I flew basic economy on both Delta and United within 72 hours - and the cheap seats aren't nearly as bad as people say
John Amis / AP
- Major airlines such as Delta, United, and American Airlines started offering basic economy fares in 2016 and 2017.
- Basic economy tickets are meant to be the cheapest tickets on the plane and restrict a traveler's flexibility, choices, and luggage.
- I flew basic economy on both Delta and United over a holiday weekend, and it was much easier and more pleasant than people make it out to be - as long as you know what you're getting yourself into.
While the specifics of the fare class vary by airline, the general concept is that you pay the least on the plane to get the least on the plane: you generally have no flexibility in your fare, no ability to choose your seats, and no carry-on bag.
But, flying from New York City to Atlanta over Memorial Day weekend, I didn't much care.
Flights were expensive, as you'd expect on a holiday weekend. And when I started reading over the rules for basic economy tickets for me and my boyfriend, who was traveling with me, I had a thought: this doesn't sound so bad.
Especially for a weekend trip that's only a two-hour flight, I don't really care where I sit, or if I sit with my companion. As long as I get a seat and get there safely, I'm good. I don't like to stuff a full-sized carry-on in the overhead compartment because I can't reach it easily and I like to keep an eye on my bag. I keep my bag under the seat in front of me instead. And I've only ever cancelled a flight once.
Basic economy sounds rather like what I've been doing all along. So, I booked the tickets.
We traveled from New York's LaGuardia Airport (LGA) to Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport (ATL) on Friday night via Delta for $143 each. We returned to New York's Newark Airport (EWR) via United on Monday morning for $148 each. It was virtually the same price on each airline and about $300 round trip (not all that cheap, but it was a holiday weekend) - so I was excited to see how basic economy compared.
When I booked the tickets, both airlines confirmed multiple times that I wouldn't be allowed carry-on bags.
After reading a review of United's basic economy class that pointed out you couldn't check in online, I repeatedly warned my boyfriend that we should get to the airport early and that we wouldn't have seats before we arrived. The trip to Atlanta was with Delta, but I was still taking precautions.
We arrived at LGA Terminal D at about 6:30 p.m. for a 9 p.m. flight and checked in with the curbside agent outside, who gave me my boarding pass but sent us to the indoor kiosks to print my boyfriend's. We breezed through security and arrived at our (unmanned) gate at 7 p.m., where the agent told us to return at 8.
To kill time, we headed over to Terminal C, where there's an elaborate food court that belies LGA's less-than-stellar reputation. After some pre-flight ramen, we moseyed back over to our gate to find a line waiting for the agent's attention.
The agent announced over the loudspeaker that everyone had been assigned a seat, and parties booked together would sit together, so there was no need to approach the desk for a seat assignment. He was very adamant on this last point. Anyone who'd been assigned seats at the gate — there were about 15 — would board with Group 1, the first regular boarding group.
Usually when boarding I wait until almost everyone is on the plane, but I decided to follow the instructions and board with Zone 1. I don't recommend it: When the first person in line hesitated after the boarding announcement, people started yelling "Zone 1!" and pushing around him to bulldoze through to their assigned seats.
As we boarded, the gate agent took my boarding pass and swapped it for a piece of paper with my seat assignment on it.
My boyfriend and I ended up not only next to each other, but in an exit row only about half a dozen rows behind first class, so pretty near the front of the plane. I'm only 5'3", so I was swimming in legroom. My boyfriend, who is 6'2", was extremely happy.
Delta's policy for basic economy is that you must put your "personal item" under the seat in front of you. We did, but no one ever checked or confirmed. The plane itself was clearly new: fancy lighting, TVs in the seat backs, generally shiny and clean. I looked it up later and it was an A320.
It was one of the best flights I've taken in a while. The flight attendants handed out the usual drinks and cookies/pretzels/snack mix options, while I watched movies. My boyfriend's new iPhone headphones didn't fit in the jack next to the screen and the crew didn't offer headphones to use or purchase, so he read a book. We landed early. Basic economy was pretty great so far.
I got the email from United to check in on Sunday, and followed the link as usual. As I'd expected, it couldn't complete my check-in process and required us to redo it at the airport.
United's baggage policy for basic economy is different than Delta's: It gives you specific dimensions for what's considered a personal item versus a carry-on.
Without a tape measure and warned that trying to get a carry-on onto the plane could cost us another $50 each, I was getting nervous.
We arrived at ATL's north terminal in the rain around 7 a.m. for a 9:30 a.m. flight. Good thing we did: The first thing we saw was a huge line of tired travelers waiting to check in. We joined the crowd.
The line was extremely slow-moving because of the strange setup: The check-in kiosks were right next to bag-checking stations, so you couldn't tell which people had finished checking in and were checking bags, leaving the kiosk technically available.
The bag-checking stations were equipped with a little box to measure your personal item and another one for your carry-on. Our personal items didn't quite fit in the personal item box ...
We started checking in only to hit a bright yellow screen that told us to summon an agent to approve our bags. There were very few agents, but once we got someone's attention she barely gave our bags a glance and affixed bright stickers designating them as personal items not allowed in the overhead storage. Those stickers alleviated my anxiety immediately. We were approved!
We were given seats immediately right on our boarding passes. They weren't together, and they were at the very back of the plane, rows 37 and 38. Win some, lose some, I guess.
Security was also packed and slow-moving, but we eventually made it through Terminal T (not worth discussing) and onto the plane, which was a screen and fancy-lighting-less older model. Even with the tags on our bags, the flight attendants told us we could put them above if there was space near our seats (there wasn't).
We took off on time and had an uneventful trip home, with free beverages, packaged stroopwafels, and snacks available for purchase.
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