For Many Customers It’s Not Worth Spending More to Avoid Basic Economy. Here’s How to Decide

Most of the time I’ve seen buy ups from Basic Economy to regular economy for $25 or so, or more on longer routes. But Tuesday night reader W. shared New York LaGuardia – Denver asking different buy up amounts for different flights — as much as $75 more one way.

There’s no way I would pay $75 more to avoid Basic Economy though I might pay the same or a little more to avoid United in this case.

Perhaps this was just a mistake? United is no stranger to self-destructing IT. That’s been an ongoing story since the Continental merger and the short-sighted decision to keep the owned SHARES platform. Here Basic Economy costs extra.

When Basic Economy and regular economy fares price the same I simply speculate that United’s regular economy isn’t really that much better than Basic Economy.

And in fact there’s actually some truth there. Basic Economy means,

  • No upgrades or extra legroom seats for elites (and depending on airline no or reduced elite qualification)

  • No full-sized carry on bag, and board last (although elites and credit card holders are exempt)

  • No advance seat assignments (or depending on carrier pay extra at the last minute for a seat assignment if desired)

  • No changes to tickets, use it or lose it

When I wrote about American no longer offering complimentary extra legroom seating to customers on full fare tickets, I shared a seat map of a 737 on a short domestic flight. “P” indicates premium seat. If it has a P, American charges for the seat (but waives the charge for elite frequent flyers).

Nearly every decent seat on the plane comes with a charge:

So ‘buying up’ to regular economy means paying extra for the right to pay even more extra for a decent (“P”) seat.

If you don’t pay extra you may wind up in a middle seat if that’s all that’s left. Or you might wind up in one of the better coach seats that you would otherwise have to pay for, that’s a common result many United flyers have relayed to me in their experience with Basic Economy fares.

To be sure basic economy means not being allowed a full-sized carry on bag. (Unless you’re flying United and put your clothes in an instrument case.) But,

  • That doesn’t apply to elite frequent flyers

  • It doesn’t apply to co-brand credit card holders, I already have given the advice for years to get the credit card of the airline you fly most just for the travel benefits (but not for your regular spending)

  • If you’re going to pay to check a bag anyway the carry on is less important, you still get a personal item like a laptop bag in any case.

You also board last, but without the need for overhead bin space that’s better, the only reason to board early is so you don’t have to gate check your rollaboard. Otherwise why spend even more time in the cramped seats?

So who should spend more to avoid Basic Economy?

  • Elite frequent flyers who can reserve extra legroom seats at no additional cost, and who might get an upgrade (The buy up from Basic Economy becomes a lottery ticket).

  • People without elite status, without the airline’s co-brand credit card, who want to bring a carry on bag onboard and not check a bag. Generally the checked bag fee will be about as much as the buy up, so the cost is a wash, and you save time.

  • People buying super expensive tickets, since you can pay a $200 change fee if your plans change versus forfeiting the entire value of the fare (it’s trip insurance without the requirement for a qualifying medical event).

Basic Economy isn’t a ‘new lower fare’. It’s new restrictions on what were already the lowest fares. And the reasons airlines are offering them is so they can increase their prices without losing out on business from the most price sensitive customers. By making the economy experience even worse, some people will spend more and others will suffer more.

Of course customers also have options like Southwest Airlines, JetBlue, and Alaska which are not currently deploying this strategy and in some cases offer more legroom as well.

United reported they’re losing business to customers choosing their competitors instead of buying up from basic economy, but since they know American will play the greater fool and give up this advantage they believe the gap will close and the strategy will eventually mean more revenue to the airline.

Do you spend more to avoid Basic Economy fares? I’d love to know why or why not.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Check October 22nd MCO-ORD. Regular economy is $235. Basic economy is $357. Not guessing they will get many takers.

  2. If you have no status and no credit card, unless you are just doing a day trip and don’t need a bag, but you are not doing a trip that is longer than you could pack in a carry on, I don’t see how you justify not paying up to at least $50 which is what it will cost you to check a bag in lieu of carrying it on round trip.

    This makes the $75 regular economy surcharge really $25 if you are carrying on. It makes the $40 surcharge ($10). Yes there is some faulty logic here but I think it is what UA is gunning for in their scheme overall.

  3. The problem with the United co-brand card is that, unlike AA or DL you have to purchase the ticket with the card to receive the benefits.

  4. Gary, I think you are missing the biggest driver of the “buy-up” cost – the price that the relative low-cost airline is charging for the same route. United is simply matching Frontier’s price on the LGA to DEN route with Basic Economy, nothing more, nothing less. A quick search with Google Flights confirms this.

