Why airline “Basic” economy fares make credit cards more valuable

American Airlines recently announced it’s following Delta in United in creating a Basic cconomy class.

“Basic Economy” essentially means you’re paying a lower fare for a worse flying experience. If the “lower fare” part sounds good to you, but the “worse flying experience” part doesn’t, credit cards can fill in the gap by providing some of the benefits lacking in Basic fares.

What Basic economy means

With Delta already (and soon with United and American), you’ll notice a new ticket option when you’re booking: “Economy” has now been divided into “Basic” and “Main Cabin,” with Basic being an even-more-stripped-down version of Main Cabin.

Flying economy wasn’t that great to begin with, but even that came with some comforts that aren’t included in Basic economy. Compare airline classes of service in the chart below. For this chart, we are assuming the passenger has no airline status and is not carrying a credit card that gives additional perks.

Comparing airline economy classes (Basic vs. Main Cabin)
BasicMain cabinBasicMain cabinBasicMain cabin
Seat assignmentAt check-in or at gateCan select after booking (for a fee); fee waived for certain fares/passengers w/ status.At check-in or at gateCan select at bookingAt check-in or at gateCan select at booking
Carry-onsCarry-on plus personal item1 personal item ONLY that fits under seat. Attempts to bring on additional carry-on will result in gate-check fee, plus $25 “handing” fee.1 personal item, plus 1 carry-on (overhead)1 personal item ONLY that fits under seat. Attempts to bring on additional carry-on will result in gate-check fee, plus $25 “handing” fee.1 personal item, plus 1 carry-on (overhead)
BoardingZone 3Zone 2Group 5Group 3-4Until March 2017: N/A

Starting March 2017: Group 9
Until March 2017: Groups 2-4

Starting March 2017: Groups 6-8

In sum, Basic economy means you get a seat assignment last-minute, may be limited in carrying on bags and get on the plane dead last. But you’ll save some cash. How much exactly, varies by route. We found savings of up to $50 (compared to Main Cabin economy) on Delta and as little as $4.

Where your cards can fill the gap

Say you find a great Basic fare. With the right credit card, you don’t have to wonder if foregoing all comforts is worth it.

There’s not much you can do about the last-minute seat-assignment part. But, when it comes to bag fees and boarding, here’s how cards can help:

  • You don’t have to board last: Co-branded airline cards (like the AAdvantage cards, United’s MileagePlus cards, Delta’s SkyMiles cards) often include “priority boarding” as a perk. So, even if you go for the cheap Basic fare, you still get to cut in line (well, up to the first economy boarding group anyway). Other airline cards give you progress toward elite status, which, once attained, allows you to cut in line ahead of Main Cabin economy (even if you’re holding a Basic economy ticket).

    Granted, this strategy is probably only advantageous with Delta, which still allows you to bring on an overhead-sized carry-on bag with a Basic ticket; getting on the plane earlier helps you snag overhead space. With United and American (which don’t allow overhead-bin use with a Basic ticket), there’s no clear-cut advantage to boarding early.

  • You don’t have to pay for your bag: The new Basic economy class can put budget-hunters in a bind. Before Basic economy was introduced, the go-to strategy was to book the cheapest fare, fit everything in a roll-aboard carry-on bag and put it in the overhead instead of paying a baggage-check fee. One might say Basic economy is the airlines’ answer to that strategy — you can no longer book the cheapest fair available AND take take a bag for free. Co-branded airline cards often give you (and some traveling companions) one free checked bag. So, you could book the Basic fare (saving however much it saves you) and check your bag for free.

    If you don’t think you’ll get enough out of a co-branded airline card to justify the perks, consider a flexible travel-rewards card offering “travel fee” credits that reimburse you for airline incidentals, such as baggage fees. We have a list of such cards here. Keep in mind that airline-fee credits function differently from card to card. With the Platinum Card and Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express (a CreditCardForum advertising partner), for example, you’ll get reimbursed only for your airline of choice (which you can change only once per year). Cit’s Prestige card and the Chase Sapphire Reserve have more flexible travel credits.

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