Economy Flights De-Mystified: Your Guide to Airfare in 2019

If you haven’t taken a flight in a few years, you might be surprised (and confused – and let’s be real – sort of irritated) to find how complicated airfare has become these days.

economy airfare

It wasn’t so long ago that an Economy ticket got you a pretty standard set of expected features – an assigned seat (of course!), a boarding group based on when you purchased your ticket, one free checked bag, and free carry-on luggage. It may not have been first class, but you knew what you were getting and what you were getting was not a surprise. Well, those were the good ole’ days.

Today, if you buy a Basic Economy seat you’ve essentially bought “a seat” on the plane (to be assigned by the airline at the airport on departure day) and nothing more. How does that sound? Not great, right?

Here’s the thing. The airlines you grew up with have been competing for years now with budget airlines that offer this a la carte business model. Now, most people don’t actually want to fly in this “stripped down” fashion, but it’s a great way to upsell passengers the additional services and amenities they do want. Some passengers wouldn’t dream of flying without a seat assignment. Boom! You can pay a little bit more for that benefit. Some passengers can forgo the seat assignment, but want a larger baggage allowance. Not a problem. You can have these things – just not with Basic Economy! Extra legroom, the use of overhead bins, seat preferences, and even a seat next to your traveling partner are all luxuries not available with a Basic Economy ticket, but are available for a bump in price. Starting to see how it works?

The tricky part is that it’s hard to know just what you get with each class of service. Our team of airfare geeks at CheapAir has created this little guide to take the guesswork out of the Economy cabin once and for all. Stick with us. At the end of this post, we’ll let you in on a cool perk we offer at CheapAir.com that will help you keep it all straight. Let’s break it down, airline by airline.

Basic Economy

basic economy airfare

Alaska Air
Alaska is new to the Basic Economy game. Their “Saver Fares” launched this month, and come with standard restrictions. Your seat will always be to the rear of the plane, you’ll be last to board and you’re not permitted to upgrade or make changes to your ticket. Elite Mileage Plan benefits are not available with this ticket, though your miles will accrue. Silver lining: No extra charges for your carry-on and you get a seat assignment at booking. In-flight entertainment and food service is the same as any other passenger in the other economy seats.

American
Plan to be in the last boarding group when you fly American on Basic Economy and remember, you’re not eligible for upgrades. Silver lining: One free carry-on! And you can now upgrade to a seat assignment for a range of fees ($10-40) up to 48 hours before the flight departs. On-board entertainment is the same across the other economy classes.

Delta
Delta was the first carrier to jump on the Basic Economy business model, and they’ve embraced the no-frills model with total commitment. Not permitted: Seat assignments (you’ll be assigned at check-in), changes, cancellation or upgrades to the ticket even if you have Medallion Status. Silver lining: One free carry-on and a standard $25 fee for a checked bag.

United
No changes or cancellations permitted for your flight, no carry-ons and yep – you’ll be boarding last. Sensing a theme yet? Silver lining: You can select your seat up to 48 hours before your flight departs for a small fee (typically $5-10), can pay $25 at the gate if you bring a carry-on anyway, and you can check bags for fees that range from $25-40.

Now that we’ve explained Basic Economy, lets look at the other classes of service in the main cabin.

Standard Economy/Main Cabin
Think of Standard Economy (for the most part) as that “good ole’ days” ticket we spoke about at the beginning of the post. You get unimpressive legroom and you’ll have to pay for changes to your ticket, but at least you have options!

flying coach in 2019

Alaska Air
Alaska’s Main Cabin seating is branded as “more options, more flexibility.” You’ll be in the general boarding group and be able to leverage your Elite Mileage Plan benefits.

American
The Main Cabin is pretty vanilla on American. You’ll still have to pay for a seat assignment in a narrow seat with minimal leg room, and now that the Basic Economy crew gets a free carry-on, that doesn’t seem like such a big perk. If you have Elite status it does get you priority boarding, complimentary checked bags, and lounge access.

Delta
A Main Cabin ticket on Delta doesn’t come with a lot of bells and whistles, but you can upgrade to preferred seating for a fee (it’s free for Medallion members). You’re also guaranteed a seat assignment.

United
United’s Main Cabin information is limited on their site, though they share a lot of information about their MileagePlus Awards program. Main Cabin is really the same as Basic Economy, though you’re able to make changes to your ticket for a fee. The United business model is to encourage folks to join the membership programs – if you do, a whole host of options for free upgrades open up to you.

“Extra” Economy
Every airline offering extra legroom has a different name for it – so we’ll go with “extra” to keep things simple. The “extra” economy ticket promises extra space to stretch out.

extra legroom

American
If you’re feeling a little bit “extra,” may we suggest Main Cabin Extra? This is where the fun starts. For a bump in price you’ll start to really enjoy the good life. Early boarding, extra legroom, and a free carry-on are all included. Plus, you’ll get free beer, wine and spirits along with the regular in-flight snacks. You can upgrade to Main Cabin Extra as long as you’ve purchased a Main Cabin ticket, and some categories of Elite member status can upgrade to Main Cabin Extra for free.

Delta
Comfort+ is Delta’s offering in this category of service. Seats come with an impressive 4” of extra legroom (every little bit counts), and dedicated overhead bin space. Priority boarding is also part of the package, so you can settle in and get comfy nice and early!

United
Economy Plus seating is available to everyone who wants to stretch out a bit more and is willing to pay for it (except for the Basic Economy folks). United has a very robust selection of “subscription” options so that you can create a personalized bundle of services for a full year (if you’re a frequent flyer, this might be right up your alley).

Premium Economy
You’re going to pay for the experience, but sometimes you really do want a little bit of the VIP experience without paying for a business class or first class ticket. That’s where Premium Economy can make the magic happen.

premium economy perks

Alaska Air
Alaska Air touts their “Premium Class” as an affordable upgrade, with tickets starting at just $15 more than Main Cabin. For the extra bump in price, you can expect the requisite 4” extra legroom, early boarding, and complimentary beer, wine and cocktails. In addition, frequent flyer status customers can upgrade to Premium Class for free.

American
You can expect priority service at check-in, security and boarding with American’s Premium Economy. In the air, you’ll be seated directly behind first and business class in leather seats with extra legroom. Premium dining, Wi-Fi and some comfort swag (including a blanket and amenity kit) round out the experience. When you land, you’ll pick up your bags first and keep in mind, your Elite Status benefits are all in play as well.

Delta
Premium Select is only available on select international flights, but if you’re going overseas it’s worth checking to see if it’s available. Extra legroom, a wider seat and an adjustable footrest are included, as well as our favorite item, a dedicated flight attendant and a plated chef’s dinner.

Whew! That’s a lot to take in, we know. But, we’ve also got a secret weapon for you to utilize as you plan your trip. On CheapAir.com, we show you the differences between the fare categories on our search results page. This allows you to do a side-by-side comparison of each fare – what’s included and what you’ll have to pay for.

side by side flight comparison

No one can be expected to keep the various classes of service sorted out when you’re doing travel research. And now you don’t have to! What we can promise with our search experience is a level of transparency that doesn’t exist anywhere else online. You can search across fare classes and airlines to do apples to apples comparisons. It’s a one-stop-shop to simplify your flight search!

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