  5. My strategy is to stop flying them both at all costs
    Only redeem with their mileage on their partners as they make little to no inventory available for reward on their own metal anymore
    I don’t care if I pay a higher premium and go out of my way to Jet blue Alaska virgin even southwest just in spite of their greed to fly domestically
    at least I don’t feel gamed or ripped off at their competitors
    and their competition has vastly superior customer service and ticketing policies as well as reasonably fair policies overall
    Its principal
    0 miles flown at United and American this year for the first time in 30 years and no chance of being re-accommodated down the aisle bleeding 😉

  6. Absent Monty Python only SNL can do them justice. The blithering idiot Parker will preside at the planning meeting explaining how much fun he had taking out the wiring on US Airways in-seat entertainment so that customers fidgeted with the useless controls for their whole flight trying to get them to work. The next discussion would be why the new economy backboards need to have ANY articulation, just leg and torso seatbelts to hold pax in the 12″ space.

  7. What about if I have credit card, UAL website knows I do, book the basic economy? Do I get the bag automatically for myself or someone I buy the ticket for through my account?

  8. I was a Star Gold (SE100k w/ AC) flyer for a decade….since they squeezed all the earning and made me buy to get benefits with AC (i.e. tango fares, etc.)…i dropped them to go for value and price.

    I settled on WN / AS(VX) which made sense for my commuting intra-CA and longer haul when i wanted to go east coast or overseas (based in Bay Area). I have been happy every since….despite what people say about cattle call boarding on WN, the staff is really the best out there and treats you like a human being. No nickel and diming, free bags and a lot of times…free booze.

  9. I simply avoid UA entirely now unless I am flying paid F. I also avoid American for the most part now where I see a ridiculous seat map filled with “P”s. It’s asinine to charge for a 20th row aisle seat. All my business is directed primarily at JetBlue and Delta. I refuse to give these greedy scoundrels my $.

  10. For me the key decision point is the mobile boarding pass:

    -skip a kiosk
    -go straight to PreCheck
    -go straight to gate
    -no need to talk to anyone

    United does not let Basic Economy get a mobile boarding pass. So that’s real time you have to invest in checking in at a kiosk.

  11. I recently booked BOS-DEN. The basic economy United fare and Southwest fares were roughly equivalent withing a few $$. The flight times were about the same. I haven’t flown southwest in years. I bought with them since we get checked bags and the upgrade to standard united economy was a lot.

  12. Basic Economy is pretty awful for consumers, but an entirely rational competitive response to the rise of unbundled fares by ultra low cost carriers. If you’re AA and Spirit has introduced an unbundled fare in a nonstop competitive market, offering a competitive Basic Economy fare — and then trying to upsell customers out of it — seems like pure genius to me.

    What UA is doing, however, is different. It’s offering BE fares throughout its domestic network. This forces customers to make a terrible choice. Go cheap, and skip things that you probably want (seat assignment, full-size carry-on) or overpay. But could this be the profit-maximizing pricing strategy? It might be pure EVIL genius. I know you probably won’t admit it, but I guarantee you that Scott Kirby at UA knows a lot more about airline pricing than you (or I) know. Only time will tell if he’s right (or partially right) about this strategy.

    As far as what “it’s worth” to avoid BE, that’s a number that will be different for every traveler. I bought a 1300 mile ticket BE on UA from Houston to Washington for $50; even as a 1K, I was unwilling to pay $40 more to avoid the hassle. But I did just pay AA $11 more to “upgrade” a 1000 mile flight out of BE, where I am a low elite.

    Interestingly, it can be difficult to ticket out of BE. I haven’t checked all the OTAs, but priceline won’t sell you a “regular” economy ticket on AA if BE is available. All the credit card travel agencies (like Chase, Citi, US Bank) also don’t give you the choice to buy regular economy if BE is available. (You can try calling). I suspect this will eventually change, but for now, the situation kind of sucks.

  13. @iahphx Does Kirby know a lot? Sure. He says it’s worth a billion dollars. Delta says he’s nuts. If you want to simply make an argument by authority…

  14. Interesting seat map for american now. Looks like if two flyers want to sit next to each other, one will need to buy a premium seat and one a basic economy seat to accomplish this in much of the economy cabin. I would not want to be the flight attendants who have to administer this cluster of complexity, and the conflicts it will cause, in the air. At least they are now acknowledging that middle seats in coach are basically worthless. I expect to see the flea and tick section or the dumpy, old flight attendant section priced out accordingly next.

  15. @Al “The problem with the United co-brand card is that, unlike AA or DL you have to purchase the ticket with the card to receive the benefits.”

    And what’s the downside to that?

  16. If it is true that Basic Economy is merely added restrictions on the lowest fares, then it makes one wonder how the Big3 have been able to pull off this massive service cut and price increase (on non-BE fares).

    I avoid flights with BE whenever possible. It’s getting harder to do. I recently bought up from BE on DL solely to use Regional Upgrades. That’s the last time I fall for that RU ruse. They are usually difficult to apply when the ticket is purchased, and over the years, I’ve found that as a Diamond I would have been upgraded anyway even without the RU. Henceforth, I’ll use my Choice Benefits choices on something other than RUs.

  17. I won’t buy a BE fare, ever. Instead, if the fare is not competitive I will simply fly WN/AS. I will never fly Spirit either. It’s kind of like shopping at Wal-Mart – I don’t need to support the high cost of the low price.

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