How to use credit cards to defeat Basic Economy

17 April 2023

There’s no doubt: basic economy is infuriating. From carry-on baggage restrictions on some airlines to a lack of seat selection, it’s a step down from what travelers are used to getting when flying.

The airlines are also doing a good job of making basic economy sound really bad, so you’ll buy up to standard economy. Despite unpleasant things like checked baggage fees, there’s a way to use credit cards to avoid some of the pain points of basic economy. Let’s go airline by airline to see how to do so.

Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines began offering basic economy fares, which it calls “Saver Fares,” in 2019, with minimal amenities. Buying basic economy rather than a main cabin fare will typically save you $15-$30 each way.

Unlike some stricter airlines, Alaska does allow you to bring a full-size carry-on bag for free. But you’ll still be boarding in Alaska’s final boarding group, with no seat changes or refunds after 24 hours. You’re also not eligible for complimentary upgrades.

Alaska Airlines charges a $30 fee for the first checked bag and $40 for the second on all its flights. But cardholders of the Alaska Airlines Visa® credit card and the Alaska Airlines Visa® Business card can check a first bag for free for you and up to six additional passengers on the same reservation when you book with your card.

That makes these cards well worth the annual fee, even if you only travel with Alaska a few times a year.

Passengers without status
Basic economy
Standard economy
Basic economy +
cobranded card

Boarding group
6.
5.
3.

Carry-on baggage allowance
1.
1.
1.

Checked baggage allowance
0.
0.
1 each for you and up to six additional passengers.

Extra cost vs. basic economy
N/A.
$30.
$95 for either card.

Flight changes or refunds
None.
Fees apply.
None.

 

American Airlines

JT GENTER/THE POINTS GUY

American Airlines offers basic economy fares on all domestic routes and flights to/from Mexico, South America, Central America, the Caribbean, Canada, Europe and Africa. Basic Economy restrictions mean that you’ll be assigned a seat at check-in (likely a middle seat), you won’t be eligible for an upgrade, you’ll earn fewer elite-qualifying miles/segments, you’ll board in the final boarding group and the ticket doesn’t allow any flight changes or refunds. You are allowed to bring a carry-on bag on board.

On American Airlines’ basic economy overview, you’ll find that there’s a caveat:

AAdvantage® elite status members and eligible Citi® / AAdvantage® or AAdvantage® Aviator® Mastercard® cardmembers are exempt from certain restrictions.

Those with AA elite status can maintain their boarding group and checked-bag benefits.

But what if you don’t have status? Then you can use one of these eligible cards to get an even better boarding group than standard economy and get the checked baggage allowance awarded by the credit card.

Eligible Cards:

Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®.
Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®.
CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Mastercard®.*
Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® American Express® Card (not available to new customers).*
Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Visa Signature (not available to new customers).*
AAdvantage Aviator Red Mastercard.*
AAdvantage Aviator Silver Mastercard.*
AAdvantage Aviator Business Mastercard.*

*The information for these cards has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Related reading: Choosing the best credit card for American Airlines flyers

Passengers without status
Basic economy
Standard economy
Basic economy +
cobranded card

Boarding group
8-9.
6-7.
4-5.

Assigned seat
Select within 48 hours for a fee, or assigned.
Limited selection
at booking.
Select within 48 hours for a fee, or assigned.

Carry-on baggage allowance
1.
1.
1.

Checked baggage allowance
0.
0-1.
1.

Extra cost vs. basic economy
N/A.
$30.
Starting at $0 for first year, then $99+ per year.

Flight changes or refunds
None.
Fees apply.
None.

Rather than paying $30+ more per flight for standard economy, you can use a cobranded credit card like the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard to avoid being relegated to the last group of boarding.

Instead, you’ll jump the bulk of economy passengers (in Groups 6-8) and board in Group 4, where you’ve got a great chance of having space in the overhead bins. Plus, you’ll get a free checked bag on domestic flights.

You don’t have to pay for your flights with the co-branded card to get these benefits — American Airlines will tie your credit card to your AAdvantage account and apply these benefits automatically. This allows you to use a credit card with better travel protection when booking flights — like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which offers up to $500 of expense reimbursement for delays of over six hours.

The downside of the co-branded card approach: You still don’t get to pick your seat for free. You’ll have the option to pay to select a seat 48 hours prior to departure. Otherwise, AA will assign you a seat at check-in.

Delta

BENJI STAWSKI/THE POINTS GUY

The O.G. of legacy carriers for basic economy is Delta. Launched in 2012, Delta’s basic economy has the least-harsh restrictions. With Delta’s version, you don’t get advance seat assignments, upgrades or any changes to the flights (after the required 24-hour period). That said, you can choose your seats at check-in, and you get a carry-on bag.

