How to Avoid Airline Fees in Basic Economy


The airline industry has changed dramatically in the last few years. First, ultralow cost carriers became very successful by offering extremely low fares, but adding fees for nearly everything you can imagine. Next, most of the major airlines started to offer so-called basic economy fares that replicated the fee intensive business model that worked so well financially for the ultralow cost competitors. Now Americans are trying to figure out how to save money on airfares, while avoiding all of the airline fees imposed by basic economy fares. (See also: Beware These Sneaky Fees on Discount Airfare)

How basic economy fares work

When you search for airfare on American, Delta, or United Airlines, you're likely to be offered three different options. You have the standard economy ticket, which includes a carry-on suitcase and a personal item that can fit under the seat in front of you, such as a briefcase, purse, or small backpack. Standard economy tickets also tend to include seat assignments and can be upgraded or changed for a fee.

Then there are the economy plus, or economy comfort seats, which offer additional legroom and a free checked bag. These fares may also include priority boarding and even a free alcoholic beverage.

On the other end of the spectrum are the newer, basic economy class fares. Although the seat is the same, it often won't come with seat assignments, and you may be randomly assigned a seat at check-in. Basic economy fares may not include a carry-on suitcase, just a personal item. Also, you can't receive upgrades based on elite status, and you may not be able to make changes to your reservation at any price, except within 24 hours of purchase.

So how can you save money on basic economy fares without paying extra fees? Here are some suggestions.

1. Choose the right carrier

Not all airlines have the same basic economy rules, and some are actually not so bad. For example, Delta's basic economy fares allow you to bring a standard carry-on and a personal item, just like any other passenger. In addition, you'll get your seat after check-in.

In contrast, United and American only let you have a personal item and can assign the seat to you without you having a say.

2. Choose the right aircraft

When you fly on basic economy fares, you'll have a pretty high chance of being stuck in the dreaded middle seat. However, there are some smaller airplanes that don't even have middle seats, so you are guaranteed a window or an aisle. To ensure that your basic economy fare won't put you in the middle seat, look for regional flights on the Bombardier CRJ or Q400 planes, or the Embraer ERJ planes, which only seat three or four across, rather than Boeing or Airbus aircraft that seat six or more across.

3. Learn the dimensions of the personal item

Every airline allows passengers to bring a personal item with them, even on a basic economy fare. Although this can be a purse, briefcase or backpack, it doesn't have to be. You can carry a duffel bag or even a small roll-on suitcase, as long as it fits within the specified dimensions.

For example, United defines a personal item as nine inches x 10 inches x 17 inches. On the other hand, American lets you carry a personal item that's 18 inches x 14 inches x eight inches. Find an underseat bag that meets those dimensions and you are free to cram as much stuff as possible in it. (See also: 9 Things You Should Always Carry On an Economy Flight)

4. Bring your own entertainment

In today's world, there's no need to pay to use an in-flight entertainment system. Simply bring along your own smartphone, tablet, or laptop downloaded with music, videos, and games.

5. Use the right credit card

Airline credit cards can act as kind of a "get out of jail free" card when you are booked in basic economy class. For example, many airline credit cards offer priority boarding and a free checked bag as cardholder benefits that are not surrendered just because you purchased a ticket in basic economy class. American also allows travelers with AAdvantage credit cards to bring on a regular carry-on bag for free. (See also: Which United MileagePlus Credit Card Should You Get?)

Other premium travel credit cards offer airline fee credits that can be applied to things such as luggage fees, change fees, and charges for in-flight food and entertainment. Using these credit cards restores many of the comforts associated with standard economy seats.

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