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So, three major U.S. airlines now offer their idea of budget travel: Basic Economy flights. To read the website descriptions, you’d think this was a fabulous and long-overdue gift to travelers. Not so…
Here’s how Delta Airlines crows about its Basic Economy: “To give customers more flight options, Delta launched Basic Economy. When you choose this option, you’ll still enjoy a seat in the Main Cabin, but with a few restrictions.”
Next, read how United Airlines tries to make Basic Economy sound appealing: “Created for our customers who may be more price-sensitive, these lower-priced fares provide most of the same inflight services and amenities that are available with standard Economy — such as food and beverages, United Wi-FiSM and inflight entertainment — but with some important restrictions…”
Finally, American Airlines just jumped on the bandwagon: “If you want our lowest price, try the new Basic Economy fare. There are some restrictions, but you’ll still get a comfortable seat in the Main Cabin and enjoy free snacks, soft drinks and inflight entertainment.”
Notice how they sort of gloss over the “restrictions” part of the deal? How they exclaim that you still get a plastic glass of soda, plus access to the inedible and overpriced menu? Let me spell out what happens if you fall for this “Economy Minus” ploy:
When you book your flight, be very aware that:
- Your flight can’t be changed, not even for a fee. If you cancel, the airline keeps your money.
- No upgrades, even if you’re a super-duper elite flyer with the airline.
- Depending on the airline, you may or may not get mileage credit. If you do, it will be at a reduced rate.
Once you’re at the airport, there are more limitations:
- You can only bring onboard ONE item and it MUST fit under the seat in front of you. If it doesn’t fit, you will be charged at least $25 for baggage check, PLUS at least $25 penalty.
- Your seat will be assigned at check in. This means a middle seat. (American will let you choose a seat 48 hours ahead, but you’ll pay a fee.)
- If you are traveling with someone else, you will not sit together.
- You will board in the last group. (Not that it matters, since you can’t use the overhead space, anyway.)
How did this come about? It seems that in some cities, low-cost airlines such as Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant were offering cheaper fares. And people were buying them. The fact that every item, from printing a boarding pass to paying for a cup of coffee during the flight, was an extra fee didn’t seem to occur to those who were only looking at the base cost. For example, Spirit Airlines charges the following fees, which they call “Optional Services” because “We believe in only paying for what you use, not what you don’t.” Sounds swell, except you’re bound to need some of these:
- Carry-on bags are $26-45 , depending on when you declare them. Forgot till you’re at the gate? That’ll be $100!
- Checked bags are $21 or $30 for the first bag, $31 or $40 for the second
- Seat assignments, unless you wait till check-in, range from $1-$199. If you wait till check-in, don’t count on sitting with your family or friends.
- Print your boarding pass at home for free. Otherwise, pay $2 at the airport kiosk or $10 if the nice agent does it for you.
- Hungry? $1-10 for snacks. Thirsty? $1-15 to take care of that.
- There are endless other fees, from earlier standby ($99) to shortcut boarding ($6) to shortcut security ($15).
This “cheap” competition caused the major airlines anguish. They were losing revenue because people weren’t smart enough to add on the extra charges before hitting the “purchase” button. So, the marketing folks got together and created Basic Economy, hoping to lure less-savvy passengers to their websites. Passengers who are willing to be treated with even fewer of the already-teeeeeeny benefits of air travel.
Let’s do a quick comparison to see if Basic Economy is really a deal. I chose a round-trip ticket from Chicago to Los Angeles on Wednesday, February 22–March 1, 2017. Wednesday is one of the cheapest days to fly. Both itineraries have one stop each way and leave within a half-hour of each other. Fees are based on checking in at the airport, which most people prefer.
Delta Airlines Spirit Airlines
Airfare $263.60 (Coach fare is $293.60) $201.08
Carry-on 0.00 55.00
Boarding pass 0.00 10.00
Soft drinks 0.00 5.00
Check 1 bag 25.00 50.00
TOTAL $288.00 $316.08
Plus, for only $5.60 more, you can get a ticket that can be changed or cancelled (for a fee, but you don’t lose the entire purchase). You’ll also be able to select a seat, at least at the time of this post.
All this calculation is to simply say that you should beware of the lure of Basic Economy.