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The Truth Behind The Delta Basic Economy Fare

The Truth Behind the Delta Basic Economy Fare

Have you booked a Delta Basic Economy fare and not sure what you’ve gotten yourself into? Step inside where we dish the truth about what Delta’s basic economy fare really means.

If you follow my blog, you will know that I am a fan of budget airlines, like Spirit and WOW Air, as their rock bottom fares allow people to travel who might not have been able to previously. I think this is a wonderful thing. So you can imagine my surprise to find that on a flight to Florida on Delta, I had booked what turned out to be their budget fare the Delta Basic Economy. At the time I had no idea what that meant, but now I do and it’s not pretty.

What is the Delta Basic Economy Fare?

As many airlines have been doing in recent years, Delta has followed suit adding in ‘basic’ fares that restrict your ability to check in early, choose a seat or even cancel your flight. With 3 different types of fares, Comfort+, Main Cabin and Basic Economy, Delta has created a system of restrictions to varying degrees based on which fare you purchase. 

Note that if you are an Elite member of Delta’s frequent flyer program some of the restrictions are waived for you.

Your Questions Answered About the Delta Basic Economy Fare

Can I Check My Luggage?

With the Delta Basic Economy fare you can carry on and check luggage. As with all airlines (except Southwest!) any checked luggage will cost you (see the price chart here). This is one aspect of traveling on the basic economy fare that you are not short changed with – baggage fees are the same for all classes of travel – Basic Economy, Economy and Comfort+.

The only exception to this is for flights between the US/Canada and the Europe/North Africa. Basic Economy passengers will have to pay a hefty fee ($60 per bag at time of writing) for checked luggage on these flights. We did not find this to be the case on our flight to Costa Rica, but as Delta continues to hone it’s policies I would not be surprised to see this as an additional charge in the future. 

Can I Bring a Carry-On?

Unlike other airlines, even with the Basic Economy fare, passengers are still allowed to carry on a personal item as well as a full size carry-on bag. The bag must be no larger 22 x 14 x 9 inches, which is pretty standard. The caveat here comes in with the boarding order. As the last group to board, it is a frequent problem of no overhead space available meaning you will have to check your carry-on bag at the gate.

My recommendation is to come to the airport prepared to check your carry-on at the gate (for free!) with your most important technology and items separated into a smaller personal bag. On my last 3 Delta basic economy flights I have found luggage space even boarding in the last group.

TRAVELERS TIP: Get your bag “checked in” at the gate, but carry it on the flight with you. If there is no space to put your bag once you are on the flight, you will only have to walk back to the gateway to drop your bag, rather than go back to the gate desk and do the entire procedure there.

Do I Get To Choose My Seat?

No. The one caveat with Delta Basic economy fares is that you have zero choice in your seat selection at check-in or at the gate.

However, Delta has recently introduced a new option that allows passengers to pay for an upgrade in seats on select itineraries. The seats are priced based on each leg and are only available on only domestic flights. This is only available PRIOR to check in. If you want to book a specific seat, you will need to avail of this upgrade if available well between 7 days and 24 hours of the flight.

For our recent international flight, I was flying with my son on a red eye basic economy fare. I was concerned we would not get seats together, but surprisingly we were provided seats at check-in and they were together! Thus, on international flights, you might be allowed to choose your seats or given seat selections prior to arriving at the airport. This is not guaranteed however.

Note: Families traveling together even under the same reservation ARE NOT GUARANTEED to be seated together on any basic economy fare ticket.

When Do I Board?

As a Delta basic economy passenger your boarding group is always last. You cannot upgrade your boarding. What this means is less cabin space for your carry-on bags. See above for recommendations on how to prepare for this.

Are Flight Changes Allowed?

Unfortunately with the Delta Basic Economy fare, there are absolutely no changes allowed. This means you cannot cancel your flight (after the 24 hour booking window expires) and cannot change to same day standby options.

Do I Earn Miles?

Delta basic economy fare passengers still earn miles, however they are calculated as a discounted fare rate. 

