Airlines

Is that new basic economy class right for you?

When you fly one of those ultra-discount airlines like Spirit or Frontier, you know you’re not in for a luxury experience, but at the least it's relatively cheap, right?

That’s the same idea behind Basic Economy seats now being offered on American, Delta and United. But is it right for you? For some yes, others no; only you know what you need on an airplane and what you can live without, but this can help you decide.

Is Basic Economy new?

Delta’s been offering it for about five years, while American and United joined in this year. You won’t find it on every route but we’re seeing it a number of long-haul flights.

What do you lose?

The big three.

--Seating: Generally, you don’t get to choose your seat. As Delta explains, “Passengers traveling together, including families, may not be seated together.”

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--Some baggage restrictions: Fly Basic Economy on American or United and you cannot bring a regular size carry-on bag onboard the plane because you get no access to overhead bins. It doesn’t mean you can’t travel with a carry-on but you’ll have to check it and pay a bag fee. Delta, however, does allow carry-ons in overhead bins.

--Boarding: Generally, you’ll be last to board. So even if you were allowed a carry-on, good luck finding space in a bin.

--One bright spot: American, Delta and United let you know very clearly and throughout the shopping experience exactly what you get and exactly what you give up.

What stays the same?

Snacks: American, Delta and United still provide free soft drinks and whatever free packs of peanuts, pretzels or cookies they pass out to main cabin passengers. Frontier and Spirit make you pay for this.

Is Basic Economy a deal?

That is the big question. It’s always the cheapest option offered by airlines that have these seats, and we’ve seen fares anywhere from $15 to $30 lower than ‘regular’ economy.

However, NPR reported last month that at least some basic economy prices were the same as what regular economy fares used to be, and the regular economy fares had risen in price. Their conclusion (at least in the examples they looked at) is that Basic Economy travelers sometimes get “a lower class of service for the same price”.

That’s not always the case, though, since we have seen some genuine Basic Economy deals, but is it worth it compared to what you give up? Again, sometimes yes, sometimes no.

What should price-sensitive shoppers do?

Always compare airfares. No airline always has the best deal, and that goes for Spirit, Frontier or any Basic Economy deal. Sometimes these cheapest seats will be the best deal but not always.  The only way to be sure of getting the best fare is to compare fares, and, to then add in any bag or food fees. That’s the only way to know if your seat is truly a bargain fare or not.

Rick Seaney is an airline travel expert and the co-founder of FareCompare.com, an airfare comparison shopping site