What is a Basic Economy Seat on a Flight?

Basic economy is the cheapest ticket that is sold by airlines.  These tickets will have the greatest number of restrictions as well as the fewest options for choices.  However, these seats are perfect for the budget traveler or for anyone who is looking for a no frills seat and only cares about getting to their destination. 

Booking basic economy tickets

When looking at fares online, airlines will publish their “lowest fare” as the basic economy fare.  When trying to book that fare, most airlines will have some sort of pop up window asking you to confirm if you really want a basic economy seat or if you want to upgrade to standard or main cabin (same thing, different terminology) and note the restrictions of your ticket.  Your ticket will also be clearly marked at basic economy at time of booking.  

What are the differences between basic economy and standard economy?

Although there are slight variances in basic economy from airline to airline, they mostly adhere to the same basic rules.  In basic economy, you won’t be able to choose your seat, changes or upgrades to seats are not allowed, tickets are nonrefundable, and you’ll be the last to board.  

The biggest issues with basic economy most fliers will have is the inability to choose your seat until check in (meaning you get last pick) or having to gate check your bag if there is no overhead bin space.  Not being able to choose your seat means you’ll more than likely be stuck in the dreaded middle seat. Certainly not the most desirable seat on a transcontinental flight.  

Since you’ll be the last to board the aircraft, there is a good chance there won’t be any space available for your bag by the time you board.  In that case, you’ll be forced to gate check your bag (for free). Most of the time, this is only going to be an issue when your flight is fully booked but you never know.  

Standard economy doesn’t have those same restrictions but isn’t that much better.  At the very least, you’ll be able to earn miles on your flight and have space in the overhead bin and be able to select your seats before check in.  Also, you’ll be allowed changes or upgrades to your ticket (if you want to pay extra for an exit row for example).  

Why choose basic economy?

Cost is usually the main reason to choose basic economy.  Many people are willing to be stuck in the middle seat of a plane if it means they can save money on their flight.  A few hours of discomfort is worth the savings.  

Also, for those who are traveling for short trips and not packing a lot basic economy may work out well.  Since you won’t have a lot of luggage, you probably won’t need anything more than space under the seat in front of you to store your bag.  

When NOT to choose basic economy? 

If you value upgrades, seat selection, or priority boarding, basic economy is just not going to cut it.  For these types of travelers, the restrictions of basic economy just aren’t going to make the flight enjoyable and although you can pay extra for seat selection and extra add ons, the fees for these add ons might push your fare into the standard economy ticket range.  

Families who want to sit together will also hate basic economy.  The ticket doesn’t “allow” you to sit with your family in a row so it’s very possible you could be scattered throughout the cabin.  Of course, you can always politely as the person next to you to switch seats, but if the seat you’re asking the person to give up is worse than the seat he/she currently has you won’t have much luck.  

When to choose BE?

I don’t choose basic economy very often but there is one time I always choose basic economy.  Whenever I have to take a short commuter flight (from San Diego to Los Angeles for example), I always choose basic economy.  

These flights are always flow on smaller aircraft (typically on an Embraer 175) and the cabin has a 2-2 setup.  Meaning every seat is either a window or an aisle seat. This makes it perfect because there is no dreaded middle seat.  

Also, the flight is short enough where I don’t really care where I set since it’ll be over in under an hour.  I’m happy to sit wherever I can for a short flight and earning miles on a flight like that isn’t important to me at all.  

Final Thoughts

Basic economy was introduced by airlines as another revenue making stream.  However, there is something to said about a “pay for what you use” mentality.  Budget travelers love basic economy because it offers an ability to get to your destination cheaper.  And let’s be honest, the front of the plane is going to arrive at the same time as the back of the plane.  

But if you’re traveling as a family or want to be semi comfortable on a long flight, you should really think about booking that basic economy ticket.  Basic economy comes with the largest number of restrictions so you won’t have as many options if something goes wrong of if you decide to change your mind afterwards.  

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