How basic economy flights essentially cover my United Explorer Card’s annual fee


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As someone who travels frequently, I absolutely love my UnitedSM Explorer Card. With a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year (then $95), this little plastic rectangle provides so much value it feels like a steal. 

My favorite benefit is its ability to save me hundreds of dollars per year by neutralizing a few of United’s customer-unfriendly basic economy rules. I’ll show you how it works—and highlight some credit cards that can help you do the same with other airlines. For the budget-minded traveler, this is info you want to know.

UnitedSM Explorer Card

Intro bonus


Earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open





Annual fee $0 introductory annual fee for the first year (then $95)
Regular APR 21.99%–28.99% variable APR


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What is basic economy?

Put simply, basic economy is the lowest-level fare class used by many airlines, including Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue, and United Airlines.

When you book a basic economy ticket, you’ll get exactly the same seat as those who purchase a regular economy ticket—but you’ll typically pay between $30 and $50 less each way. For example, take a look at the below round-trip United fares between Houston (IAH) and Indianapolis (IND). All the basic economy fares in this example cost $70 less than an economy fare. That’s not exactly peanuts.

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Restrictions when flying basic economy

So, maybe you can save money flying basic economy, but what’s the catch?

Well, basic economy is tangled in red tape. It comes with restrictions that almost coerce many travelers to pay the extra money for a regular economy seat. Here’s a quick look at the limitations enforced by popular airlines’ basic economy fares.

Air Canada restrictions:

  • Seat selection fee.
  • No changes or cancellations/no future travel credit.
  • No same-day standby.
  • Accrue fewer redeemable rewards.
  • No Status Qualifying Dollars or Status Qualifying Segments toward elite status. 

Alaska Airlines restrictions:

  • No seat selection.
  • Accrue fewer redeemable and elite qualifying miles.
  • Eligible for 50% travel credit only if canceled at least 14 days before departure.
  • Last boarding group.

American Airlines restrictions:

  • Seat selection costs extra.
  • No changes after 24 hours of booking (though you can cancel and receive travel credit for a fee).
  • Last boarding group.
  • No seat upgrades.

Delta Air Lines restrictions:

  • No seat assigned until after check-in.
  • No changes allowed after 24 hours from booking (though you can cancel for a fee).
  • Last boarding group.
  • No seat upgrades.
  • No miles earned or credit toward elite status.
  • Delta Sky Club entry not permitted.

Hawaiian Airlines restrictions: 

  • Seat selection after booking for a fee.
  • Last boarding group.
  • No seat upgrades.
  • No changes or cancellations after 24 hours from booking
  • Cannot earn rewards for partner airline frequent flyer programs.

JetBlue restrictions:

  • No carry-on bag permitted (unless flying to select international destinations).
  • Seat selection costs extra.
  • Between $100 and $200 for changes and cancellations, depending on the route.
  • Last boarding group.
  • Accrue fewer redeemable rewards.

United Airlines restrictions: 

  • No carry-on bag permitted (unless flying to select international destinations)
  • No seat selection
  • Last boarding group
  • No changes after 24 hours from booking (though you can cancel and receive travel credit for a fee)
  • No Premier Qualifying Flights earned

As you can see, basic economy comes with a lot of metaphorical (but not literal) baggage. From the inability to choose your own seat to being the last onboard, you’re practically shamed into buying a standard Economy flight. But here’s the secret: There are ways to mitigate the effects of basic economy simply by holding the right airline credit card.

For instance, do you fly Delta frequently? If you’re not happy about basic economy putting you in the last boarding group, the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card could be the answer to your problem. For a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $150., this card grants you priority boarding—plus a free checked bag, 15% off when booking a flight on Delta with miles, and a $200 Delta flight credit after you spend $10,000 in purchases in a year.

To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card, see this page

Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card

See Rates and Fees

Intro Bonus


Earn 40,000 Bonus Miles after you spend $2,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership





Annual fee $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $150.
Regular APR 20.99%–29.99% variable


yH5BAEAAAAALAAAAAABAAEAAAIBRAA7Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card

How my airline credit card makes flying basic economy better

Two of the most frustrating basic economy restrictions, to me at least, are the inability to bring a carry-on and the obligation to board dead last—both of which are enforced by United Airlines. But because I hold the United Explorer Card, I can skirt these restrictions. The card comes with:

  • A free carry-on bag with basic economy tickets
  • Priority boarding, which allows you to board in Group 2 instead of Group 6 (which is the last United Airlines boarding group).

In other words, the only major day-of-travel benefit I’m forfeiting when booking a basic economy fare is the ability to choose my own seat. That’s easily worth the savings I get when booking basic economy over a standard coach seat.

Take a look at the prices for my upcoming trip to Oklahoma City as an example. A round-trip economy fare costs $502, while a basic economy flight is $65 cheaper. Considering my United Explorer Card charges a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year (then $95), I can easily recoup my losses from paying the card’s annual fee after taking a single basic economy trip with my wife each year. If I didn’t have the card, I would try to avoid basic economy whenever possible.

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It’s worth mentioning that the United Explorer Card also delivers considerable value outside its ability to combat basic economy restrictions. For example, you’ll get:

  • The first checked bag free for you and another traveler on your reservation when you pay for your flight with the card. Checked bags cost up to $40 each way, so this is a huge money-saving perk.
  • Access to increased award inventory, meaning you can find Saver-level awards that are only visible to select United cardholders and elite status members.
  • Two United Club airport lounge day passes each cardmember year.
  • Up to a $100 statement credit to offset the application fee for Global Entry, TSA PreCheck®, or NEXUS every four years (membership is valid for five years). These programs help to dramatically speed up your airport security experience.

There are several other airline cards that can improve your basic economy experience, too. The airlines outlined below offer co-branded credit cards that will eliminate some common restrictions.

To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card, see this page

To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Gold Business American Express Card, see this page

To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card, see this page

To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum Business American Express Card, see this page

To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card, see this page

To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card, see this page

Learn more about some of the above cards in these guides:

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

See Rates and Fees

Intro Bonus


Earn 50,000 Bonus Miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership





Annual fee $350
Regular APR 20.99%–29.99% variable


yH5BAEAAAAALAAAAAABAAEAAAIBRAA7Delta SkyMiles Platinum American Express Card

The takeaway

Basic economy fares are the full-service airline’s answer to the impossibly cheap prices of low-cost carriers. They give you the luxury of flying legacy carriers like American Airlines, Delta, and United Airlines for prices that are often competitive with the likes of Frontier, Allegiant, and Spirit Airlines. The only issue: these flights come with lots of restrictions.

By holding the right airline credit card, you can vanquish some of these restrictions, potentially making basic economy a no-brainer for the budget-conscious traveler. That said, if you’re not convinced paying an annual fee for one of these airline cards is a good fit for you, pop on over to our list of best no-annual-fee travel credit cards instead. You won’t get priority boarding or a free checked bag, but you can enjoy racking up rewards for your flights and hotel stays.


Fortune Recommends™ has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Fortune Recommends™ and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. 

Eligibility and Benefit level varies by Card. Terms, Conditions, and Limitations Apply. Please visit americanexpress.com/benefits guide for more details. Underwritten by Amex Assurance Company. 

Please note that card details are accurate as of the publish date, but are subject to change at any time at the discretion of the issuer. Please contact the card issuer to verify rates, fees, and benefits before applying. 



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