When it comes to flying, we like main cabin and premium seats as much as anyone. But we also like saving significant amounts of money even more, especially since the rise of basic economy on all major and discount airlines can subsidize (or even pay for) the cost of getting to our next great adventure. That said, unless you plan accordingly, basic economy can end up costing you as much as the main cabin (or sometimes even premium seats) if you’re not careful. Here’s everything you need to know about booking basic economy, from loophole cancelation policies and packing tips to landing seats with your family at no extra cost.

Understand the rules

For tens (sometimes hundreds) of dollars less, basic economy grants you a seat on a plane and a personal bag to fit under your seat. But depending on the airline, you get little to nothing else. For example, basic economy on Delta and American still give free snacks, drinks, and overhead bin access for carry-ons, but don’t let you pick your seats (which are assigned at random). Basic economy on United offers free snacks and drinks, but no free carry-ons or assigned seat. Discount carriers such as Frontier, Spirit and Allegiant, don’t even offer free water, so you’ll need to bring your own everything and pack extra light.

Pro tip: Read the fine print before booking your fare. Sites like Flightdig.com make it easy to assess what you’re getting, right in your search results. Easily check and compare baggage allowances, and whether your fare includes seat choice,
cancellations or other changes before booking (just click “Details & baggage fees” and “Rules and restrictions apply” to view).

Don’t reserve seats

Airlines will try and scare you into paying extra for seat selections, but with the notable exception to Spirit (who are notorious for breaking up adults), almost all basic economy seats will seat families with young children (per federal law) and even adults together under a single reservation. That’s because airlines know that doing so is better for everyone. Having flown dozens of basic economy flights with family, we’ve only been minorly separated on three occasions; once when our large family was split into two separate but nearby groups, and twice when one straggler member of our family had to sit in a row behind. That’s a small price to pay for significant savings.

Pro tip: Check in as early as possible to ensure the best possible random seating assignment. And, if you just can’t stand the uncertainty, you can always book basic and then pay a la carte for the seat assignments, which usually costs around $15 per selection—still cheaper than a non-basic fare, in most cases.

Pack extra light

While some major airlines such as Delta, American and JetBlue allow one free carry-on with basic economy, the rest only include one “free personal item” such as a small backpack or large handbag to fit under your seat. Either way, in basic economy you’ll be forced to pack light, re-wear clothes and plan for appropriate weather if you wish to avoid the $80-$150 per bag fee (round trip average). As each airline has slightly different “free personal item” size restrictions, check before you pack. To help, wear your bulkiest items on the plane and plan to do laundry at your destination. If you must pay for a bag, do so online before incurring the costly surcharge some airlines charge at the gate for an undeclared bag.

Pro tip: Sunny destinations or short-haul flights are more accommodating to packing light (although long haul and cold destinations can work too with extra planning). If you’re not willing to sacrifice luggage, consider getting one of the major airlines’ credit cards: The CitiCard AAdvantage Platinum Select Card, for example, lets you check your first bag—as well as bags for up to four travel companions—free on domestic American flights.

Bring your own everything

Unless flying with a major airline, you’ll be forced to bring your own snacks, entertainment, and even water on basic economy if you want to avoid extra charges. This means you’ll have to pack and plan even more before heading to the airport, such as downloading movies in advance onto a Kindle or iPad, carrying a water bottle, and bringing your own snacks. You’ll need to do this several times when traveling with kids. That said, if you’re hangry or incredibly thirsty on a basic economy flight, the $5 snack box or $3 water is probably worth it.

Pro tip: Buy your favorite snacks ahead of time to have something to look forward to, and don’t forget your water bottle. If you can’t be bothered to pack snacks, an airline credit card comes in handy here, too: Both United and American’s cards afford you 25% off inflight food and beverage purchases. You’re still going to pay way too much for that cracker and hummus box, but it helps!

Do the math

Make no mistake: Basic economy is a good thing for travelers given that it gives us more options. Don’t let the “basic” moniker scare you off. With basic economy, you’ll still get a confirmed seat to your final destination, which is really all that matters. That said, check ahead of time to see what your preferred airline charges for checked bags, what the carryon allowance is, how much they charge for assigned seats, etc. That could determine whether or not you might be better off booking a main cabin fare, since the add-ons can sometimes make basic economy more expensive than regular seats.

Pro tip: Lastly, even though the rules say that you can’t make any changes to basic tickets, rest assured that you can cancel even basic economy seats for a full refund up to 24 hours after booking, per federal law. Outside of that, however, you’re on your own, which means changes will be very costly—if they’re even possible at all.

Seriously, get the airline credit card

You already know that major airlines’ credit cards afford you a free checked bag, and discounted food and drink (not to mention double miles on flights). But if you’ve avoided basic economy because you can’t stand the thought of being the last to board, here’s one more reason to apply: Both American and United’s cards give members preferred boarding status—so take that, basic economy!

Pro tip: Both major airlines cards also let you earn miles on every day purchases, so even if you don’t travel all the time, you could see your miles add up quickly.

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