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

A woman snuggles with her toddler on an airplane.
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If you’ve recently tried to book a flight on a major airline, you’ve probably been tempted by the ultra-low prices of “basic economy” fares. Now offered as the lowest-tiered way to travel on airlines like United, American, Delta and even JetBlue — this mode of travel offers a cheap way to get from point A to Z, but with a few catches.

I recently traveled cross country via United’s Basic Economy, and learned a few things along the way. Here’s our Penny Hoarder round-up of everything you’ll want to know before booking a basic economy ticket, plus some tips and tricks to make the experience better (read: less miserable).

What is Basic Economy?

Basic economy airfare started cropping up more regularly in the last few years. What started out as a big airline response to budget airline prices has quickly become the new norm for thrifty travelers everywhere.

Basic economy is pretty much what it sounds like — a seat on an airplane, without the extra frills. The catch is that what the airlines now consider to be “frills” are actually fairly basic accommodations.

For example, most basic economy tickets don’t allow you to choose your seat on the plane (even if you’re traveling with someone else) or even to bring a carry-on.

Next up, we’ll cover some essential tips on how to get the most out of your basic economy ticket.

How To Travel Basic Economy 

Traveling basic economy is all about managing expectations. If all you need is a seat on the plane, you might not mind the other inconveniences that come with this bare-bones airfare. But if you’re expecting much more, you may find yourself disappointed.

After recently crossing the country with United’s basic economy offering, I learned a thing or two about what these tickets actually include, and what they don’t. Here’s the breakdown.

1. Seating

One of the biggest differences between traveling basic economy and the higher-tier options is the seating. You likely won’t be able to select a seat for yourself on the plane without paying extra. This is the case even if you book at the same time as your travel buddy. You’ll also likely be placed in the least-desirable seats on the plane. Think: In the very back rows by the bathrooms. This means you will both board last and exit the plane last after landing.

If you find yourself in a full plane, there isn’t much you can do about this. Pack some good headphones or earbuds, wear comfy clothes and hope for a seat-mate with an equally good sense of humor. But, if you end up on a plane that isn’t full, you might just be able to move your seat once everyone’s on board.

I recommend speaking with a flight attendant to see what other seats they can offer you. Chances are they won’t allow you to sit anywhere that would be considered an “upgrade” — ie. seats with extra legroom or in a different class. But a kind and caring flight attendant might just allow you to move up a few rows into a less crowded spot, thereby making your flight a little more enjoyable.

2. Baggage

After seating, baggage restrictions were one of the biggest obstacles I faced on my basic economy flights. The trick here is to learn what your airline allows and what it doesn’t. Often, this is a simple matter of semantics more than anything else.

For example, I flew all of my United basic economy flights with a 35L backpack. While a few  flight attendants raised their eyebrows, I assured them that my “personal item” would fit under the seat in front of me. I also made sure to put everything in my bag before approaching the podium to board so that I wouldn’t appear to have anything other than my personal item.

This became annoying around flight number three, when I had to stuff my small crossbody purse and book and water bottle back into the bag just to get on the flight without ruffling any feathers — but I guess that’s the price you pay when pinching pennies on a basic economy ticket. All in all, I found that being prepared with this line about my personal item was the key to getting by with what was essentially a carry-on, despite United’s no-carry on policy for this kind of airfare.

Note: Nearly all airlines I looked at charge extra for checked bags when flying basic economy. Prices vary from $30-60 per bag depending on how far in advance you pay for them.

3. In-Flight Services

The saving grace in all of this was that with basic economy you at least get the very same in-flight services as every other person in the main cabin of the plane. This means you will likely be offered the same snacks, refreshments, and entertainment options. That being said, there seems to have been a shift recently in what airlines are offering as far as in-flight entertainment.

Most flights I took offered in-flight entertainment via the United App. This means you’d need a fully charged device with the app downloaded before the flight from which to watch any of their shows or movies.

Note: You do not need to purchase in-flight Wifi to have access to this option.

Most seats on the plane come with a charging station below the seat, allowing you to keep your device plugged in during the flight — although I did hear whispers that some ports weren’t working. If you’d like to watch anything during your flight, I recommend boarding the plane with your device charged, a good set of headphones, and your airline’s app downloaded ahead of time. Having the app is also useful if you plan to make any in-flight purchases (like a glass of wine or snack) since some airlines no longer conduct any transactions outside of their mobile app.

4. Points

Another thing to consider when traveling via basic economy is that you may not be eligible to earn points in the same way. While United does allow you to earn points on basic economy tickets, other airlines don’t, or otherwise they offer only a fraction of the normal points. If earning points while traveling is important to you, be sure to check your airline’s policy on this before booking a basic economy ticket.

Airlines with Basic Economy Fares

With airlines focused on keeping costs low, there are more companies than ever offering basic economy fares. Here’s a quick guide to some of the major airlines offering these ultra-cheap tickets, plus what to expect before you travel.

American Airlines

American Airlines’ basic economy is more generous than most: It offers one carry-on (that must fit in the overhead bin) and one personal item (that must fit under the seat in front of you) at no additional cost. Upgrades are possible, and seat selection is available at the time of booking for an additional fee. Expect to board in the very last group before the jet bridge closes.

Alaska Airlines 

Also known as their Saver fares, the basic economy offering from Alaska Airlines similarly allows for one carry on and one personal item. You won’t be able to select your seats ahead of time, and you won’t be able to make changes to your flight after booking beyond the standard 24 hour cancellation window. You may also be limited in the number of points you earn as compared to normal cabin flights.


The biggest drawback to flying basic economy with Delta is that they don’t offer any points. You will however, be able to take both a carry-on and personal item at no extra charge. Expect to board last, and not know your seat until the day of travel. You also won’t be able to upgrade your ticket or make any changes to your itinerary after booking.


JetBlue’s Blue Basic airfare only allows for one personal item, but no carry-on. You’ll earn points at the normal rate of one per every dollar spent. Seat selection or making any changes to your itinerary will cost extra. Expect to board last.


Basic economy with United includes one personal item that must fit under the seat in front of you. No carry ons are allowed. You won’t be able to pick your seat and you won’t be able to make any changes to your flight after the standard 24 hour window. Expect to board in the final group.

Budget airlines like Spirit and Frontier also offer the equivalent of a basic economy fare. You can expect a similar experience on these airlines, but with even less frills. Think: Less comfortable seating, no in-flight refreshments, and even less legroom.

How to Travel Basic Economy: The Final Word

Traveling basic economy certainly isn’t for everyone. But if you find yourself planning a short trip, where packing light is possible — it can be a serious money-saver. Familiarize yourself with your chosen airline’s basic economy policy before booking. That way, you’ll be able to go into the experience fully prepared for whatever is and isn’t included in the cost of your ticket.

Contributor Larissa Runkle frequently writes on finance, real estate, and lifestyle topics for The Penny Hoarder.