Booking a recent trip taught me that the cheapest class on the plane might not always be the best value for your money

  • I recently decided to book a domestic United flight in economy, rather than basic economy — the cheapest fare offered by the airline — because I felt like it was a better deal overall.
  • United's basic economy doesn't allow passengers to bring a carry-on, so I would have needed to pay an extra $60 to check a bag round-trip while still being the last to board and not being able to pick my seats.
  • I spent $554 for economy tickets, which let me bring my carry-on and pick window seats on all four legs of my trip; checking a bag and choosing my seats on basic economy would have cost me an extra $124 round-trip, resulting in a total of $601.
  • Of course, this doesn't mean that basic economy is never worth it — it just worked out that way for my trip — but the lesson I learned from it is that you should always explore the alternatives.
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While booking a recent trip, I came across an infuriating but interesting finding: Basic economy — or the cheapest class on a given airline — is not always worth the savings.

Basic economy is the cheapest fare class offered by United. While the most affordable class goes by a different name and has different rules depending on the airline, basic economy on United means not being allowed a carry-on, being in the last group to board, and not being able to choose your own seat.

I pride myself on never checking a bag, especially on a flight with layovers, which this one was, so having to pay extra to check a bag rubbed me the wrong way.

I was using the travel search engine Kayak — which allows you to sort flights by price, and to see them including or excluding certain fees — to find fares from New  York City to Bozeman, Montana, with a connection in Denver.

This basic economy fare on United cost $477.

Basic economy cost $477.
Sophie-Claire Hoeller/Insider

When I clicked on the fees to include a carry-on, the price jumped to a mind-boggling $1,355.

The cost for the same tickets went from $477 to$1,355 when I included a carry-on.
Sophie-Claire Hoeller/Insider

When I removed the carry-on fees and added a checked bag instead, it went down to $537, which makes sense considering that checking a bag is $30, so $60 for a round-trip flight.

Without a carry-on but with a checked bag the flight cost $537.
Sophie-Claire Hoeller/Insider

I was shocked to find that it was much cheaper to buy a basic economy ticket and pay extra to check a bag than bring a carry-on, which is usually free

Flight expert Scott Keyes of Scott's Cheap Flights shared his theory for why this was the case, saying that airlines like to keep passengers in the same "fare bucket" each way. According to Keyes, if even a single one of the four legs of my trip was sold out for regular economy, that option wouldn't show up for me at all. Keyes thinks that's what happened on the flight I was looking at, and that Kayak's results then simply jumped to the next available fare bucket allowing for a carry-on, which was first class, explaining the increase of almost $900. That said, it could also have just been a search engine glitch.

Insider asked representatives for Kayak and United about the discrepancy between fares, but it remains unclear why there was such a big difference.

Whatever the reason, it prompted me to explore my options

Keyes says that to airlines, a checked bag is always an optional add-on. A carry-on bag, however, is not something United will let you pay "a la carte" for, and thus he describes it as "intrinsically tied to the fare class, whereas checked bags are an optional add-on in any fare class."

"If you have a basic economy fare, you cannot carry on a full carry-on," he said. "You can check a bag for $30 each way, but you cannot carry on a full-sized bag. If you want to carry on a full-sized bag, you have to go to a higher fare class."

I hate waiting for bags.
iStock

However, when I looked on United.com, I was able to book an economy ticket. My options were then twofold: Pay $537 to fly basic economy and check a bag, or pay $554 for economy, which allows for a carry-on.

The thing about basic economy on United is not just that you cannot bring a carry-on; it also means not being able to choose where you sit, and being the last to board

While I usually don't really care where I sit, especially when traveling solo, I faced the possibility of having to sit in the middle seat on four separate flights, one of which would be almost five hours long. With United's basic economy, choosing a seat costs between $5 and $16 per leg. And — before you say that $5 isn't so bad — that simply ensures the middle seat of your choice. 

I ended up paying $554 for economy, and thus the ability to bring my carry-on and pick four window seats, my preferred spot. Checking a bag and choosing four non-middle seats on basic economy would have cost me an extra $124 round-trip, resulting in a total of $601. Bizarrely, while the exact cost depends on the flight, United also charges more for aisle seats than window seats.

Of course, this example doesn't mean that basic economy on United — or the cheapest fare class on any other airline — is never worth it, but at the very least it should motivate you to explore all of your options and check out the airlines' website directly for comparison's sake.

Flight expert Gilbert Ott of God Save the Points told Insider that even though airlines offer cheap fares, they don't necessarily want you to buy them.

"The airlines don't want to sell you those cheap tickets. They really don't," Ott said. "What they really want is for you to pay up for what they used to give for free."

According to flight expert Gilbert Ott, basic economy fares offered by US airlines are 'hardly ever worth it,' though he thinks the European model works better

Ott believes that budget airlines in Europe have much better deals.
Gleb Garanich/Reuters

"Let's take a Virgin Atlantic basic economy fare. That's not bad. You know, you're still getting the meals and drinks, all that. You might end up in the middle seat, but you've got your carry-on and you're going somewhere far and wide at ridiculous fares under $300," he said. "But the problem, in my opinion, with the US, which is what's really frustrating, is that basic fares haven't meant European-style kinda Ryanair deals. If Ryanair is $5.99 to go from London to Spain, I'll take it, it's $6, I'll suck it up. But when it's a difference of $300 and $375, it's awful."

Keyes agrees, adding that US legacy airlines seem to be in "a transition period right now," where they're trying to remain competitive with the many newer budget airlines proliferating (such as Spirit and Frontier) by creating new no-frills fare classes, and then copying and one-upping each other with them. The problem, according to Keyes, is that these new classes aren't standardized yet.

"There are all these different fare names, and sometimes it includes the carry-on, like on Delta and American, and sometimes it doesn't, like United," he said. 

However, he predicts that the class names and what's included (or not included) in each will become standardized in the next few years. Until then, it's just a matter of doing your research and putting in the time to figure out what's best for each individual flight.

Basic economy can be worth it on airlines that allow for carry-ons, such as Delta and American Airlines

Ott adds that it can help to have a credit card for the airline you're flying with, too.

"It's pretty great if you have their airline credit card because you basically are able to bypass the rules. You can buy a basic fare and still travel without the basic fare restrictions," he said. For example, if you have United's MileagePlus credit card, you won't have to board last when flying basic economy and you're allowed to bring a carry-on bag. 

It can also be worth it if you're booking a short, nonstop flight where you don't mind risking being allocated a middle seat. That said, basic economy doesn't always mean a middle seat, as it depends on how full the flight is. On a recent Delta flight to Boise from New York City with a connection in Seattle, I paid for basic economy but was assigned a window seat on both legs nonetheless. Also, not all planes even have middle seats, so it might even be worth checking SeatGuru to see what your plane's setup will look like.

Long story short: Do your homework.

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