I Flew American Airlines Basic Economy for the First Time — and Liked It

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Basic economy isn’t supposed to be a new cheaper fare. It’s supposed to be new restrictions on what used to be the cheapest fare. That way people who don’t like the restrictions are supposed to spend more money to avoid the inferior experience.

That’s why the restrictions are so onerous:

  • No advance seat assignments
  • No changes to your ticket
  • No full-sized carry on bag
  • No upgrades
  • Board last

And yet the price was so good, the cost to buy out of the restrictions so high, and the journey made easier by elite status that it turned out my first experience actually flying on one of these fares turned out not to be bad at all.

I Bought Basic Economy Because American Wanted Too Much Money to Avoid the Restrictions

Usually you’ll pay about $20 extra to avoid basic economy when that fare is offered. I was being asked to pay an extra $236. This was a personal trip, out of my own pocket, there was no way I’d pay an extra $236 for an advance seat assignment (and a miniscule chance of upgrade on an Airbus A319 with just 8 first class seats).

While mid-tier elites and higher giving up upgrades — and at a minimum usually access to complimentary Main Cabin Extra seats — get the most benefit from buying up from basic economy fares, elites also have fewer restrictions when they do fly on these fares.

Customers who have the airline’s co-brand credit card or who have elite status get their usual boarding priority. And since the restriction on carry on bags is enforced by boarding group, having priority boarding also means getting to bring on that carry on.

I was traveling with my wife. She flew her outbound on American, and would take the same flight as me coming home. One quirk about American’s basic economy is that is isn’t combinable with other fares. So by booking her outbound where basic economy wasn’t offered, she got the same $50 return flight without basic economy restrictions.

We both agreed it made sense not to sit together for the flight. For $236 savings we’ll spend a couple of hours apart.

So I booked my ticket. The only real loss would be that I’d take whatever seat I was given.

$17 Let Me Sit With My Wife

American will still let you pay for a seat assignment 48 hours out on one of these fares. So I pulled up the seat map and here’s what I was offered.

I could have booked a bulkhead window or exit row aisle for $64. That’s a bit rich for a two hour flight, and I wouldn’t have been able to sit with my wife (who has AAdvantage elite status and could select one of these seats for free) anyway.

I booked 19E for $17. That’s the same kind of seat I probably would have gotten free. But I put my wife in 19D for free. So on a basic economy fare, for $17, we even were seated together.

Now I’d Just Experience Tight Coach Seating Like Everyone Else

We still had use of the American Airlines Admirals Club from my premium AAdvantage co-brand card.

I boarded with my usual group, in this case after one ConciergeKey passenger and first class. There were just the two of us boarding between groups 2 and 3.

The 17 year old legacy US Airways plane had (air to ground) wifi and streaming video content but no seat back entertainment. I don’t love regular economy on the plane, but it doesn’t yet have the new smaller lavatories or the new domestic seats. It’s fine for two hours.

And at a fare of $49.30 plus $17 to sit with my wife I have no complaints. Plus legacy US Airways A319s have seat power in economy, two plus for each row of 3 seats. On a 2 hour flight I wouldn’t even need it.

I wasn’t hungry and didn’t even much feel like a cocktail. But since American was nickel and diming me, I was going to take full advantage of my Executive Platinum benefits. As a 100,000 mile flyer I’m entitled to a snack and a cocktail when flying economy, so I definitely asked a flight attendant for that.

And more value back for my ticket I even earned 363 miles which I value at $5.44.

There was a screaming child sitting directly behind me, but that wasn’t a feature of my fare class and just a function of travel.

American Imposed Big Restrictions on My Ticket and I Still Won

There’s no question American Airlines left money on the table with me on this flight. They’ve moved to a system where they want customers to book on schedule and price instead of loyalty, and that’s what I did only schedule and price this time meant flying American.

They underpriced their tickets. Southwest Airlines non-stops were about the same price as American’s regular economy fare. Frontier’s one flight at 6:45 a.m. wasn’t an option. They were discounting instead of charging as much as competitors for a similar product. Yet somehow they’re going to report that Basic Economy is making them more money.

While I don’t think American ought to try to be all things to all people, and I far prefer and would happily pay for a premium experience, American Airlines doesn’t offer one flying Phoenix – Austin at any price (domestic first class with no seat back video and legacy US Airways new first class seats hardly counts).

However with a co-brand credit card or elite status they offer a perfectly manageable “Allegiant experience” that’s well worth the $49.30. I feel like I got amazing value flying American Airlines, and I’m not sure I’ve felt that way in quite awhile.

Still I’d much prefer a modest buy up to regular economy for the 872 mile trip if only so I wouldn’t need to pay attention and return to the seat map 48 hours out since I cared about where I’d be sitting and even the cheapest middle seat costs almost $17 to pre-reserve.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. I know that AAdvantage Gold and higher + co-brand cardholders get to keep checked bag and boarding benefits, but do you know if oneworld Emerald/Sapphire/Ruby members also get to keep these benefits when travelling on AA basic economy?

