Comparing Basic Economy: American v Delta v United – Who Offers What?

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Basic Economy fares are now offered by all three US legacy airlines and they appear to be here to stay. The legacies will tell you that the fares have been introduced to help them compete with the low-cost carriers but, in reality, this is just another way for them to “unbundle” their fares and nickel and dime their customers just a little bit more.

While all three legacy carriers now offer Basic Economy fares not all the offerings are the same (in fact there are some notable differences between the 3 airlines), so it’s worth knowing which airlines offers what.

With that in mind, I’ve read through the information on Basic Economy fares provided by the three legacy carriers and put the pertinent pieces into the tables below. Hopefully these will allow readers to compare what each airline offers and highlight areas where one airline is better than the other(s).

Where Are Basic Economy Fares Offered?

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At the time of writing Delta is the only US carrier to offer Basic Economy fares on long-haul international flights (starting 10 April 2018) but, with the likes of Air France/KLM and Alitalia also offering Basic Economy equivalents across the Atlantic, it’s only a matter of time before American and United join in.

Baggage Allowances & Rules

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This is one of the main areas where Delta differentiates itself from the other two legacy carriers. While United and American both only allow Basic Economy passengers to board with a “personal item” which fits under the seat ahead of them, Delta gives Basic Economy passengers a regular carry-on allowance.

Seating & Boarding

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There’s not much to split the legacies in this section but Delta still offers the friendlier rules in that Basic Economy passengers get to select seats for free at the time of check-in (which can be anytime up to 24hrs before departure).

United have only just started allowing Basic Economy passengers to pay for seat assignments (the cost varies depending on the flight) but, as passengers can now pay to select seats significantly ahead of departure, this makes American’s rule the most punishing – you can pay for a seat selection on American but not until 48hrs before departure…by which time all the better seats may well already be taken.

Upgrades, Flight Changes & Check-In

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Only one thing to separate the legacies here and that’s United’s incredibly illogical rule that forces passengers without a checked bag to physically check-in at an airport desk.

Why United would wish to create more work for its staff at the airport is beyond me….but then who am I to question the geniuses running the airline?

Earning Miles & Elite Status

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This is another area where United really comes out looking bad.

While Delta and American both give elite status credit for Basic Economy fares (in American’s case at a reduced rate), United has chosen not to award any elite credit whatsoever.

Delta is the clear winner here as passengers earn miles and elite status credits just as they would with a regular Economy Class fare.

Elite Status Holder Benefits & Credit Card Holder Benefits

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All three airlines have identical policies surrounding the benefits they let their elite flyers keep when booking Basic Economy fares and they all also allow co-branded credit card holders to keep some of their benefits too.

If you need more information on what benefits Basic Economy passengers can have by holding (and sometimes using) a co-branded credit card then check out the posts listed below:


Based on what I’ve seen and what I’ve noted in the tables above it would seem as if there’s a clear ranking order for the Basic Economy Fares offered by the 3 US legacy airlines.

The least punishing rules are those imposed by Delta while the most draconian rules are imposed by United (with American’s fares somewhere in between).

I have absolutely no interest in ever booking a Basic Economy fare as I’m set on booking exit row seats whenever I fly in the back but, should a time come where I absolutely have to book a Basic Economy fare, I’ll be strongly favoring Delta unless the price differences are substantial.

Featured image courtesy of Delta


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