Should you be basic when you fly — in economy class terms, that is? Basic Economy, a subclass of ticket that removes pretty much every comfort apart from your chair, is spreading further and further, and buyer beware.

The view from a row of seats onboard a plane.
Basic Economy means you're likely in for an uncomfortable flight © motestockphoto/Shutterstock

You’re likely to encounter this pretty soon, even on airlines that like to think of themselves (and advertise to you, the traveller) as ‘premium’ or ‘full-service’ carriers. It’s called Basic Economy by many airlines, but also Hand Baggage Only, Saver, Light, Saver Light… you get the picture.

But isn’t economy already basic, you ask? Well, you’re not wrong. If you think of the type of seats between regular economy and premium economy — with extra legroom and perhaps a slightly nicer blanket, extra snacks, or a drink — as economy plus, Basic Economy is kind of ‘economy minus’. 

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As a rule, although the specific restrictions vary by airline, if you buy a basic economy fare, you’ll be sitting in regular economy class alongside passengers who paid regular economy class fares.

But you won’t be allowed to choose a seat (and agree not to be seated with your travelling companions), change your ticket, use your points to upgrade to a better seat (and you’ll earn few or none depending on the airline) or check a bag — and you’ll be boarding the plane last, so you may end up having to drag your carry-on all the way through the airport and security only to have to hand it over at the gate.

Why is basic economy happening?

Overall, there are two reasons why airlines have gone so hard on basic economy: firstly, it allows them to fight the long-haul, low-cost carriers — like AirAsia X, Air Canada’s Rouge, Frenchbee, Jetstar LEVEL, Lufthansa’s Eurowings, Norwegian, WestJet and Scoot — who have been hoovering up the budget-minded passengers that the full service and legacy airlines used to rely on to fill the back of their planes.

Secondly, and rather more sneakily to my mind, it allows them to advertise lower fares, especially what are called ‘lead-in’ fares, which are shown on flight comparison websites. The swizz here relies on passengers essentially saying “wow, that flight on [airline they’ve heard of] is pretty cheap! I’ll pick that one”. 

Read more: How to survive a flight if you are in the middle seat

After they’ve chosen their flights (and by this point they’re emotionally engaged with booking this particular journey) they then get to the booking page and discover that the fare they saw doesn’t cover X, Y and Z things that they like when they travel.

And if buying a checked piece of luggage on a basic economy fare is more than “upgrading” back to regular economy… well, that’s almost a no-brainer deal, isn’t it? You almost forget that you’ve just paid perhaps a hundred dollars more for the thing we all used to get for free.

Woman using her laptop. To her left a notebook and passport are visible. To her right a tablet.
Be sure you know exactly what you're signing up when booking your trip © Westend61/Getty Images

There can be significant savings, but make sure you understand the fine print

For solo travellers who pack light and really don’t care whether they get stuck in the middle seat in the row next to the toilets, or on the other side of the plane from their travelling companions who might be put in a row that doesn’t recline, basic economy can be a good deal.

Looking at the popular route from New York JFK to London Heathrow for a flight about a month out from the time of writing, Delta comes out as one of the cheapest options, at US$351 (yep, it’s pretty cheap to travel across the Atlantic in February!) alongside other airlines. 

Read more: Why you should never travel with just a mobile boarding pass

But once you’ve picked your flight — oh, nice, you can take the 10pm flight that means you’re not arriving in London before dawn, and there’s that return that means you get home just in time for bed, excellent — you’re presented with a popup box full of small print, and even smaller print on the click-through, that the airline’s Basic Economy fare that was shown to you when comparing is US$90 cheaper than the regular Main Cabin economy fare.

‘For $90 More, Enjoy flexibility and choose your seat in advance in Main Cabin’, exhorts the airline, now that they’ve got you bought into the idea of flying them. If you don’t read it and click the big red button, rather than the small print ‘no thanks’, you’ve just paid that $90.

A passenger on a plane is placing his carry-on luggage in an overhead compartment.
You may be stuck with just your carry-on luggage in basic economy © Mila Supinskaya Glashenko / Shutterstock

Watch out for differences on bag allowances and seat selection in particular

Frustratingly and confusingly for travellers, not all basic economy is the same. On some airlines, you can only take the ‘personal item’ like a small shoulder bag, backpack or purse.

Some let you take a regular sized carry-on as well, and some let you do so only if you fly enough that you earn their (or their partner airlines’) frequent flyer status or have their co-branded credit card. In any case, if anyone’s carry-on bags are going to be weighed to make sure they’re not skirting the rules, it’s going to be people with the cheapest tickets. 

Read more: Is it better to book long haul connections with the same airline when planning a trip?

Seat selection, too, is complex: sometimes you can pay extra to choose to pick a seat so that you’re next to your family or whoever else you’re travelling with, and sometimes you can’t, because the airlines know that people want to sit together and really want you to pay more to do that. You may also not be able to check in online, because the airline wants you to show you don’t have too much carry-on luggage.

And, even less helpfully, sometimes all or some of these rules change depending on whether you’re on a domestic, regional or international flight.

So if you’re up for saving the money then be sure you know what’s included and what isn’t so you don’t end up forking out more than the difference in fare in penalty fees while ending up in a worse seat than if you’d paid to get back to 'normal' economy when you booked. 

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