It's buyer beware when it comes to new "Basic Economy" airfares

Beware of the new "basic economy" discounted class of air fares offered by Delta, United and American airlines that don't allow changes or refunds; restrict seat selection and, in the case of United and American, limit carry-ons to whatever you can shove under your seat.

The idea is to compete against low-cost carriers such as Sprit and Frontier by offering less service in exchange for lower fares. The "savings" can be as little as $15 on a round-trip ticket, hardly worth getting stuck in a middle seat, being the last to board, and waiving your right to change your plans, even for a fee.

Not surprising is a recent NPR report that found the new basic fares that go into effect at United starting April 18 are mostly about finding a way to charge more for standard economy. 

NPR's check on United's website on the seven initial routes on which the airline will offer basic economy showed the lowest basic fares were the same as the lowest standard economy fares before April 18 while the standard fares went up $15-$20, essentially putting a surcharge on the right to choose a seat and use the overhead bins (United and American, but not Delta restrict carry-ons to a personal item that fits under the seat).

Delta, which became the first major American carrier to offer basic economy fares, appears to be doing something similar with international fares.  

I was surprised when I searched for fall fares to Paris recently to find that Delta has added basic economy on international routes. More surprising was finding that Delta's partner, Air France, offered a pair of flights in standard economy ($656) for the same price Delta was charging for basic economy. Delta's website showed a fare of $719 - $63 more - for standard economy. 

This was a Delta-operated flight by the way, meaning the airline is letting Air France (which apparently doesn't have the capability or the willingness to tell international travelers to stuff their carry-on under their middle seat) offer a better deal to customers savvy enough to find their way to its website.

Two more examples:

*Delta and Air France operate a code-share on a Delta non-stop between Seattle and Amsterdam. A check with Air France showed a standard, round-trip economy fare of $955 in May, the same price Delta quoted for basic economy. Delta's price for standard economy was $1,015, $60 more. 

*The differences were the same for Delta's Atlanta-Madrid nonstop in May. Air France sold the flight at $944, standard economy while Delta marketed its basic fare at that price, and its standard fare for $60 more. 

Adding to the confusion is that Delta calls standard economy "Main Cabin" on its booking site even though all the seats - basic and standard - are in the main cabin of the plane.

Don't count on the airfare search sites to be of much help. So far they fail to distinguish between basic and standard economy when they bring up the lowest fares. 

My search for the Paris, Amsterdam and Madrid fares on Google Flights brought up identical fares on Delta and Air France, with the option clicking on "Book with Delta" or "Book with Air France" to link to either for purchase. Only when I hit "Book on Delta'' did an itinerary pop up warning in small print that I was booking basic economy, with an offer to "upgrade" to standard economy (Delta calls it Main Cabin) for $30 extra each way.

Policies on basic economy restrictions vary with the airline. Delta's is the most liberal with no restrictions on overhead bin access. Passengers can choose their own seats after check-in on Delta while American and United auto assign seats. All three have different policies on seat selection, priority boarding and carry-ons for elite members of their frequent flyer programs. Click here for a good comparison chart offering by the Points Guy.

"It's getting a lot more confusing," Jeff Klee, founder and CEO of the travel search website, told NPR. "It'll be much more of a challenge to shop for air fares and it'll be important to make sure you're comparing apples to apples."

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