A Personal Experience with the Delta Basic Economy Fare

It had been at least a year since I’d flown on my own. As a family traveler I am almost always with my little one in tow. So you know that I was super stoked to be heading out on a 5+ hour flight all by my lonesome. I had grand plans for working, reading and just enjoying the silent buzz of the airplane engines.

Well that is until I went to check in. Being the good traveler that I am, I had downloaded the Delta App in advance, assuming that would make my online check in quicker and easier. I’m not sure if it helped or hurt, but it was the medium in which my negative experience began.

For once I was right on time to check in. As soon as I tried to check in, the Delta App informed me that ‘one or more passengers on your itinerary are on standby so you cannot check in’

What‽ Standby? How could I be on standby‽

I bought this ticket with miles (through my Chase credit card), so I knew that it was bought and paid for. How could I not have a seat? My mind started to spin. Would I make it to my conference?! Was my entire trip going to be fraught with anxiety over getting bumped from my flights?

I immediately got on the phone to Delta’s customer service. Weaving my way through the voice command system amongst the noise of my son’s school, I finally got through, not to an actual agent but to a recording telling me that there was a ‘more than 2 hour wait’ and I could have them call me back. Obviously that’s what I would do, so confirmed and moved on still feeling anxious about whether I would even have a seat!

As always happens with these callbacks, I missed the call! This resulted in another call with another 2 hour wait time.  After 7 hours of stress worrying about my flight I was relieved to finally get to answer the callback I had been waiting for all day.

Unfortunately this call would only be a bandaid that didn’t stick.

I unraveled my story for the customer service agent who then quickly informed me that she had secured me a seat. A middle seat as that is all that was left. I had known that was coming because there were only a few aisle seats on the seat map when I tried to check in 7 hours previously.

After much back and forth I was told it was a mistake that I was put on the standby list and that unfortunately she couldn’t do anything on the phone but that I would be ‘assured’ a better seat if I got to the airport 90 minutes early and saw a gate agent. I didn’t trust her, but what could I do? At least I now knew I had an actual seat, so that was one stress gone.

Flying on the Delta Basic Economy Fare

The Truth Behind the Delta Basic Economy FareArriving to the airport almost 2 hours early it was not surprising when I couldn’t find a Delta representative. I went ahead through security straight to the gate to sort out my seats. Not able to find the person I was supposed to search for, I began a conversation with the gate agent who started to clue me into the secret realities of the basic economy fare that I had unknowingly purchased.

I remember when booking the flight, a pop up box appeared stating that I would not be eligible for complimentary upgrade seats or able to purchase upgrades for this flight. Sure fine with me. I don’t need to upgrade. Nowhere on that pop up did it tell me that purchasing this fare would mean I would be treated like a second class citizen.

The gate agent found herself in a sticky situation when I began repeating back some of the things she was saying to me like ‘With basic economy fares you are only guaranteed a seat if one is available‘. Huh? So does this mean if the flight is overbooked I’m the first to be bumped? It appears so. I’m not living in a closet, I’ve seen all these horrible stories about how airlines are bumping people these days. So you can imagine the panic that swept through me, sending my heart rate a flutter. I can’t be bumped! I am on a tight schedule with a kid waiting at home.

As I began to question the gate agent more, she decided to call for another Delta representative, one wearing the red jacket I had been on the hunt for!

I patiently explained the situation again to Sylvia, the Delta representative. She disagreed with the phone operator saying that no in fact it is not a mistake that I was put on standby. That is what this ticket gives me… standby for a seat assignment. What?

As I go back and forth with Sylvia it becomes clear that the little pop up warning box provided when purchasing this ticket is not quite accurate. According to Sylvia, the basic economy fare means a middle seat. That’s it. No other options. So the advertisement on the website about ‘don’t mind where you sit?’ Actually means ‘don’t mind sitting in a middle seat? Then book this fare’

She even went on to say that she can’t even give me an aisle or window seat even if she tried. Really‽ Doubtful. After much back and forth with Sylvia, she was in fact able to get me a seat assignment on both of my flights as well as my return flights. Shockingly, they were all also aisle or window seats that she mentioned she couldn’t give me. Did I want to argue with her for 45 minutes before a flight? No, not at all. But I was thankful that I now knew I would make my conference and not get bumped on what ended up being very overbooked flights in/out of Atlanta. 

