Airlines seem to love taking away the things that used to be free. Not so long ago, it would have been unheard of to travel without at least one checked bag and without being served complimentary meals and drinks on board. But with the rapid unbundling of services, less and less comes free of charge. Here’s how the US ‘big three’ stack up and what you can still expect to get without paying extra.
Free is the magic number
Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen airlines extensively working to unbundle their fares and the privileges that go along with them. Airlines began removing free seat selection, meals and other perks from their lowest tier fares, with even flagship mainline carriers like British Airways taking away the free refreshments from short-haul services.
Basic economy was first introduced in the US by Delta in 2012, and for a while was alone in its unbundling of its lowest tier. However, by 2017 all three major US carriers had introduced this lowest fare option in a bid to compete with low-cost airlines.
The pain points of basic economy vary between carriers and between the length of flight. For a while, American Airlines even removed overhead bin space for its very cheapest tickets, but quickly revised this strategy in light of customer feedback.
Despite having to pay for many of the things we had previously come to expect for free, passengers traveling on the US big three airlines can still snag some complimentary items. We’ve reviewed what you get for nothing on each carrier.
At the current time, basic economy passengers are allowed one free carry-on bag, both on domestic and international routes. Basic economy passengers still get the same inflight service as other passengers too, which means complimentary drinks and access to the IFE.
The free drinks are usually served with a snack, often a cookie. On cross country flights, American usually serves a cold meal such as a panini or sandwich, On longer, international flights, you’ll get at least one hot meal service too.
Delta Air Lines
Delta’s passengers get one free carry-on bag both on domestic and transatlantic flights. As with American, once on board the service is just the same as if you’d paid more for your fare.
Delta offers free drinks on all flights and, on cross country flights, there’s usually a free sandwich too. The free drinks are generally accompanied with a free Biscoff wafer cookie – who doesn’t love a Biscoff! On international flights, there is a hot meal service included for free too.
United’s basic economy fares are known to be one of the most restrictive in North America. For domestic flights, there’s not even any overhead bin space for the cheapest ticket holders, although transatlantic flights still come with one free carry-on bag.
As with the other two airlines, once on board, the service remains the same. This includes complimentary food and beverages on applicable flights. On international flights, United even allows passengers to select their seat for free, but only from the standard seating on offer.
Basic economy is a great fare addition for those looking to fly on the cheap. If you’re only taking a short trip, can manage on hand luggage or one carry-on bag only, and aren’t bothered about seat selection, then there’s no reason to pay more.
However, if you feel you’d like a bit more for your money, it’s almost always worth upgrading at least to the regular economy fare. Charges for things like checked bags, seat selection and changes to your itinerary can run into hundreds of dollars, so be sure you’re picking the right tier for you before making that booking.