How to Fly in the New

“Basic Economy” Era

These dirt-cheap airfares are enticing.
Here's how to take advantage of them without getting screwed.

How to Fly in Basic Economy Airfare

There's no doubt the age of glamour and service in the sky is long gone. If you're not #blessed to be upgraded to the front of the plane, nothing should shock you by now. But let's face it, what most of us really want is an extremely low airfare, right? We'll bring our own snacks, be entertained on our mobile devices and endure the uncomfortable seats (placed way too close together) if it means more money to spend once we actually get to our destination.

Which is why bare-bones budget airlines like Frontier, Allegiant and Spirit have been gaining ground on legacy carriers. And why the big boys (American, United and Delta) have all just launched new "Basic Economy" fares to compete. While these sub-$100 fares may look like epic deals, are they really worth it? It's hard to trust an airline these days, especially when some of these new "basic economy" fares—which cost less than a standard coach fare— could end up costing you more for the same coach seat, but with notable restrictions. Here's what to know so you don't end up getting screwed.

The Flying Experience Is (Almost) the Same

Unlike the discount carriers that offer shockingly low prices and then charge you for everything from drinks and snacks to the ability to bring on a carry-on, the Basic Economy experience is the same as flying coach has always been. The usual seats, a complimentary soft drink, some pretzels (or God willing, those delicious Biscoff cookies) and sometimes even inflight entertainment. You won't pay extra for those, and you won't pay extra for a carry-on, because you're simply not allowed access to the overhead bins.

Middle Seat!

Some people don't mind battling for the armrests. If you're the type that hates the middle seat, then these Basic Economy fares probably aren't for you. Because you can't choose your seat when booking the ticket and the seats you're assigned to are almost exclusively middle seats near the back of the plane. American does give you the option to choose your seat, 48 hours before check-in, for a fee—but there's no guarantee a window or aisle will be available. And, not surprisingly, these fares place you in the final boarding group as well.

Watch for

The snacks may be free, but the baggage can seriously cost you. Though the Basic Economy fare rules differ from airline to airline (be sure read them before booking), most allow only a small personal item, like a laptop bag, to be carried on. All airlines allow you to check a bag for a fee, but if you're flying Basic Economy and show up at the gate with a standard carry-on, you'll not only be charged the usual $25 checked bag fee, they'll also tack on a $25 "gate-handling charge."

So is it worth it? That all depends. Because if you're not careful, the standard economy ticket—the one expected to rise slightly in price this summer—may still end up being a better deal in select cases than these tempting Basic Economy tickets. Because that low fare plus the extra costs (to pick a seat or check a bag) can quickly add up to more than the standard coach ticket. But for quick, last-minute trips these new fares could really save you money. The most important thing to remember is to understand the rules and restrictions of the ticket you're purchasing. Then you can decide if the price is worth the trade-offs. As in, what's a seat assignment or carry-on worth to you? Like window or aisle, that's a personal call everyone's got to make for themselves.

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In which our editor rants about people reclining their seats on a plane. He's vehemently against it. Where do you stand (or sit) on the debate?

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