There are still advantages to getting a cobranded credit card if you’re considering basic economy. While you get a carry-on bag with Delta’s basic economy fare, you might have to gate-check it, as you’ll be boarding in Group 8. With a cobranded card, you’ll get a free checked bag and priority boarding on Delta flights to have an almost-sure spot in the overhead bins.

Eligible Cards:

Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card.
Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card.
Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card.
Delta SkyMiles® Gold Business American Express Card.
Delta SkyMiles® Platinum Business American Express Card.
Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card.

Related reading: Choosing the best credit card for Delta flyers

Passengers without status
Basic economy
Standard economy
Basic economy +
cobranded card

Boarding group
10.
8-9.
7.

Assigned seat
Potential to choose at check-in, but may be assigned at gate.
Choose at booking.
Potential to choose at check-in, but may be assigned at gate.

Carry-on baggage allowance
1.
1.
1.

Checked baggage allowance
0.
0-1.
1.

Extra cost vs. basic economy
N/A.
$30.
Starting at $0 for first year; then $95 per year.

Flight changes or refunds
None.
Fees apply.
None.

That’s right: you can get a card with a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $99 (Delta SkyMiles Gold card, see rates and fees or Delta SkyMiles Gold Business, see rates and fees) to avoid first checked bag fees and having to gate-check your bag. As with American, you don’t have to purchase your ticket with your Delta credit card to get the free checked bag — just having the card and including your Delta SkyMiles number in your reservation is enough.

The downside of going the co-branded card approach? No advance seat selection. Delta’s basic economy fares have the potential to choose seats at check-in, but it’s possible that you may not get a seat assigned until the gate.

United

Of all the major airlines, United’s basic economy is the worst. While American Airlines relented and lets basic economy passengers carry on a bag, United still doesn’t allow basic economy passengers anything larger than a personal item (except on long-haul international flights). Plus, the basic economy fares can be absurd. TPG’s United tracker Zach Honig found one basic economy option for $1,172 round-trip — for a 300-mile flight.

And what do you get with United’s basic economy? Not much: an auto-assigned seat at check-in (with no chance to change), no carry-on bags, no upgrades and no changes/refunds. You can’t even check in online (except for transatlantic flights) unless you’re paying for a checked bag.

A United credit card can help ease some of that pain. Like American and Delta, you’ll jump from the last boarding group to an earlier one. And, you’ll earn back a carry-on bag and get a first free checked bag — or two with certain cards.

Eligible cards:

United Explorer Card.
United Business Card.
United Club Infinite Card (up to two free checked bags).
United Club Business Card (up to two free checked bags).

Related reading: The best credit cards for flying United

The information for the United Club Business has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Passengers without status
Basic economy
Standard economy
Basic economy +
cobranded card

Boarding group
5.
3-5.
2.

Assigned seat
Assigned at check-in.
Choose at booking.
Assigned at check-in.

Carry-on baggage allowance
0.
1.
1.

Checked baggage allowance
0.
0.
1.

Extra cost vs. basic economy
N/A.
$30.
Starting at $0 for first year, then $95+ per year.

Flight changes or refunds
None.
Fees apply.
None.

It’s important to note that you need to use your cobranded United card to pay for your flights to get the checked baggage allowance. Unfortunately, the cobranded card approach doesn’t let you select a better seat or get upgrades.

Southwest (doesn’t have basic economy)

It’s worth noting that of the major airlines, Southwest is the only one without a Basic Economy class.

Bottom line

Basic economy fares have become ubiquitous on U.S. legacy airlines, covering all domestic routes and many international ones. It’s important that all travelers know the restrictions and that the airlines want you to buy up from basic economy to main cabin. By having a cobranded airline credit card, however, you can avoid some of the pain of basic economy without having to buy up to standard economy.

If you like to carry on a bag — and to not gate-check it — as well as get a free checked bag, all you need is to get an eligible cobranded card and buy the cheapest fare. Thanks to priority boarding benefits, you’ll get access to the overhead bins before those who paid extra to get standard economy but don’t have a cobranded card.

That said, cobranded airline cards can’t overcome some of the other issues with basic economy: lack of assigned seating and upgrades and reduced elite-qualifying earning. So judge carefully whether the “basic economy + cobranded card strategy” will work for you.

Additional reporting by Ryan Wilcox and Jason Stauffer.

For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Gold card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Gold Business card, click here.

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