The idea of a ‘basic’ economy class ticket isn’t new: Less frills, less cost. Let’s break down the pros and cons to buying this type of plane seat.

PHOENIX — Shopping for airline tickets just got more complicated.

American Airlines, the world’s largest carrier, has expanded its no-frills basic economy fares to most U.S. routes after testing them on select flights for months.

With that expansion in early September, three of the big four U.S. airlines — American, United and Delta —  now offer basic economy fares throughout the country. (Southwest Airlines does not offer them.) Shop for a Phoenix-Chicago flight on Expedia and the cheapest flights that pop up are in basic economy. Ditto on airline websites if you search by price.

Basic economy is not a specific section on the plane like those premium economy seats some airlines sell with extra legroom and other perks. It’s simply a cheaper fare that comes with so many restrictions that critics call it third class or steerage. Southwest’s CEO has called it second class. 



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What you don’t – and do – get

Travelers with basic economy tickets don’t get to choose their seats when they book, even for a fee; can’t stow a carry-on in the overhead bin on American and United (Delta allows it); board last; and can’t make flight changes or request refunds.

They do get the same in-flight services and frequent-flier miles as other passengers and are allowed to check bags for the usual fees.

FIRST-HAND ACCOUNTBasic economy: What it’s like in airlines’ cheapest seats

Basic economy fares were created to compete with bargain fares offered by rapidly growing no-frills carriers Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant airlines. On those airlines, passengers have come to expect a slew of restrictions, no perks and a pile of fees.

But bare-bones fares are new on major airlines so it’s buyer beware, especially as the holiday travel season approaches.

To help travelers navigate the new airfare landscape, we shopped for cheap flights out of Phoenix on airline websites and online travel giant Expedia.

The bottom line: Basic economy is like a fare sale with loads of fine print. Ignore that fine print and you risk nasty surprises such as a minimum $50 fee to check that forbidden carry-on and receiving random seat assignments throughout the plane, even if you’re traveling as a family.

MOREAmerican Airlines expands ‘basic economy’ fares to more…