The Confusing State of Domestic Airfare

When I decided to stay in California for a job 11 years ago, it was about $200 – $250 round trip to New Jersey. That ticket included food, two checked bags (not that I used that much), a seat selection, and a understanding of basic comfort. Now, I think it’s a good deal if I can get a ticket for $350, and none of those amenities are included. To make life more difficult, the big airlines airlines have introduced a new fare class, called Basic Economy, that often takes away the chance to pick a seat, and in some cases even restricts you from bringing a carry on bag.

Being a frequent traveler who watches industry news, I’ve spent an extraordinary amount of time evaluating airlines, fare classes, and routes to understand what’s the best flight to take, and when is it worth taking the Basic Fare (vs paying full price). While I’ve managed to avoid the Basic Fare so far, my sister recently unknowingly purchased a Basic Economy Fare, and was surprised the night before her flight to find out she had no seat assignments and would have to pay to check that second bag they were going to carry on. It made me realize that not everyone is aware of the changes, so I thought I’d take some time to help you understand the new fares, and some tricks we have in our back pocket to make our dollar last and flying less painful.

Do you think he can sneak us all in for free?

What is Basic Economy?

American Airlines, Delta Airlines and United Airlines have all introduced basic economy tickets in the past few years. They all have slightly different but the basic rules are:

  • No ability to pre-select your seats (some airlines allow you to pay to choose your seat)
  • Last to board
  • No changes allowed (not even for a change fee)
  • United only allows a personal item, no carry-on suitcase.

These fares were brought on to compete with the Sprint and Frontiers of the world, the ultra low cost airlines that charge for all these services. However, the bigger airlines are quick to point out you can pay $50 more for an Economy Fare class that bundles all the above. But with the Basic Economy, they are counting on earning from fees. Most people will have to pay at least $25 to check a bag. If you try and bring a carry on suitcase to the gate, not only will they charge you the $25 to check the bag, they will charge you an additional $25 at the gate as a gate checking fee. Yes, that’s $50 to bring on a small carry-on suitcase. Ouch!

We are going to have to strip down our luggage even more now…

The biggest issue with Basic Economy is traveling as a family. As of July 2017, as a part of Congresses re-authorization of the Federal Aviation Authorization Bill, airlines are technically required to seat a minor of 13 years or less with someone else in their party that is over 13 years old. However the Department of Transportation has not made a regulation that enforces the law and are unlikely to do so anytime soon. It’s possible you could find your two year old several rows away from you and both of you in a middle seat. I have found that the flight attendants and gate agents help move people, but the airline’s official line is that they try to always seat families together but they can’t guarantee it.

Do you want to sit next to one of these guys with the parent stuck five rows away in a middle seat?

Make no mistake, Basic Economy is the new default fare class. You will find that when you do searches on Kayak or Google Flights, this is the fare they show you. That makes it that much harder to accurately evaluate what is the best flight for you.

How to make searching for a flight less painful

In the past, I simply searched for the cheapest direct flight that worked in the times and days I wanted. However, now I’m buying for four, and the options have become unbundled it’s gotten a lot more confusing. Here are some ways I try to narrow down my options and make it easier to understand my needs before I buy.

Anticipate how much luggage you will bring: I know that seems crazy, especially if the trip is not for a few months. But it’s not as hard as you think. Weekend trip? Can you get down to a backpack each? Or are you somebody who will always check a bag (or three)? Do you like to travel carry on only so you can get off the plane and go? Or are you willing to wait for bag to come on the baggage carousel mn? Understanding how much luggage you need will help you determine what services you may or may not need bundled in the trip. If you are going to check a bag anyway, then maybe you can go Basic Economy and pay to check a bag. Or do you need to land and head right to your destination? The $50 more for the Economy fare may be important for you.

Do you think I can fit a weeks worth of clothing in that backpack?

If you have frequent flyer status with an airline, see what perks from your status still apply to Basic Fares: Generally the airlines where you have status allow some extra perks with the Basic Economy Fare. You might be able to still get your Economy Plus seat 24 hours ahead, or you are allowed to bring on the rollerboard. It might just be that you can check the bag for free. But sticking with that airline makes the cheaper fares more tolerable.

Consider Applying for an Airline’s Credit Card: United allows its Milage Plus Card holders to bring a bag on the plane. They also allow a checked back for the cardholder and a companion. That’s three bags for free, can your family get by with that amount of luggage?

Look to see if Southwest, Jet Blue, or Alaska Air flies on the route you want. We flew Southwest for the first time as a family this summer and were surprised at how easy it was. I was nervous since they didn’t have assigned seating, but since we had a child 6 or younger, we could board before group B to try and find seats together. We got our bags on the plane. Even in later groups, you can usually find at least two seats together toward the back. Jet Blue and Alaska Air1 have not (yet) introduced Basic Economy fares, so you know that your ticket includes the ability to select your seat and bring on a carry-on suitcase. Recently I was about to buy my first Basic Economy ticket from United when I realized Alaska Air had the ticket for similar times for the same price. Knowing I could sit with my kids and bring carry on suitcases made all the difference.

Our Southwest experience was really quite pleasant

Buy travel insurance: With AAA, I recently bought a cancel for any reason travel insurance policy for a trip with $2,500 of airfare and hotel for $64. Knowing that is something comes up and I have to cancel my trip, I won’t completely lose the cost is worth the small price in my opinion.

This unbundling of the flight amenities has generated $4.6B in baggage fees in 20172 for the airline industry. Unfortunately, the unbundling will continue and now it’s spread to the international airlines. I recently was researching tickets to Spain and was shocked to discover even the usual full service international airlines were offering stripped down fares that didn’t include seat selection, checked luggage, and in some cases even charge for food! It’s important as a consumer to understand what is and more importantly isn’t included in your airfare. Before you push that purchase button, make sure to read all the fine print. Know what you need, and then look for the ticket that works best for your needs.

Happy Flying!

1Alaska Air is starting a Saver Fare in 2019. It will include a free seat assignment and a carry-on suitcase, but will only allow you to sit at the back of the plane, and will not allow any changes, even for a fee

2Fast Company, Here’s How Much US Airlines Raked in on Baggage Fees in 2017, May 11, 2017

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