As a college student looking to save a buck, the cheapest option is usually the best option. This mindset makes total sense — you want to gain the most experiences with the least cost. Airline tickets are often the biggest expense of the trip, but unfortunately, that’s just on top of accommodations, food and nightlife that go along with a trip. In response to this, many airlines have begun offering basic economy (BE) tickets.
These tickets are essentially the “no frills” option that’s easier on your wallet. While this may seem like the best option to most students, it is important to know exactly what you’re buying before you book the ticket. We break down restrictions and guidelines with the pros and cons of basic economy tickets so you can be sure you’re getting the ticket that’s right for you.
The lowdown on Basic Economy
Seen these little pop-ups on our website when booking a flight? Basic economy is a new, usually cheaper option when you’re purchasing a ticket. The catch? Often times, these fares don’t cover the benefits passengers have come to expect, such as overhead space for bags or online check-in. All in all, basic economy books you a seat on the plane and not much else. Another exception is last-minute flights—when you’re booking with StudentUniverse, our last-minute domestic tickets are usually cheaper than basic economy.
While this option might be worth it for a quick weekend getaway where you can stuff a change of clothes into the bag, it might not be for longer trips. You might end up having to pay more later on if you decide you need a bag, or have to fly back a day early. We’ll break down the pros and cons below, so you can know what to expect.
Flying basic economy means you’ll need to pack only the basics. If you’re flying United, you’ll be limited to a single personal item that fits under the seat in front of you (unless you’re on a trans-Atlantic flight). On Delta and American, you’re welcome to bring a standard carry-on for the overhead bin as well as a smaller personal item.
Keep in mind that checked baggage fees vary for basic economy tickets as well. For Delta and United, the baggage fee is usually the same as for other economy passengers. The exception is with international flights—while most economy tickets include a free checked bag for international flights, basic economy usually comes with a fee.
Restrictions on basic economy fares vary by airline as well: Delta, American, Alaska and United all have slightly different terms, as do many international airlines. In general, though, you can expect the following:
- less flexibility: basic economy means you won’t be able to make changes to your reservations or get a refund if you decide to cancel. You also won’t have the option to upgrade seats or change your ticket to another class (i.e. Premium Economy or Business) later.
- boarding group: basic economy passengers usually board last.
- miles: basic economy passengers still earn award miles for their tickets (score!). However, some airlines have reduced the number of miles you can earn for certain reward programs.
- seat selection: with basic economy, your seat is assigned for you after you check in. Remember that you won’t be able to change or upgrade your seat selection, either. Some airlines do allow you to select a seat within 24 hours before the flight—for a small fee, of course.
- check-in: for some airlines, the check-in process might be slightly different. Don’t worry—the airline will let you know before your flight if any additional steps are needed. For some routes and airlines, online check-in may not be available.
Basic economy is often the cheaper option, but it’s not if you’re buying a last-minute ticket. Need a ticket home for the end of the semester? Planning a weekend trip for next weekend? Catching an impromptu flight to go see a friend? For flights that are within the next two weeks, basic economy is actually usually not any cheaper.
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In general, basic economy fares tend to be about $20-$60 less than main cabin seating. However, there have been some cases where these tickets were a huge savings—even as much as $200! When you’re trying to save money, this can be a great bargain. However, it can also come with a lot of hidden fees if you’re not careful. Double-check restrictions and fees and factor these costs into your planning!
More good news? On most major airlines, you’re still flying in the same section of the cabin as all the regular economy passengers, so you’ll enjoy the same in-flight experience as someone with a Main Cabin ticket. WiFi options, when available; snacks and meals; entertainment and so on will all be the same for you. And for a budget traveler, it’s a great way to save while still enjoying the comfort of a major airline.
Keep in mind that this isn’t the case for all airlines. Some low-cost airlines have certain seating sections (read: more cramped) for basic economy tickets and snacks and drinks may not be included. If you’re thinking of flying basic economy on a low-cost airline, check the details first on the airline’s website to be sure you know what your ticket includes.
Can you break it down for me?
Sure, no probs. Let’s take two examples so you can see how it might work out for you:
Exhibit A: let’s say you’re flying from Houston to New York for school. You want to save money by bringing just a carry-on instead of a checked bag if you can, but it’s a pretty quick flight, so you don’t care where you sit. You’ll just buy a one-way flight for now, because you’re not sure about Thanksgiving break dates. You find a flight and then see this pop-up:
What to do? This is a close call. You won’t be able to bring a carry-on, and checking a bag on domestic flights is often around $30 (check the fees to be sure.) Keep in mind other limitations—no seat selections, no online check-in (meaning longer lines for you at the airport), and no changes—and then decide. It might be better to save a few bucks this time, or it might be worth it to upgrade and save yourself some time and stress at the airport. Plus, when you get standard economy, you can choose a seat in advance and save yourself from the horrors of a middle seat right by the bathroom.
Exhibit B: summer trip to Europe with two friends. You’re pumped and you’d obviously love to sit together. You’re also planning on checking a bag because you’re going to be in Europe for a few weeks. You’ve searched for your flight and found this:
On most airlines, it costs about $60-$100 to check a bag for an international flight on basic economy. That means you’ll end up paying $120-$200 for round-trip baggage fees! Yikes! If it’s less than that to upgrade (it often is), it’s worth it to just grab a standard economy ticket. Plus, you’ll get online check-in and free seat selection too.
At the end of the day, you’ll know best what things are most important to you when you’re traveling. If you know for sure you won’t need to make changes to your flight, don’t mind packing light and are flexible with your seat on the plane, basic economy can be a great option.
If you need more flexibility (or more luggage!), you might want to consider buying a regular ticket. And if you’re buying a last-minute ticket, basic economy probably won’t even be the cheapest option.
Good news for StudentUniverse customers, though—you can still get discounted flights even if basic economy isn’t the best choice for you. In fact, sometimes our regular economy flights are even cheaper than basic economy!
Ready for a weekend trip or a quick getaway? Search discount flights now!