Been a while since you traveled? Here's a refresher on those basic economy plane tickets

  • Basic economy tickets – airlines' cheapest fare option – are rife with restrictions
  • Some airlines have other labels for these tickets, like "Blue Basic" or "saver" fares.

With airline ticket prices on the rise, as vacation and business travel take off again, travelers on a budget will be searching for the lowest airfare they can find.

That search often leads to major airlines' basic economy fares.

The no-frills tickets created several years ago – in response to those bare-bones fares offered by budget airlines including Spirit and Frontier – are airlines' cheapest ticket option and often show up first in online searches.

The tickets are rife with restrictions, fine print airlines have long been upfront about during booking in a bid to get passengers to pay more for a regular economy ticket.

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But a post-COVID-19 refresher may be in order, if my recent experience shopping for plane tickets to Europe for my son's college graduation trip is any indication.

I flew throughout the pandemic but not to Europe and was caught off guard by the hefty checked bag fees for basic economy tickets. American and Delta each charge $75 each way for the first checked bag, United $70 and JetBlue $65. Passengers buying regular economy tickets to Europe on those airlines get one free checked bag.

These fees aren't new, I just forgot about them. (And I write about airlines for a living.) 

What is the difference between basic economy and economy

Ahead of the busy summer travel season, here's a reminder about the fine print on those basic economy tickets. Keep in mind that some airlines have other labels for these tickets. JetBlue calls them "Blue Basic" fares, Alaska Airlines calls them "saver" fares and Hawaiian Airlines calls them "Main Cabin Basic." 

The bottom line for travelers: Figure out whether the restrictions are worth the fare difference between basic economy and economy. 

► Ticket changes: Ticket types didn't matter much during the height of the pandemic when airlines offered broad flexibility to change or cancel tickets.

Those days are over for basic economy ticket holders.

Travelers buying basic economy tickets face the return of one of two issues/restrictions when it comes to ticket changes: no changes or cancellation allowed, or changes allowed but with a cancellation fee.

On some airlines, including United, American, Alaska and Hawaiian, basic economy tickets cannot be changed or canceled even by paying a fee. That means travelers lose their money if plans change. No travel credits are issued.

On other airlines, including Delta and JetBlue, basic economy tickets can be changed or canceled for future flight credit but only if you pay a change fee. Delta's is $99 for domestic flights and flights to Mexico and the Caribbean and $199 for other international flights. JetBlue, similarly, charges $100 for domestic flights and short international flights, and $200 for others. On cheap tickets, the fees can wipe out all or part of a ticket. 

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► Seat assignments: Basic economy tickets don't come with a free seat assignment in advance. They are automatically assigned at flight check-in. Some airlines will let you pay a fee to pick seats in advance but the purchase window varies. American Airlines allows seat purchases at booking, for example, while Delta says seats can't be purchased until a week before travel, if available. JetBlue doesn't allow seat purchase until 24 hours before departure.

This restriction is a deal-breaker for many families and airlines do everything but prohibit families from buying them.

A warning on United's website: "Please note that customers traveling in a group, including families, will not be able to sit together unless advance seat assignments are purchased and seats are available."

In its online comparison between basic economy and regular economy, Delta warns: "No seat(s) assigned until after check-in, not together."

Hawaiian Airlines' website steers families away from it: "Because seats are assigned at check-in, starting 24 hours prior to departure, we cannot guarantee that your family will be able to sit together. If it's important for you to have all family members sit together, we recommend that you select another fare option with less restrictions."

Because of outcry from consumer advocates, airlines say they do their best to sit families together but complaints continue.

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Is a carry-on free in basic economy?

► Carry-on bag restrictions: United and JetBlue ban basic economy passengers from bringing on a traditional carry-on bag on all but select international flights. A personal item that fits under the seat is allowed but any other bags must be checked for the applicable fees.

Don't take a chance and bring one to the gate in hopes you can get it on the flight when they make those announcements about free gate checks for bags as the overhead bins fill up, at least on United. The airline charges a $25 "gate handling charge" surcharge on top of the checked bag fee for that carry-on. And the bag still doesn't come with you on the plane.

Do you have to pay for checked bags on international flights?

► Checked baggage fees: Book a basic economy ticket for flights within the United States or to nearby international destinations like Mexico and the Caribbean, and you'll pay the same for checked bags as the passengers who bought regular economy tickets.

It's a different story on flights to Europe and other far-flung international destinations. Economy passengers on those flights generally get one free checked bag but basic economy passengers face big fees as I discovered when shopping for tickets for my son.

I opted for a regular economy on his flight from Phoenix to Zurich so he wasn't stuck shelling out $75 at the airport.

Airlines generally don't include the baggage fee details during flight searches or booking so check their baggage fee charts or online calculators when weighing basic economy over regular economy.

For my son's return flight from Rome to Phoenix, on Canadian carrier WestJet, I discovered another wrinkle. The airline charges all economy passengers a checked bag fee on flights to and from Europe, but the fee is twice as high for basic economy ticket buyers.

More questions? Check out airlines' basic economy FAQs