Main cabin and basic cabin are two types of fares you can purchase when you fly coach. Although there is no difference in seats and legroom between main cabin and basic cabin fares (both are essentially economy seats), the difference is in the policies, such as how much luggage you can check in and bring on board and whether you can change or cancel your ticket without incurring penalties.
Numerous domestic and international airlines offer basic cabin fares. If you tend to fly in economy class, you may be tempted to book the cheapest fare. The next time you’re considering your options, look into basic cabin. It can be an amazing deal if you’re a frugal traveler, but it also comes with several restrictions you may not be aware of unless you read the fine print.
The Reason Why Basic Economy Fares Exist
Basic economy is a relatively new way of commercial air travel. Before the advent of low-cost air carriers, such as Spirit Airlines in the U.S., Ryan Air in Europe and Scoot in Asia, passengers could choose to fly in one of three classes—economy, business or first class.
To retain customer loyalty and prevent passengers from choosing low-cost airlines over major carriers, like American Airlines or Delta, many airlines introduced low-cost, no-frills fares in the form of basic economy.
If you’re looking to save money on airfare and don’t mind the simplicity, reduced flexibility and lower comfort you’re getting in return, booking a basic economy fare may be for you. Keep in mind, basic economy fares differ by airline and one airline may be more restrictive than another.
Although each airline handles basic economy fairs differently, typically the tradeoff for saving money includes restrictions in baggage allowance, seat selection, ticket changes and earning miles.
Basic Economy—What Am I Trading for a Low Fare?
If you’re flying basic economy, the number and type of bags you can check in or carry with you can be limited. For example, a basic economy fare on JetBlue airlines doesn’t allow any carry-on or checked in baggage, meaning passengers can only travel with a personal item, such as a purse or laptop bag. With a main cabin fare, passengers can bring a carry-on bag and a personal item, but checked bags aren’t allowed unless the flight is international.
Booking a main cabin fare typically allows you to select a seat on your upcoming flight. If you’re picky about your seat, such as you prefer the aisle seat or are travelling with family, prebooking your seat can save you from discomfort and disappointment.
On the other hand, basic economy seat selection is typically not available when booking a flight in this fare class. Seats are usually assigned at check-in or at the gate, and it’s not uncommon for passengers to be separated from their travel companions. If you don’t mind the possibility of a middle seat or being seated in the back of the plane, flying basic economy may work for you.
Basic economy tickets are typically non-refundable and non-changeable. If you need to change your travel plans, you will need to purchase a new ticket at the applicable fare. Since basic economy fares are significantly discounted, airlines must limit the flexibility of the ticket in order to keep costs low. For instance, Delta offers basic economy fares for an attractive price, but once you book your ticket, no free cancellations or changes are allowed.
If you’re all about earning those travel miles to get free flights, discounts and cabin upgrades, flying basic economy may not always work in your favor. Some passengers flying basic economy can earn miles while others cannot depending on their airline of choice.
For example, Delta’s basic economy fare earns you no miles; however, their main competitor–American Airlines–allows passengers with basic economy tickets (issued in 2023 for travel staring on March 1) to earn miles at a rate of two miles per dollar.
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