We take a break from our regularly scheduled Olympics programming because it is 4:00 AM and I can’t sleep. When normal people can’t sleep it is because they worry about work, relationships, or money. You know, serious things. When I can’t sleep it is because of silly things. Like the spread of bad travel advice based on a blatant misunderstanding of the average person. What is keeping me up tonight is a “travel expert” stating “Don’t buy basic economy.” I disagree, this is wrong. You should fly Basic Economy.
My Love Hate Relationship with The Points Guy
The Points Guy is an extremely valuable resource when it comes to travel. Especially, points and miles based travel. It is one of a small handful of websites that grew my love for travel by combining travel with my love for being cheap. It taught me the basics of the rewards point game, and helped create some of my most memorable trips. However, I have a love hate relationship with the The Points Guy. Somewhere between 2018-2019 I felt alienated by them. Their posts more frequently contained statements about the wrong type of spoon served with their caviar. Or even more horrifying, their seat was situated in a way that they made eye contact with a fellow passenger a few times. Essentially, they shifted their target audience to a more affluent audience.
My frustrations with TPG came to a head when I read their post on not giving up luxury travel once you have kids. I expected this article to be about ways to travel in style without spending a lot of money. Because, you know, kids are expensive. Nope. Silly me. The answer to the traveling with kids problem was to stay in $1,000+ a night hotel rooms or rent luxury apartments. But I still kept reading. Despite my frustrations with The Points Guy, they have some really good writers who do have wisdom to share.
The Writer in Question
One such writer is Katherine Fan. I first came across her writing, when as a freelancer she posted the creative way she gained her United 1K status, smuggling. She would subsidize flights to South America using apps like Grabr; which pay you for transporting goods people want from your country, but are too expensive or cannot be bought in their country. In her case she was transporting a lot of electronics. Well over the legal import limit . In her defense it was clear she didn’t realize the legal ramifications of what she was doing and never intended to break any customs laws. When people (erm… me) posted that this was against customs laws TPG immediately removed the post. Which is a bit of a shame because it was an extremely interesting article.
I write this not to cast aspersions on Katherine in any way, but to show you what drew me to her writing. Her writing is down to earth, and she was willing to go the extra mile to find ways to see the world on the cheap. This type of writing is what initially drew me to The Points Guy. Writers like her stop me from abandoning the site completely.
The Basic Economy Statement
Given all this, imagine my shock and horror when I log onto The Points Guy’s Facebook group (Yeah, I know, I can’t quit) and see one of the moderators posting this Tweet from Katherine.
I was legitimately OUTRAGED. Again, I am not normal. Normal things don’t outrage me but statements like this…Flames on the side of my face.
When You Should Not Fly Basic Economy
I will admit, the offending statement isn’t 100% false. It’s a broad over generalization. There are reasons why shouldn’t fly basic economy.
- You are flying with young kids — Most basic economy fares do not include seat selection. While the airlines do try to keep everyone on a reservation together, in basic economy it does not always happen. If you don’t want to be separated from your kids on the flight, don’t book basic economy. The exception to this is Alaska Airlines, which lets you select from a limited number of seats.
- You need your flight to be flexible — All basic economy flights are non-changeable after 24 hours. If you need some flexibility avoid basic economy. However, most regular economy tickets are not too flexible (as i found out this week when I got food poisoning and couldn’t fly).
- If you are going for airline status — With the exception again of Alaska Airlines, airlines will only give you about 50% of the QUALIFYING miles you would get if you flew economy.
- Your flight is on United — Flying United basic economy can be hit or miss. My experience rates from disastrous to great. However, I am specifically calling out United because they have the worst basic economy baggage policies. United is the only full-service airline that does not let its basic economy passengers bring a bag for the overhead bin. They are sticklers for this too. They will not even let you check in online because they require a ticketing agent to measure your bag.
While these are the reasons I would not recommend basic economy, they are not the reasons that TPG Community Manager citied when responding to the outrage over this statement.
Basic economy is cheaper than Economy. This is an indisputable fact. Basic economy will save you money. This is the premise on which my whole argument is based. The benefits you get from booking an economy ticket DO NOT outweigh the money saved on basic economy.
How Much Does Basic Economy Save You?
When Basic Economy was first introduced, most of us saw it as a money grab by the airlines. We thought it was an excuse for airlines to bump up the costs of the regular economy fare. In my experience, this actually was not the case. The introduction of basic economy, among other factors, has led to extremely low fares both domestically and internationally. It has been a godsend for a budget traveler like me who does not mind packing in a backpack. But how much am I actually saving with basic economy?
At a minimum the airlines will charge a $15 charge per flight to book a regular economy fare. While this doesn’t sound bad, this is generally a distance based calculation. The longer you fly, the more you pay if you want to be in regular economy. Some examples of domestic economy up-charges are:
- Seattle to New York: $35 each way
- Dallas to Maui: $64 each way
- Seattle to San Francisco: $15 each way
- San Francisco to Houston: $35 each way
- Denver to Orlando: $35 each way
- New York to Maui $65 each way
- Dallas to Orlando $35 each way
- Miami to Atlanta $35 each way
These rates do fluctuate a bit (I have saved over $200 on one domestic flight by booking Basic Economy), but the above is pretty standard. You generally save $35 per person each way by booking domestic basic economy. A $70 round trip savings. This is not insignificant. Especially, if you, like me, travel with your significant other that becomes $140 savings just on flight. That saves you a night or two on hotel rooms, some really good meals, or a Broadway show. The savings easily outweigh the drawbacks.
