Travel Agent Warns Us On The Hidden Cost Of Booking Basic Economy

It's hard to ignore cheap airfare. In a somewhat sleight-of-hand trick, the airline industry began promoting their bare-bones cheaper fares, but in reality, the cost of airfare has stayed relatively stable. Obviously, there are periods of time when prices spike or drop, whether due to demand, industry dynamics, gas prices, or overall economic conditions. In fact, according to NerdWallet, current airfare is trending lower even than its pre-pandemic pricing.

However, once the pricing model of unbundled airfare became the industry norm, airlines were able to advertise lower rates by offering varying tiers of "coach seats" — and either including (or not including) benefits that were previously baked into the price, such as baggage fees and seat selection. In other words, airlines "unbundled" their prices. Speaking exclusively to Explore, travel agent Victoria Fricke of Vic's Vacations, offered insights into the hidden costs of these "cheaper" fares. According to Fricke, customers often experience buyer's remorse after purchasing basic economy seats.

You'll need to pay for additional benefits

While various airlines offer differently tiered seat options with various names, such as economy, economy plus, and premium plus, among others, the pricing model is essentially the same. Basic economy tickets typically include the seat — and that's it. "American Airlines, for example, offers different types of tickets," Fricke said. "The cost difference between Basic Economy and Main Cabin is typically around $30-$100 per person based on the cost of the trip. That price difference allows you to select your seats versus not and to change your trip dates versus not."

And that's true. Typically, most basic economy seats don't include seat selection, date change options, or luggage fees. Some airlines include a carry-on bag with basic economy tickets, while others do not. It's important to remember that each of these benefits is usually available with an add-on fee on top of the airfare for basic economy.

"We've all read the stories of people causing a fuss on flights when they aren't sitting together, but the part of those stories that the upset traveler typically fails to mention is that they opted for a Basic Economy seat which didn't give them seat selection," Fricke added.

Seat selection has created public outcry

Seat selection, or lack thereof, has created public pushback. In his State of the Union speech, President Biden used the example of families needing to pay to sit together as a predatory practice of the airline industry, especially when small children are involved. Fricke, who provides travel insights through her Instagram page, acknowledges that passengers are commonly surprised when they're unable to sit together.

"While everyone agrees honeymooners, parents, and children should sit together, unfortunately, there's a cost for that and that cost comes at ticket selection," Fricke explained. "Without paying that higher ticketed cost, you're leaving your seats up to chance and will be placed in the seats that were not selected by those who did opt to pay."

The low fare of basic economy tickets will always be enticing, but when you consider the cost of checking a bag and sitting with your friends or family, the added cost of an economy seat upgrade may make more financial sense. Fortunately, some major domestic airlines, including Southwest, Frontier, Alaska, American, and United Airlines, have made recent changes to either their boarding policy or pricing model to allow families with minors to sit together at no additional charge.