The Problem: Lack of Transparency

The Truth Behind the delta basic economy fareThe biggest issue here for me with Delta’s Basic Economy fare is a lack of true transparency. Delta is telling customers to purchase these cheaper fares (which weren’t that cheap in the first place to be honest) saying that the only drawback is not getting to choose your seat until ‘after check in’. Since my initial flight oa basic economy fare 3 years ago, they have started to add in a bit more information about what it means to purchase this ticket, however they are still not being clear about what their internal policy is for this flight.

In reality, in Delta speak: you will only get a middle seat even if others are available, at the gate after every other client paying and non paying get a choice in seats. But to a customer not privy to this inside speak, you might believe that this only means you don’t get to choose your seat at time of purchase but can after the check in window opens aka 24 hours in advance.

The problem here is lack of transparency. Budget airlines are popular because they offer cheap flights AND they all are extremely transparent about their policies. You know when you purchase a seat on their flights what it does or doesn’t come with. Delta on the other hand is being deceptive about what booking a Basic Economy Fare means, which is the first step in creating fights with customers.

On my flight, 6 aisle/window seats remained open with tons of passengers squashed in their middle seats never even given an option to get an aisle or window – even at the gate! When they asked on the flight if they could move to an empty seat, they were told no. That the empty seats available were for premium paying passengers.

Should You Purchase a Delta Economy Fare?

Several years after my first experience with Delta’s basic economy fare, I have gone against my “I will never again” policy and flown more than a dozen times on this fare.

At the end of the day, knowing that I can get to my destination is important, but as a solo mom traveler, it is also important to save some cash when possible. Looking to add $75 or more to each flight just for the option of choosing a seat hasn’t swayed my away from these fares. I have had good and bad experiences, reflecting much of what it’s like to travel these days in general.

What has changed for me is my expectation. I now know what to expect and come prepared. I expect to not sit with my child. I expect to be bumped if the flight is overbooked. I expect to sit in a middle seat.

As long as I book the fare with this intention, the stress is reduced and I can enjoy my hopefully cheaper flight.

⇒ If you are a solo traveler who doesn’t mind where you sit, go for it.

⇒ If you are a family traveler traveling with one or more children, think twice before booking this fare. Can you handle the extra stress of bargaining with other passengers so that you can sit with your children? 

Recapping: The Truth About the Delta Basic Economy Fare

  • You do not get to choose your seat. It will be assigned at the gate and will most often be a middle seat.
  • You will be high on the list for bumping should your flight be overbooked.
  • You board last insuring that very little cabin space is available for your carry on.
  • You will receive the longest customer service call back time should you need to speak to an actual person.

Given these realities about the E-class Basic Economy Fare by Delta I highly discourage families from booking these fares. If any pop up box comes up while booking informing you of the inability to upgrade, take note and search for another fare. 

Have you ever booked a ‘cheap fare’ without realizing it? What did you do about it?

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The Truth Behind the Delta Basic Economy Fare

This Post Has 30 Comments
  1. That sounds horrible and I would have been very upset had I found out that was what I had paid hundreds of dollars for. I can’t believe they can even sell a ‘standby’ ticket.

    The U.S. airlines seem to be getting worse and worse. There is no leg room, you can barely recline your seat, you have additional costs for everything, and now standby middle seats only. Flying used to be fun.

  2. I have unfortunately been in this EXACT situation!!!! How are they allowed to sell tickets, TICKETS for a seat on a mode of transportation without guaranteeing it!? This is FRAUD! No where do you ever pay for something to not receive what you pay for without a FULL refund but they want to charge for that too! Not the movie theater, not a city bus, train, not the car rental place, and not Disneyland!!! They should not be allowed to monopolize the air that way! Too many times I have been on flights where couples are split up because of this “arrangement” they pre-determine for us, the paying customers only to find out the plane isn’t completely full! This is why I don’t fly DELTA! I will choose other carriers over them and I used to love them. Pretty soon we will need to start questioning the quality and safety of flying… I don’t know of about you but I don’t feel safe flying where a representative cannot be found until boarding time. This is disgusting and I hope this practice goes viral and exposed!

