I can remember the “good old days” of flying, by which I mean only a decade or so ago, when checked bags and in-flight meals were services enjoyed by every passenger. Sure, first class always had the air of the exclusive, but life wasn’t bad for the rest of us in economy. At the very least, it was equal.
Ironically, now that flying has become more common, it has also become more delineated by money. Airlines provide excellent service to people who spend the most, such as first class passengers, business travelers, and people in the upper tiers of airlines’ loyalty programs. But even those programs are now based on the price of a ticket, not just the number of miles. Anyone who doesn’t fall into one of these categories must buy a ticket that comes with fewer and fewer privileges.
One way to get around this is to carry one or more travel credit cards, which can help you earn free travel and may come with perks such as a free checked bag and priority boarding that you’d otherwise have to pay for.
Otherwise, the best way to navigate airlines’ increasingly transactional approach to ticketing is to learn the rules and restrictions for each fare level. That way you won’t choose the cheapest ticket, only to arrive with a carry-on bag and find yourself paying a hefty fee to check it at the gate.
In this article we cover the history of flying and break down the current fare types offered by the three major American carriers.
A brief history of the “unbundled” plane ticket
After the airline industry was deregulated in 1978, the focus of competition changed from service to price. More recently, competitiveness between major airlines diminished as they consolidated into the three primary players we have today: American, United, and Delta.
These two factors resulted in the rise of ancillary fees, or what airlines refer to as the “unbundled” ticket. Recognizing that many coach passengers buy tickets based on the cheapest price rather than an affinity for any particular airline’s service, companies lavish attention on business-class flyers and give everyone else what they seem to want: The lowest possible fare, even if it means no checked luggage or carry-on.
What is an unbundled plane ticket?
Essentially, it’s a fare stripped of things we used to take for granted on plane rides: assigned seating, a free checked bag or carry-on, beverage service with an accompanying snack, etc.
This approach was made popular by budget airlines, but last year the three major carriers rolled out The Basic Economy Fare, which introduced new indignities to the in-flight experience such as the possibility of families not getting to sit together and permission to stow a personal item under the seat but not in the overhead bins.
Ultimately, the “a la carte” approach to air fare has proven to be lucrative, so airlines likely will continue to see how little they can get away with offering passengers.
When you search for flights on American’s website, you’ll see up to four fare options: Basic Economy, Main Cabin, Premium Economy, Business, and First. Here’s what you get (or don’t get) with the three types of non-business/first class fares:
- Basic Economy: Must pay for checked bags, can’t choose seats in advance without paying a fee, not eligible for upgrades, and must board last.
- Main Cabin: Can check one bag for free on non-domestic flights, choose seats in advance without charge, eligible for upgrades and general boarding.
- Premium Economy: extra legroom and wider seats, go through security in the fast lane, priority boarding, and premium beverages.
Recently, American changed their carry-on policy for the basic economy fare. The current policy is:
“You’re allowed one carry-on bag and one personal item in all cabins. If you bought a Basic Economy ticket you’re only allowed one personal item.”
As of September 5th, Basic Economy passengers will get one free carry-on in addition to their personal item. If your fare doesn’t include a free checked bag, it costs $25 or more depending on the ticket type and destination.
What’s the difference in cost?
For the fare search pictured above (Philadelphia to London) the biggest difference in ticket price is between main cabin and premium economy fare. There’s a $90 difference in price between basic economy and main cabin.
If you don’t want to check a bag, and don’t mind the possibility of not sitting next to any traveling companions, the $90 savings may be worth it. However, if you do check a bag it will cost you $60 on this flight, quickly eliminating most of the savings.
The price difference between main cabin and premium economy is a little over $1,000—more than the cost of a second basic economy or main cabin ticket. In my opinion, this is a lot to pay simply for getting through security faster and having a bigger seat space.
Delta also offers up to four different fare options: Main, Comfort+, Premium Select, and Delta One. Although they have different names, the details are similar to American’s. Here’s what you get with the first three fares:
- Main: Use of the overhead bin, can choose seating assignment for free, some complimentary food and beverage options depending on the flight.
- Comfort+: Seats recline further back, more legroom, dedicated overhead space, premium snacks, and complimentary alcoholic beverages.
- Premium Select (available only on select long-haul international flights): Even more recline and legroom, designer amenity kit and blanket, free checked bags, expedited security, priority boarding and check-in, “fine dining,” in-seat power, and noise-cancelling headphones.
What’s the difference in cost?
Here’s where things get different from American’s fare type and pricing model. With Delta, there is a $300 difference between the Main and Comfort+ fares. For about $2,000 more you can buy the Premium Select fare. However, the fare types and price differences changed when I searched for a shorter domestic flight (Philadelphia to Raleigh):
Now the Basic fare becomes an option, and the cost differences between the first three fare types are lower than with the international flight. Delta’s basic economy fare has the same restrictions and checked baggage fee as American’s version (although Delta already permits a free carry-on bag in addition to a personal item).
Overall, I think the lowest price fare is the best option with each of these sample flights (unless you want to check a bag, in which case you’d cancel out the savings from Basic). It’s just hard to get enthused about extra legroom or “fine dining,” whatever that means. Save your money to spend when you reach your destination. The flight may be a little uncomfortable but it doesn’t last forever.
Last but not least, United keeps their language relatively simple, giving passengers three choices on certain domestic flights: basic, economy, and flexible.
Here are the rules and restrictions for each fare type:
- Basic: Comes with the same in-flight services as standard economy but similar restrictions on boarding status, seat assignments, and baggage fees as the other two major airlines. It’s worth noting that Delta is the only one of the three carriers to offer basic economy passengers a free carry-on from the start. American will grant this privilege to their basic economy fliers as of September. United doesn’t allow full-size carry-on bags to passengers with the basic economy fare unless they are Premier members of United’s frequent flyer program. You may bring one personal item that fits under the seat.
- Standard Economy: Free carry-on, can choose seat assignment and upgrades like the “Economy Plus” seating which offer more legroom and a prime location near the front of the cabin. Fees for checked baggage vary by location. For the flight I searched for above (Philadelphia to Chicago) it would cost $25 for the first checked bag.
- Flexible: The privileges of standard economy with the ability to cancel or change a ticket.
What’s the difference in cost?
As with American and Delta, the savings on a United basic economy fare become negligible if you need to bring carry-on luggage or check a bag. However, “flexible economy” is about twice as much as standard, pretty much eliminating the benefit of refund eligibility.
Beat the system with travel reward cards
As airlines become increasingly transactional, the only way to get more service without paying a la carte for it is to hold a travel credit card, either an airline-branded one or a card from a private bank.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is one of our favorites thanks to their 2X points per dollar spent on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide and 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases worldwide.
Also, if you books travel with Chase Ultimate Rewards® your rewards are worth a little more.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card isn’t our only favorite travel rewards credit card, though. We also like Discover it® Miles. It has no annual fee and you can earn unlimited 1.5x miles for every dollar spent on all purchases.
Plus, Discover will match your rewards at the end of your first year as an account holder.
Airline-branded credit cards, when used in conjunction with an airline’s loyalty program, usually offer perks like a free checked bag, priority boarding, and other things you would otherwise have to purchase separately.
So if you fly at least once or twice a year and don’t want to scrutinize the ever-changing fine print to make sure you won’t be hit with a surprise charge for bringing a carry-on, travel credit cards may be your best workaround.