Is Basic Economy Best for Business Travel?

By Jessica Sillers

A successful business travel plan balances budget factors and a smooth travel experience for employees. You may have noticed that “basic economy” fares can reduce your trip expenses. If you were planning to book a coach flight anyway, can this option benefit your budget, or are the hidden risks too great?

What Is Basic Economy?

Basic economy is the cheapest tier of airline ticket options. This ticket comes with a stripped-down flight experience and more restrictions than standard economy or business class tickets.

“More bare-bones than coach” sounds unpleasant, which is kind of by design. Most airlines offering basic economy freely admit they hope you’ll opt for at least standard economy for an easier travel experience. Still, basic economy can occasionally be the right choice for business travelers on a budget who don’t want to travel via low-cost carriers.

As for how much you save, it varies. A search for round-trip flights from Reagan International in Washington, D.C. to Chicago or San Francisco on June 24-27 resulted in a $2-84 difference between basic economy and standard economy tickets on the same flight (we searched Delta, United, and American Airlines). Pay for any upgrades, of course, and you could cut or eliminate savings.

Why Is Basic Economy Airfare Class Being Introduced?

For some travelers, the bottom line matters most. As low-cost carriers introduced lower fares, other airlines wanted to keep up (or down, as the case may be).

Offering a basic economy ticket lets airlines cater to travelers who are happy to trade some flexibility and convenience for the cheapest flight. Low-cost carriers may offer limited flight times, so basic economy can make it easier for budget travelers to schedule flights at their preferred time.

Airlines Offering Basic Economy

Four airlines offer basic economy class tickets: American, Alaska, Delta, and United. These airlines are not to be confused with carriers like Spirit, Frontier, or others that market themselves primarily as ultra low-cost options.

Generally speaking, one basic economy experience is much like another, because airlines don’t want to look worse than a competitor. Still, there are a few variations between airlines.

Delta lets you choose your seat at check-in, while other airlines assign your seat for you, either at check-in or at the gate. United Airlines only allows a full-sized carry-on item in addition to a personal item on trans-Atlantic flights or for Premier members; basic economy travelers are restricted to personal item only for other flights. The other carriers permit both a full-sized carry-on and personal item for both basic and standard economy.

What Basic Economy Includes

Basic economy generally offers similar in-flight amenities to a standard economy ticket. So, the legroom, WiFi access, in-flight refreshment options, and so forth should be the same.

Basic economy tickets tend to appeal most to travelers who pack light, don’t need much beyond simple transportation from a flight, and don’t require flight flexibility. Travelers who need the ability to change flight details on short notice are more likely to run into serious issues with a basic economy flight.

Basic Economy Restrictions and Fees to Know

Booking the lowest fare available comes at the cost of flexibility. The first serious restriction about basic economy is rigid scheduling. There’s no flight changes (including same-day changes, which are an option with regular economy) and no refunds. The airline requires you to take the exact flight you initially booked.

This can present a significant drawback for business travelers planning to meet with clients or partners, visit a developing site, or plan other trips that may require flexibility in timing. Even exhibitors at a conference may want flight change flexibility in case last-minute issues or invitations come up. If your ticket is basic economy, you may find yourself weighing a missed opportunity against a sunk cost on a non-refundable flight.

Basic economy also puts ticket holders on the lowest priority rung when it comes to boarding, seat assignment, and flight rebooking. Boarding later increases the chances of having to gate-check a carry-on item. This is often free of charge, but adds time to collect baggage after landing, which may cut into a tight window to attend a meeting or conference on time. Last-minute seat assignments increase the chances of an unpleasant middle row flight, or even getting involuntarily bumped to an alternate flight if the flight is oversold. Basic economy travelers are also likely to find themselves attended to last if a flight needs to be rebooked due to weather or mechanical problems.

Business travelers with a basic economy ticket are taking the gamble that their trip’s activities and the flight itself will go off without a hitch. If your trip hits a snag, you won’t have the option to reschedule the flight, and you’ll be the last group assisted. For many businesses, it’s well worth paying extra for the support that standard economy provides.

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