Airline cards can get you some perks in the cheap seats

Tony Mecia
Personal finance writer
Rewards expert who writes the "Cashing In" reader Q&A column for CreditCards.com

Reaping rewards, even in coach

Flying in coach is usually not an experience most people enjoy. Seats seem small, leg room is minimal, beverage carts block the aisles.

Yet in pursuit of money, airlines have found a way to make the time in the air less enjoyable, by instituting a new fare class called basic economy. It offers the same experience as flying regular coach, and the fare is cheaper. But it comes with even less: no advance seat assignment, no room for overhead bags, and you’re one of the last ones on the plane.

With the the best airline credit cards, you can counteract some of those basic economy restrictions. That means you can save money by buying a rock-bottom fare while avoiding most (but not all) of the basic economy limitations.

The hassles of basic economy are going to become a bigger issue as U.S. airlines expand economy class. American and United launched the fares in February 2017 and have been slowly rolling them out to new destinations. Delta has offered them since 2015. 

Check the perks of your current cards

I had the occasion to fly basic economy recently, and here’s how I fared. 

With about a month’s notice, I booked a flight from Charlotte, North Carolina, to San Diego on American through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal so I could use my Chase points.

The basic economy fare was $50 or about 3,300 points cheaper round-trip, so I booked that, knowing that a couple of my cards, the Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Red card and the Citi AAdvantage Executive card come with perks that counteract some of the downsides of basic economy.

Some cards come with baggage perks, even if your fare doesn’t

With basic economy on American, the airline says you may carry on one personal item, like a purse or small backpack, and that you have “no access to overhead bins.” That means you would have to check any larger luggage, for a fee. But my American credit cards come with priority boarding and include a free checked bag. I was interested to see if I could use the overhead space for a small roller suitcase.

American has nine boarding zones, and usually, basic economy customers would board last, in Zone 9, and overhead space would probably be gone. But the Citi AAdvantage Executive card allows boarding in Zone 4, and that was printed on my boarding pass.

I boarded with Zone 4, wheeled my roller suitcase past the gate agent, and put it in the empty overhead bin, no problem. That helped me leave the airport quickly upon landing in San Diego, instead of waiting for my luggage at baggage claim. Nobody polices use of overhead storage bins. They probably say basic economy customers can’t use them because in most cases, without the right card, there will simply be no space.

Seats still cost money

Another rule with basic economy fares is that you cannot select a seat ahead of time – at least not without paying for it. American tells you that your seat will be assigned at check-in, unless you pay to reserve one ahead of time. Credit cards can get you priority boarding but not seats.

The day before my trip, I logged in and hoped to be able to select a window or an aisle seat. But the only ones available to me for no additional cost were middle seats toward the back of the plane. There were aisle seats available for $39 each and a few exit row seats for $81 apiece.

When I passed on those, the computer assigned me to 29E, the available middle seat farthest to the back. When I showed up at the airport, I had no luck changing it, not at the kiosk and neither with the helpful agent at the American airport lounge (another Citi AAdvantage Executive perk). 

I boarded the plane, resigned to a long flight in the middle seat. But I got lucky: The people on the aisle and window were traveling together and wanted to sit next to each other and asked if I would mind sitting on the aisle. Not at all, I said. (On my return flight, I was also assigned the worst available seat possible, the middle seat farthest to the back.)

Having the right credit card can negate some of the restrictions on boarding and baggage, but not on seat assignments. You can save some money by buying basic economy – but be prepared to sit in the middle.

Another disadvantage: American’s basic economy fares do not allow you to change the ticket or even fly standby on an earlier flight. Credit cards cannot help with this.

So, while you can get some perks even when buying the cheapest ticket if you have the right card, be prepared to give up some of the little luxuries to which you’ve come to expect. 

See related: Are airline cards worth the annual fee?, How do airline credit cards work?  


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Updated: 02-25-2018