    1. I agree! I used to fly delta and KLM almost exclusively from India. But domestically they are really sneaky and not that great. Hope more and more people start learning about this.

  3. Me too.

    I have been posting this on every website I can find with comments about Delta Basic economy

    BTW I too opted for a call back and missed it before I decide to wait on hold

    I booked a Basic Economy on Delta. When I checked in, I was given a seat assignment on my flight to Atlanta. However, there were no Basic Economy seats on the connecting flight. I was told at the point that I would be give a seat assignment at the gate “if one was available.” I had a shorter the usual layover in Atlanta and the second flight was late at night. I knew from flying in the past, that this did not look good. So I waited until then less the 24 hours before the second flight to see if there were Basic Economy seats after others had checked in and moved to better seats. There were three Basic Economy middle seats available that were not available before. However, when I tried to get one, a pop-up window told me that my itinerary was on “standby status,” and I could not be assigned a seat. I was not a standby passenger, I had a confirmed reservation on the flight. There were seats available in Basic Economy, not to mention numerous other seats in the other classes or “experiences” as the Delta website calls them. I called Delta and after being on hold for more than a hour, the agent assigned me one of the three seats that was that I could not get online. If I had chosen to wait until I had gotten to Atlanta 45 minutes before my second flight, do you think Delta would have had a seat for me? 
    That is Delta Basic Economy.

  4. My job requires some travel for my State university and my Department admin assistant books our travel. He recently booked a round trip Delta basic economy fare round trip flight for me from New Orleans to Orlando. State policy requires us to book flights at the lowest available fare. I have end stage (bone on bone) knee arthritis and I cannot tolerate sitting with my knees bent for more that about 20 minutes without straightening my legs. For air travel, I always gladly pay extra to upgrade to an aisle seat with extra leg room. When my assistant told me about this fare and restrictions, after he realized it, I was upset and puzzled. Not only does this border on fraud, it does not make good business sense to prevent people who have purchased these awful basic economy seats from buying their way out of this bad situation. Seat upgrades on all four flight segments (if I could purchase them), cost more ($54.50 each way) than the difference between Basic Economy and Main Cabin fares ($50 to $60 total). This is sneaky and stupid! After this flight, I am not flying Delta any more until they stop this madness.

    1. I agree with you! It is madness and shouldn’t be tolerated. There should be a clause available to upgrade. Problem is, how does one get around that? In your situation, take it up with your supervisor. That’s too bad, sorry to hear!

  5. I had the basic economy tickets with Delta to travel with two teenage sons. Upon checking in online, the boarding passes stated “seats will be assigned at gate”. I have travelled with Frontier, Allegiant, and Southwest and never had encountered this before so I looked it up online and found your article among others and felt quite anxious about how this would pan out.

    All for nothing- it turns out.

    Three seats were assigned together and we boarded in Zone 2 (which is better than Frontier, Allegiant, or Southwest). Compared to the Frontier and Allegiant, you do not have to pay to avoid dehydration on Delta- the basic drink and small snack are free. AND the carry on plus personal item were free. The checked bag was $25 for 50lb compared to $35 for 40lb with Allegiant (40 lb is a tight weight restriction for a large bag). I also paid $22 for the carry on on the first leg of our vacation travelling with Allegiant.

    Additionally, the one way return tickets with Delta Basic Economy were not more expensive for being one way (one way used to cost more).

    We travelled Cincinnati to Las Vegas on Allegiant- road trip- then Denver to Cincinnati on Delta Basic Economy. Google Flights found us the cheapest combination of airlines/flights.

