Choosing an Airplane Seat: Basic Economy, Business, or Somewhere in Between

In the Air over Lake Michigan

Wouldn’t everyone love to fly in First Class?  I know I would. I haven’t had the opportunity…yet.  In the meantime, I fly in Economy.

Airline seating has been changing over the past several years. There used to be a choice between Economy, Business, and First Class.  Now, many airlines are eliminating First Class. They have combined Business and First into one class.

You might think this means the airlines are trying to simplify the booking process, but that is not the case. Airlines can now offer three or more Economy Class choices – Basic Economy, Economy, and Premium Economy – in addition to Business Class.

For infrequent flyers, this may sound complicated. Hopefully, the information here will help you sort things out.

Looking for a Flight

I’ve opened up the pages for the “big three” – American, United, and Delta Airlines – on my computer. For comparison, I am trying to book a trip to Paris leaving on September 5 and returning on September 15.  Unfortunately, I will not actually taking this trip, but I’m using it for an example.

Business and First Class

You may not be interested in taking a trip in Business Class. I’d like to try it someday, so I thought I’d look at the prices using cash and using points. (When you read through this part, you will realize what a good deal Economy is).

The results for the searches using cash varies widely.

  • United’s price for a non-stop flight is $6098, while a flight with one stop is $3701.
  • American has a non-stop flight for $3988 (one seat left), and a one-stop flight for $3066.
  • Delta’s non-stop flight is priced at $4450, while its flight with a stop sells for $3954
A Sea of Clouds

Each of the flights with stops have similar layovers. None of the airlines differentiate between Business and First.

According to this search, American has the best cash prices for this route.

After checking the cash prices, I looked at buying the flights with points. When using points for an airline ticket, a small portion of the cost (taxes) must be paid in cash. (The amounts are usually small, so I didn’t include them here). If I were to use points to fly these routes, my options would be:

  • United – 298,000 miles for non-stop flights both directions or 225,000 for a non-stop to Paris and one stop on the way home.
  • American – 192,500 for a non-stop to Paris and one stop on the way home. Non-stop on the way home is not available (at this time).
  • Delta has the most expensive options for a total of 334,000 miles and with both flights having a stop.

It may be obvious why I don’t fly Business Class.  It is possible, however, to secure Business Class airfare for less than this amount. If I was flexible with my dates, I might be able to get flights for 60,000 each way on United or as low as 57,000 on American. I am not a member of Delta’s rewards program, so there are fewer options available for me there.

Economy Options

United, American, and Delta have three types of economy fares – Basic Economy, Economy, and Premium Economy.

Flying United Airlines

Basic Economy ( international and domestic) allows a carry-on bag and personal item for no extra charge, but if you plan to check a bag, you will have to pay for it.  Also, in Basic Economy, you cannot choose your own seat without an extra fee.

Regular Economy flights to Europe (or other international destinations) allow for a checked bag, a carry-on, and a personal item. Domestic flights will charge for a checked bag. You can choose your seat, although some seats may cost extra.

Seat-back Entertainment Includes
Flight Information

Economy Plus, Premium Economy, and other designations are for seats that may include extra leg room, extra width, and larger video screens. They may also include upgraded meals and snacks. United is in the process of changing some Economy Plus options to Premium Economy.

When booking an Economy flight, make sure you know what is or is not included. If you purchase a Basic Economy ticket and later decide to check a bag, it could cost more than it would have if you booked regular Economy in the first place.

Economy Seats
The 787 Dreamliner

As I did with Business Class, I checked Economy class prices on the “big three” airlines. I chose the same flights and dates as I had above.

  • On United, the lowest priced cash flight is the Basic Economy for $1084 for round trip non-stop flights. Flights with stops seem to be a little higher. Regular Economy is selling for $1204, while Premium Economy is $1379. There are no non-stop flights available in Premium Economy at this time.

    American Tails
  • American Airline’s prices are the same as United’s for non-stop Basic Economy and Economy. The price for Premium Economy is higher, at $2470, although this offer is for non-stop flights (as opposed to United) in both directions.
  • Delta offers a Basic Economy round-trip flight for $1076, but the non-stop leg is sold out for the trip home so I will have to choose a flight with a stop. I can choose the same route on Economy for $1196 or I can get non-stop in both directions for $1388. At this time, Delta has one seat left on a non-stop round trip flight in Premium Economy for $2672.
Booking Economy Seats with Points

If I were to book the flights with points instead of miles, here are my options:

United offers non-stops both directions for 100,000 points (total). It offers a one-stop flight to Paris and a non-stop home for a total of 60,000 points with the “Saver” option. These flights are in Economy – no Basic Economy is available with points through United’s web site. Premium Economy sells for 229,000 round trip and only offers one-stop flights both directions (not as good a value).

If I want to fly American, I have a “Saver” option to fly with one stop each direction for a total of 60,000. If I want to fly non-stop there is no “saver” option, so the total comes to 205,000. American does not sell Basic Economy or Premium Economy for points on its website.

Delta Economy flights to Paris start at 62,000 with stops in both directions. Premium Economy is offered for 269,000 points, again, with stops in both directions. Like the other two, Basic Economy is not offered on the website for points.

How to Decide with so Many Choices

There are a lot of numbers here and it can quickly become confusing. There are a couple ways to narrow down your choices.

Taxiing to the Terminal

First, should an airline be eliminated? I have not flown on Delta Airlines for years – probably, because Chicago is not a Delta hub. (It is a hub for United and American). Since I haven’t flown them recently, I am not a part of their rewards club, so I usually eliminate them from my searches. I’m not opposed to taking advantage of a great deal if it comes along, but that hasn’t happened recently.

Second, will airline points or cash be used as the payment method? I have points for both United and American. I also have points I can transfer from my Chase credit card to United. I’d prefer to fly with points if possible.  I always value my points at a minimum of 1¢ each, although in reality they are worth between 1.5 and 2¢ each.  If I use 60,000 points to buy a $1200 flight, I am getting a value of 2¢ per point. Flights in Business Class can sometimes offer greater value for the points but in my examples, this doesn’t seem to be true.

Finally, I look for non-stop flights whenever possible, although, I’m not willing to pay a lot extra for them. Of the options above, United offers the best deal for me. I can get a regular economy flight for 60,000 points with a stop in only one direction. If my dates are flexible I might be able to do even better.

Another Consideration
At Charles DeGaulle Airport

If you are planning a trip in the future, watch the flight prices. There have been times when the airlines offer sales and the cash prices are a much better deal than points. Don’t be afraid to fly on an airline that you don’t normally choose. My daughter and I will be trying out TAP Air Portugal this fall.  We found a fantastic deal that we just couldn’t pass up.

Booking the Flight

Double check and read the fine print before pushing the “Book Now” button. If you decide to book a Basic Economy ticket, be sure you are aware of the restrictions.

Waiting to Take-Off

During the booking process, you may be asked if you want to upgrade or add something for an additional cost – extra leg room, priority boarding, an additional checked bag, or trip insurance. Make sure you know what you are actually buying for the extra fees.

If you have any question about flying or booking, leave a comment below and I’ll answer it. If I don’t immediately know the answer, I’ll find it.

Enjoy the research, planning, and the excitement of booking that flight. And then, have a good flight!



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