  2. Perhaps American has a better feel for their markets than we give them credit for. I know of other people with similar stories, but less savings.
    You are lucky to have Southwest as a dominant competitor. From many airports, a two hour long flight is much more than $50.
    It is interesting that Delta is working to reinstate the inter-airline agreement with AA. Would your ticket transfer over, or does the Basic Economy program prevent that?

  3. So when you get a good price AA is stupid, when they cut costs AA is stupid, when they try to make more revenue AA is stupid. OK, we get it, you don’t like AA.

  4. Good info. When my wife and I travel together we usually get two aisle seats. I would hand paid $18 for 19C instead of $17 for a middle seat.

  5. And, you could just move to the main cabin extra seats after the boarding was complete and get even more value for your $50

  6. @Gary I’ve been occasionally tempted by Delta’s BE product but the fare difference only appears to be $40 RT. Your post made me go back and read the fine print; it would appear I still get waived checked baggage fees, Priority Check-in, Priority Boarding, and Medallion mileage bonus, as well as MQMs/MQSes/MQDs/etc. when flying BE. I do lose is preassigned seats which would be tough on flights out of my Delta hub where the pickings would be slim at check-in, given a better price point on a personal flight, I may consider it.

  7. Hmmmm a lot of butthurt AA employees or other stakeholders w/AA connections complaining about all your not-so-positive AA posts lately…

  8. I’ve flown basic economy on both AA and UA. It’s fine — IF you have elite status or their credit card. Sometimes I come across crazy low Basic Economy fares — with much higher regular economy fares — usually in markets where the majors are competing with an ULCC. Just buy them. I probably wouldn’t pay 40 bucks on most flights to avoid BE, if it were elite or had the airline’s credit card benefits.

    Airline pricing algorithms are complex, and I’m sure the airlines screw them up sometimes. There’s nothing new about this, although I do think the airlines are getting better with their pricing algorithms. UA just rolled out a new system that’s adding $100 million to their bottom line this year. And all the airlines are making billions, so don’t worry too much if you snag “a deal.” 🙂

  9. LOL UA’s FIRST rollout of BE cost them $100MM. And it still regularly shows BE as more expensive than regular economy.

    As Borat would say, Great Success!

  10. @ Gary — American really should eliminate the Exec Plat snack + booze on Basic Economy fares. You will get nothing, and you will like it! Anyway, even at that price I would try to use miles. No 7,500 mile awards available, I assume?

  11. Gary – Thanks for the interesting review. For fun, I tried a bunch of combos on aa.com to check out basic econ fares, but I couldn’t ever get them to show up, even on the AUS -> PHX route … is there some trick to get them to show up? Cheers, RobLiv

  12. I think United got it right not giving any elite qualifying miles or dollars on their basic economy flights. I’m surprised no one else has followed suite.

  13. I have no status on any airline. I do check a suitcase because my trips are usually 7–17 days long, so my only carry-on is my laptop bag, which BE still allows AFAIK.
    SO. . .if the Main Cabin fare is less than the change fee, it’s de facto non-changeable. Therefore I have nothing to lose by booking BE–except rebooking on another airline in case of irrops. Anyway I would probably stick to Main Cabin if the difference is only $10–20 each way. But I would grab that $50 BE fare in a heartbeat!

  14. Basic economy almost seems like a no brained for trips that are only flying on regional jets. Definitely a bigger gamble for 3×3 seating. Wish Delta would offer something like a free snack and drink regardless of cabin like AA does… But I am not holding my breath. Great post.

  15. “by booking her outbound where basic economy wasn’t offered, she got the same $50 return flight without basic economy restrictions.”

    This happened to me recently but I didn’t understand why. This is a great piece of intel. I am in the habit of only booking one ways and they are often in different fare buckets, but it may be time to go back to r-t routing.

    Also half way through the review I was thinking – and then you nailed it – “There’s no question American Airlines left money on the table with me on this flight.”

  16. On a somewhat related note: I’m in the process of booking a flight from EWR to FLL in March.

    Spirit – 49$
    United Basic Economy – 42$

    So the race to the bottom is for real. Of course JetBlue is also 42$ for the same day, so that is the easy winner for me.

  17. I accidentally booked a basic economy ticket for 6 people. It is a nightmare. My final destination is london with another airline but I’m flying with American from phoenix to chicago and it is just a nightmare not to have at least a full carry-on. I knew I was booking coach but not miserable-coach. Im from another country so I dont even know about your AAdvantage or Elite programs, I have heard you can get upgrades or free stuff with the us credit cards but what about people traveling with your airlines?! its a nightmare.

  18. I buy 4 basic economy tickets for flying with AA in nov.What would be the fees that I have to paid 24 hrs before travelling to sit togheter with my wife.This is a flight from aruba to miami.

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