I finally tried flying on a Basic Economy fare. It was easier than I thought, but still I’d probably do it differently next time. Here’s what it was like.
I planned a last-minute trip with a friend. Because of the time of year and the location, not only was I able to fly on the same days that she did, I was even able to get on the same flights! This is particularly interesting because I booked my trip with reward points.
(The points came from my Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and we flew United. This is relevant because apparently United is the strictest with the special rules of Basic Economy).
A regular fare was double the number of points as the Basic Economy fare, or an extra $200+ in cash. This matters to me, and in fact I felt excited that no-frills travel is so much cheaper. I’m an ideal candidate because:
I did my research before packing. I knew from travel scuttlebutt that airlines are strict about this type of fare, that not all carriers offer it, and that the rules vary and change over time. Any deviation was likely to cost me money and possibly also time.
I hate spending more money than I have to, but I also tend to cut my arrival time to the wire. I’m rarely in a situation when I can afford to add even fifteen or twenty minutes to my time cushion. In nearly forty years of flying, I’ve never missed a flight, and I don’t intend to start now.
Especially not due to my luggage, of all things!
My research indicated that under Basic Economy, I couldn’t choose my seat. I literally do not care. I’m that rare creature, a middle seat person, anyway.
I couldn’t choose to sit next to my travel partner(s). Eh. We planned to sleep on the way east, so it didn't matter. We are currently sitting side by side on the return trip, which either says something about boarding last or about the enduring niceness of American Midwesterners. Either way, this restriction doesn’t bother me much because when I’m traveling with someone, we’re already planning to be together on the trip. What’s a brief break when we’re likely napping, reading, or watching a movie anyway?
I wouldn’t get a meal. Eh. Again, I was planning to sleep one way, and we never get fed during the westward leg regardless. I know what types of food travel well.
Most importantly in the list of restrictions that made this fare half-price, my fare would not include any bags! No checked bag (yawn) and no carry-on either! I could bring one solitary personal item, smaller than the original dimensions that were allowed when this type of fare debuted.
If this personal item was too large, I would have to pay not only the $30 checked bag charge, but a $25 handling fee on top. Bags are routinely weighed and measured.
This part interested me. I texted my friend about it and she utterly did not believe me! We went back and forth over it for a while. I offered to pay the $30 to check one large suitcase that we could both share, and that settled the matter.
Under these conditions, paying to check a bag was a good deal.
I’m not in love with the idea of paying $60 round-trip for luggage, but it was significantly cheaper than paying the extra $200 for a regular economy ticket. It was also cheaper than buying new outfits and paying to ship them home.
Some friends, roommates, or siblings might split the cost, sharing the bag and each paying for one leg of the trip. I covered the whole thing, partly because it was mostly my stuff and partly because my friend was covering the rental car. Obviously a romantic couple is likely to be sharing expenses, or figuring out how to do so in a way that makes sense, which fighting over money does not.
The suitcase that I brought was the only piece of luggage that I own that was large enough to share. My husband bought it for a three-week work trip, and it physically holds his entire work wardrobe. It is comically vast and its geometry is such that it comes up to my waist. At its fullest, it weighed 45 pounds, only a bit less than the weight limit for one bag.
This is the main reason why I would avoid paying to check a bag the next time I fly Basic Economy. The bag itself was a monster, an annoying burden that had to be hauled on and off the shuttle twice and hoisted into the back of the rental vehicle.
Going any smaller raises the question of why I couldn’t just make it happen with the personal item.
The current dimensions of the Basic Economy personal item are those of a daypack, a typical school backpack for a high school or college student. I found that packing it too full and putting too much in the front pocket made it expand past the allowed dimensions. Risky!
Depending on the weather and the length of the trip, I’m quite sure I could make this type of bag work for, say, three days. Then I’d have to do laundry. I’d make it work by bringing only one pair of shoes and being very spare with my toiletries, electronics, and snacks. I probably would not pack workout clothes, although if the hotel had a pool I would cram in a swimsuit and flip flops.
Having access to half a large checked suitcase caused me to go a bit nuts. I brought hairstyling implements that I didn't use. I completely forgot sneakers, making my workout clothes pointless. I haven't counted how many points I cost myself for bringing things I didn't use (a personal game), but I believe I set a new record. Not my best showing.
This was a good exercise for me. Ultimately I met all the requirements of the restrictive Basic Economy fare, and saved over $140. That almost pays for a round trip to visit my family. It’s worth it. This was also a good exercise because it reminded me why I despise dragging big heavy bags around, and how distracting and confusing it can be to pack so many items that you lose track of what you do and don’t have.
In sum, I’m likely to be found in the near future, sitting in a middle seat, with my sparse and austere personal item at my feet, counting a thick wad of cash.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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