Debunking the Haters
According to The Points Guy Writers you should never book basic economy. The Facebook post said Kathrine’s tweet was “not inaccurate in the slightest”. They could not be more wrong. So lets address the issues/drawbacks of Basic Economy
Myth: You Do Not Earn Full Miles on Basic Economy.
There are two different type of miles you earn when flying on an airline. You earn redeemable miles and qualifying miles/segments. Redeemable miles are pretty straight forward; these are the miles you earn for purchasing the flying the flight. For American, Delta, and United this is based on a multiplier (starting at 5x and increasing if you have frequent flier status) of the number of dollars you spend on the flight. While qualifying miles (or points in United’s Case) are based off different metrics, they are only used to track your progress to frequent flier status. United bases their qualifying points at 1 point per dollar spent and Delta and American bases qualifying miles off if miles flown.
Yes, in basic economy you do not earn full qualifying miles, but if you are trying for status you should not be looking into basic economy. Status is not cheap, it requires you to be loyal to an airline even if their prices are more expensive. Also, status really doesn’t start paying off for you unless you can hit the upper tiers of status, which requires significant money spent. For example United Platinum, their second highest level, requires a minimum $12,000 spent with the airline.
If you are considering flying basic economy, you are focused on saving money and earning redeemable points. In basic economy, you are earning full redeemable miles based on the money you spent on your flight (or number of miles flown if you are on Alaska). The only difference between the redeemable miles you earn in basic economy vs economy is the difference in price of the tickets. So, if you saved $70 on your basic economy flight you would only miss out on 350 miles (using a 5x multiple if you don’t have status). At TPG’s current value for AA or United points that is $4.90 of value; for delta $4.20. Way less than what you save.
Myth-ish: Basic Economy Tickets are not Upgradable
Wallace, Cotton, the TPG community manager said their biggest issue was that Basic Economy tickets are not upgradable. While this is usually true, it honestly doesn’t matter. This is just another example of why the Points Guy can be out of touch. For a site that was originally about having great by utilizing points and other tricks to save money, they seem to have forgotten about the portion of their audience that does not want to spend extra money.
Unless you have status, upgrades are very rarely free and they are NOT cheap. To upgrade the United flight I am about to take from DFW to SEA (stopping in SFO) I would need to pay $106 one way. This is where The Points Guy doesn’t seem to get it. The person who considers booking a basic economy flight to save $35 dollars each way, is extremely unlikely to shell out $106 to get priority boarding and 4 inches extra legroom. The fact that you can’t upgrade basic economy doesn’t matter to someone who is trying to be thrifty.
If you are lucky basic economy tickets are upgradable. Your basic economy ticket guarantees you a seat on the plane, but not a specific seat. They are going to try to sell those extra legroom seats up until the last possible minute. If they don’t and there are no free seats left you may find yourself in an extra legroom seat despite your basic economy ticket. This isn’t even uncommon, both Alaska and American have given me an extra legroom seat on a basic ticket.
Myth: You Don’t get the same luggage allowance
A standard domestic economy ticket entitles you to one bag that fits under your seat and one bag that fits in the overhead bin. American, Alaska, and Delta all give you that exact same luggage allowance on a basic economy ticket. There is no difference, if you want to check a bag, the first checked bag fee is exactly the same. The only exception, as mentioned above, is United. If you are looking at a United flight you may want to think twice about basic economy.
It is a bit different for international flights. For Trans-Atlantic or Trans-Pacific flights economy tickets get one free bag. While the savings in basic economy can be even more significant on international flights, you do not get the free checked bag.
However, in such a case it may make sense to “defeat” basic economy by getting a co-branded credit card. Most airline co-branded credit cards allow you a free checked bag on any flight operated by the airline. Regardless pack light or get a credit card… you still end up saving tons of money in the long run in basic economy!
The biggest issue and the hardest one to fight are the seating issues. With the exception of Alaska, no us domestic carriers let you pre-select your seats for free in basic economy. United and American assign your seats at check-in and Delta will let you pick from available seats at check. There are no guarantees you will be seated with everyone that is on your reservation and you cannot guarantee whether you get window, aisle, or middle.
I don’t really have a defense for this. It is a personal intrinsic decision you will have to make. Is it worth paying the extra $70 dollars per person round trip to ensure you have your choice of seats. Personally, I don’t think it is worth it. I would rather take the money I save and spend it on an experience. I Love my wife, but I can be seated away from her or bear a middle seat for a few hours if it saves us $140 total.
Basic economy tickets board last. That is another thing that you can’t get around without a credit card, but honestly doesn’t really matter. Boarding first or boarding last it doesn’t really matter. You are all going on to the same plane, and you are all going to get there at the same time. Boarding last may mean the airline may require you to check your bag for free, but again the inconvenience is not worth the cost to pay for regular economy.
Do not listen to those who say you should never fly basic economy. While it is not the right choice for some people, Basic Economy is a great option that can save you TONS of money in the long run.