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Basic economy seats: Is the discomfort worth the savings?

Passengers purchasing a basic economy fare board last and can only bring one small carry-on. (Getty)

The battle for your travel dollars is heating up, as American Airlines (AAL) and United Airlines (UAL) each launch new fare classes to compete with low-cost carriers.

This week, American and United both unveiled their basic economy class fares. This option will allow customers to choose perk-less travel to get the cheapest possible ticket. Passengers choosing a basic economy fare on both airlines will not have access to overhead bins and are only allowed to board with a small bag that can fit under the seat. If you want to bring on a larger bag, you’ll have to pay the fee ($25 on both airlines) to check it. These tickets are not eligible for upgrades, flight changes or refunds, and travelers must board in the last group.

When it comes to comfort, basic economy fares come with automatically assigned seats on both airlines. However, American will allow travelers to select a specific seat for a fee.

This stripped-down fare class sounds kind of bleak, but it’s not that much different than tickets offered by low-cost carriers like Spirit (SAVE) or Frontier, who already charge passengers for flight changes, carry-on bags and seat selection. By unbundling services, the legacy carriers are seeking to attract the budget-conscious traveler who doesn’t mind sacrificing comfort for savings.

Delta (DAL) was an early adopter of this theory, launching its own basic economy class back in 2012. With this fare class, flyers don’t receive their seat assignment until after check-in, families are not seated together, travelers have to board in the last zone, and tickets are not eligible for same-day changes or refunds. One major difference, however, is that a free carry-on bag is still allowed in the overhead bin with Delta’s basic economy fare.

The price of comfort

The basic economy fare tickets are no doubt cheaper than regular fares, but they’ll almost certainly make travelers question how much comfort they’re willing to give up for the savings.

A sample basic economy fare from American Airlines.

On United we found a round-trip basic economy fare from Minneapolis to Denver for $181, this was about $81 cheaper than the regular economy ticket costing $262. Over on American Airlines we found a roundtrip basic economy ticket available from Orlando to Charlotte, N.C. for $197. A standard main cabin ticket costs $237. So yes, you’ll save $40, but you can’t bring a carry-on. If you need to check a bag, it will cost $25 – which means your total savings comes to just $15. Factor in all the other restrictions, like the inability to select your seat or rebook the ticket, and the cheaper fare seems even less enticing.  

Basic economy fares are also only available on limited routes. On United, only customers purchasing tickets from Minneapolis to seven other major US hubs like New York, Denver and Los Angeles will have the option to choose basic economy fares for travel starting after April 18.

On American, basic economy fares are available on 10 select routes in the US for travel starting on March 1. Still, these cheaper tickets were sometimes limited (perhaps because they sold out first) and were only offered for certain times of the day. In many cases, the basic economy tickets were only available for the first or second flight of the day, which could be good if you’re a morning person, and bad if you prefer to travel in the afternoon.

Silver linings

First, cheaper is cheaper – no matter how you look at it. On American, the basic economy flights we found will save you $30 to $40 which is nothing to scoff at, especially when you’re budgeting for a family trip. Heck, even if you decide to check a bag and only save $15, that’s enough to buy your lunch from most airport restaurants.

Another perk of basic economy fares is that they’re typically on shorter routes. On American, travelers can select this cheaper option from Miami to Tampa, Charlotte to Philadelphia or Miami to New Orleans — all of which are all non-stop flights lasting 2-3 hours. On United, basic economy fares can be found on short flights from Minneapolis to Chicago and Denver. This fact makes this class particularly enticing for a budget-conscious traveler looking for a cheap ticket and doesn’t need to check a bag.

United Airlines and the other carriers warn customers before they purchase a basic economy fare.

It’s also hard to accidentally book a basic economy fare if you book directly on the airline’s website. American, United and even Delta will alert customers of the restrictions if they select a basic economy ticket. This gives users the option to accept the terms, or decline and select another option. You have a choice, which is a beautiful thing.

Important note: if you book travel on a third-party site like Orbitz or Priceline, it might be harder to decipher if your ticket is basic economy ticket. To help with this issue, Hopper has released a new feature called Fair Bear to help users find the true cost of their flight.

Verdict

The basic economy fares give passengers more options. If someone is looking for the cheapest possible ticket and can pack incredibly light, this fare class gives you the opportunity to save some money.

But really, it all comes down to luggage. It’s pretty evident that basic economy class fares are a thinly veiled attempt by airlines to get passengers to check their bags. We all know how in-demand the overhead bins are, with many airlines running out of space by the time the last boarding group gets on the plane. Now, instead of asking for volunteers to check their bags at the gate, American and United have created a new fare class with built-in volunteers. In the grand scheme of things, this could help with overhead-bin crowding, but we suspect it will also increase the money airlines bring in for baggage fees.

Bottom line: if you’re a solo traveler who can pack light, then basic economy could help you save a few bucks. But if you’re traveling with your family, and have more stuff than what will fit in a backpack, you’ll have to check a bag, which can lead to a lost suitcase and getting stuck at baggage claim. We will gladly pay the full fare to avoid both of these scenarios.

Brittany is a writer at Yahoo Finance

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