    1. So great that you had a good experience! I had such a different experience I’ve been terrified to try again especially on busy routes (which seem to be the only ones I fly!). What route did you fly?

      Always happy to hear of positive endings!!

  6. Basic economy fares are comfirmed E fare tickets. I tell passengers you have a seat it just hasn’t been assigned yet.

    When I seat my basic economy passengers, I start from the back of the aircraft and move towards the front. I try to sit families traveling together. But, I can’t always especially when it’s a full flight.

    Each agent seats their passengers differently, some just auto assign seats.

    You get what you pay for, a seat on the aircraft. I’m sorry, that with the basic economy airfare you can’t fly earlier, or get a refund, or upgrade, or choose your seat. Or sit by your friend, girlfriend etc.

    I personally hate the basic economy airfares, they add additional stress.

    Work for Delta above wing.

    1. Thanks for writing in. Interesting that each crew has the ability to seat their passengers as they wish. I guess we had a very unlucky crew?

      Although the flight attendants were adamant that this fare meant ONLY a middle seat regardless of if there were window or aisle seats available. They were also very adamant that if the flight is overbooked the basic economy are the first to be bumped. Is this not your experience?

    2. Is it true that you only get a middle seat. Will be traveling with my daughter on basic. Hoping that we still get to sit together.

      1. Did you get to sit together? I have not had good luck with it. Instead it has been such a stress to find people who would switch with my son and myself.

  7. I risked Delta Basic economy last weekend CMH-LAX round-trip. We were able to secure BC (port side: middle, aisle) both ways in rows 23 and 26 (on a 33 row 737-800). This isn’t much worse than if I’d paid the extra $100 to secure seats ahead of time (on two round-trip tickets).

    You board last with all the hipsters, but who cares..it’s not Southwest. We had assigned seats. I traveled for business on Basic once and didn’t get a seat until arriving at the gate (aft middle on a 757) so YMMV.

  8. This is actually different from my experience, in terms of upgrades for basic economy. I’ve purchased basic economy twice, and both times I was able to get a complimentary upgrade to first class, and both times they were for window seats, although I don’t know if it makes a difference but I have silver medallion status? Although on the website, it doesn’t say that they have any exceptions for medallion status holders; I wonder if I’ve just been lucky both times?

    1. That’s interesting bc technically they are not supposed to give ANY upgrades from basic economy which it clearly states on their site! I really miss my days of high medallion status!!

  9. I have flown quite a bit. The minute I saw Delta offering these basic economy fares I knew exactly what they meant. Middle seat, no upgrades, last to board. At least you still got a free carry on and free drinks. I did not need someone to tell me this, it was obvious from the go as a regular traveler.
    Carry on baggage is always a crap shoot unless you are in the early boarding stages. Depending on the airplane configuration I have seen the overhead space full when it is still Group 2. But they will check your bag for free at that point, so the only complaint is that you have to wait in baggage claim for your bag.
    As far as standby goes, to my knowledge people are put on standby as a result of fare class, overall disruption (how many flights you have to be rebooked) and frequent flyer status. So if you never fly them, are only taking a direct flight, and booked the bottom fare, guess what, you get bumped first. Again, this is nothing new and the same as far as I know for every airline.

    I found nothing here surprising or shocking.

    1. I agree with you 100%. You have to read the fine print. If you want bells and whistles then book the most expensive seat not the cheapest one.

  10. I just wanted to make a correction to this post about basic economy meaning that you get the middle seat. I’ve flown basic economy about 4 or 5 times on Delta and I’ve always been given a window seat near the front of the plane. Most of the times I flew on that fare, I had the whole row to myself. The last time I did it a few months ago I was put in a window seat in Delta Comfort. It’s a gamble, but in my case I’ve saved a few hundred dollars overall with basic economy and have had great experiences every time.

    1. As I mentioned in some of the comments I think it depends on the flight crew and how much of sticklers they are. They don’t have to give you decent seats even when the plane is empty. I was told by the attendants themselves that the fare only gives you a middle seat regardless of whether other seats are available. So it’s a gamble!

