your selected airline’s basic economy policy. This way, you’ll enter the experience well-informed about what is and isn’t covered in the cost of your ticket.

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