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The Truth Behind the Delta Basic Economy Fare

The Truth behind the Delta Basic Economy FareIf 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 my recent solo flight to Florida I was on Delta, but 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.

It’s been at least a year since I’ve 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.

Checking in with Delta Basic Economy Fares

For once I was right on time to check in, even though I was at my son’s weekly ‘All School Meeting’. 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 is 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 even with the chaos surrounding me 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!

I carry on with my day, keeping my phone right next to me at all times. There was no call until just when I picked my son up at 3 pm, but I missed the ringing and only caught it when it had already gone to voicemail. ACK!

I decided to call directly back to get the same message as I had in the morning, stating there was more than 2 hour wait for an agent. Really?  Are they that busy on a day with no adverse weather or other flight disturbing events occurring?

After 7 hours of stress worrying about my flight I was relieved to finally get 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.

Day of Flight

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.

Still no one wearing the red jacket I was told to look out for. Instead, 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.

The Problem: Lack of Transparency

The Truth Behind the delta basic economy fareThe issue here 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’. 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.


This hidden policy is why I will never choose a Delta Basic Economy Fare again. I might even think twice before booking Delta at all.

In the end Sylvia managed to book seats for my return flights to ease my mind about whether I would be bumped or not. Miraculously after insisting she couldn’t get me anything other than a middle seat even if she tried, she managed to get me an exit row window seat… for both my flight to Florida and my return. Shocking how that happens.

But you know what, I don’t want to have to complain and argue (nicely!) with a gate agent for 30 minutes after 24 hours of stress about what it means to be on standby. I want to pay for my flight and know exactly what I’m paying for. And this means I will stick with the airlines who are transparent and honest about what their fares include.

Thanks Sylvia for getting me window seats. Technically my Basic Economy Fare was still valid since I didn’t get to choose my seats. I actually prefer an aisle.

The Truth About the Delta Basic Economy Fare

  • You do not get to choose your seat until you get to the gate and even then they will only give you a middle seat, even when others are available.
  • You will be high on the list for bumping should your fight be overbooked.
  • You get to 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. I can only imagine how this would have played out had I been traveling with my son on this fare. It would have been another added stress of trying to get someone to switch seats with one of us.

I appreciate the assistance that I received from Sylvia at the gate, although I have to say creating hidden policies like this only makes their job more difficult than it has to be. It creates a situation where passengers are unhappy before even boarding, increasing the likelihood of conflict during the flight.  I think I’ll stick with the airlines who believe in transparency and honesty to ensure a positive relationship with their customers.

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 25 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’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!

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