  11. I have used Delta Economy several times and had no problems. Was assigned my seat (as the policy states) when I checked in. I have had window and aisle seats and one time a row to myself. I still broad Zone 1 (AM Express card). I have never been told I’m flying standby or can only have a middle seat. I’m sure if there were only middle seats left that is what I would have been assigned. Just want to clarify that some of the above comments haven’t been true when I have flown Delta Economy.

  12. OK – I gambled again on CMH-LAX with my wife and two teenage boys last weekend.

    Outbound we had 31 ABCD (Window, Middle, Aisle, Aisle) on a 33 row 738. Even had room for two roller bags despite boarding almost last in Group 4.

    Coming back, we had 27AB (Window, Middle) and 27DE (Aisle, Middle). Not quite as ideal but not bad either. On this flight, they gate-checked remaining roller bags at the beginning of Group 4 boarding despite there being overhead space still available (they said there wasn’t any left).

    We were running over 20 minutes late so I think that was done to expedite boarding. Saved $200 on this trip, which more than paid for the rental car and would do it again.

  13. I am a former flight attendant and I remember when we treated the pax (passengers) with respect and their dignity! Today, is much different and I personally wouldn’t want to be involved in telling people they cannot have a seat, let alone that they are being bumped because of a low fare ticket!
    *SHAME ON CORPORATE GREED*

  14. Apparently this points guy has never heard of southwest! It is the walmart, no, dollar tree of airlines. At least delta has options and levels of service, for a price. No matter what you pay, advance or last minute purchase on southwest, cattle class is all you get. Fly southwest to or from the county fair: steerage all the time–and they love it!

  15. Exactly! This happened to us this week. The airline seated myself and my 2yr old in separate middle seats. Then Stephen at the gate got really angry at me for wanting to sit with my child. Telling me I should not have bought this ticket and how unfair it is to other passengers now. The real point here is the lack of transparency by the airline. As I pointed out to Stephen there was no information on the website to tell me not to book this ticket with a child. Delta collected his birthdate so how could they allow this ticket to be purchased for a child, or how could they not put a child with the parent or any kind of warnings. We ended up together after a lot of anger from the staff towards me who has ‘done the wrong thing’. How about warnings or a simple algorithm based on age of the ticket holders.

  16. Just returned from BOS to Lincoln NE though MSP. Remember the gate agent holds great power and how you interact goes a long way. Piss them off and you’re done. I boarded standby middle seat for an earlier flight on an A321 filled to the gills. MUCH better than the 737 aisle on the outbound. The agents and attendants were spectacular. These people work hard at a job few of us appreciate. They get us ( eventually) home safe. That’s the point.

  17. If you fly Spirit, you know full well that Delta Economy is 400,000 times better. It actually surprises me you’d write a whole blog post on the top airline and throw Spirit in the article in reference.
    Spirit has a deceiving website that says you’ll save hundreds if you buy their thrill package. In essence, you’ll lose $60 rather than save anything. The app doesn’t allow to update your info without clicking “change flight”. What? I’m not changing a flight, I’m updating my KTN. You also don’t get a barcode on your boarding pass, you have to go get a piece of paper. Yes, what we did in the 90s.
    Delta’s app automatically checks you in if you set it up correctly. Uneducated people fly Spirit and unfortunately don’t have the intelligence to fly a major airline. Get scammed in Spirit or actually have reclining seats on Delta. Text on the plane with Delta and not even get WiFi as an option on Spirit. Free drinks on delta, $3 for a can of soda on Spirit. $43 for a carry on with Spirit, free on Delta. Shall I go on?

    1. Well, here I am about to fly a Delta Basic Economy fare again and guess what.. they won’t assign me a seat and according to the seat map ALL of the seats are full. So they have overbooked the flight and I will be screwed. I have NEVER had that happen with Spirit. The reality is you don’t SAVE anything on any of these flights.. but at least with Spirit you know you have a seat and you aren’t treated like second class citizens.

      I have given Delta so many chances and they always end up screwing me. I just hope I can make my conference…lets see.

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