Two days before my American Airlines flight from Chicago to Las Vegas in June, I checked the airline's website to see how much they wanted for a seat assignment.
Yes, a seat assignment.
I was traveling on a basic economy ticket, and those no-frills tickets don't come with an advance seat assignment and carry other restrictions. The airline assigns you one at check in, so you never know where you'll end up on the plane.
Basic economy passengers who are afraid of getting stuck in a middle seat, or being separated from their traveling companions, have the option of selecting a seat for a fee. It's no different than the system used by discount airlines Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant, whose bare bones fares inspired major airlines to add basic economy tickets.
The window for buying a seat with a basic economy ticket varies by carrier: United allows the purchase of a seat assignment during booking, while Delta and American only sell seats to basic economy passengers a week before the flight. Until July 2, American only allowed purchase 48 hours in advance on domestic flights. (American passengers buying international basic economy tickets can buy a seat when booking.)
My ticket to Las Vegas fell under the 48-hour policy. At that time, American's seat map showed a few options: a handful of $9 seats, including a couple of aisle seats and a couple of window seats and a few rows of "preferred'' seats closer to the front of the plane but without any extra legroom or other perks. The going rate for 17D, a "preferred'' aisle seat: $31. The priciest choice: $62 for an aisle seat in the exit row, one of American's Main Cabin Extra seats featuring more legroom and free drinks.
There were no high-pressure tactics to get me to buy one. A note at the top of the seat map said: "If you don't want to pay for your seats now, we'll assign seats after you check in.''
I passed on all, as I usually do, on principle. (I also refuse to pay for Southwest Airlines' early bird boarding, one of the airline's versions of a seat fee.)
As a solo traveler, I've had good luck snagging an aisle seat on the basic economy flights I've booked. Until this trip.
The bad news greeted me when I checked in online: A middle seat. For 3 ½ hours.
I wasn't worried about arm-rest hogs as much as I was about jumping over someone every time I had to use the restroom.
I didn't want to take my chances on a seat change at the airport on a Saturday in the middle of summer travel season, so I paid for a seat last minute. The $9 seats were long gone. I sprung for one of the Main Cabin exit row seats with free drinks they had peddled a couple of days before. It was a whopping $46, cheaper than it was when initially offered but still a fortune on a flight that was $200 one way in basic economy. The only reason I paid and didn't suck it up in a middle seat: I discovered remaining airline fee credits so I was reimbursed for the charge. (But that's another story.)
Lesson learned: Buy a seat the first time it's offered if a middle seat is going to ruin your vacation. Otherwise, save the money. My advice is exactly the same when you encounter seat-selection fees on a regular economy ticket. The fees are everywhere, and the prices are on the rise.
Basic economy seat fees: four things to know
1) You don't have to pay for a seat assignment. Airlines will assign you a seat for free when you check in online or get to the airport. You might not like the seat, and you will likely be separated from anyone traveling with you. Airlines say they block seats together for basic economy passengers traveling with young children, but travelers report varying success; ask at the airport or play the "will you trade seats with me?'' game on the airplane. The latter is becoming more difficult as passengers who have paid a fee for a particular seat (basic economy or regular economy) are reluctant to give it up.
2) Seat fees vary by airline, flight, route, row and other factors. For a basic economy ticket from Los Angeles to Chicago in September, United last week was quoting seat fees from $12-$51 per person one way. The low end got you a middle seat or a window seat near the back of the plane, with an aisle seat there fetching $18. The $51 fee was an aisle seat in row 15. No extra legroom or other perks.
Delta was charging a flat $29 one-way fee for a seat assignment on an Atlanta-New York flight this week.
American wanted $10-$43 one way for seats on a Dallas-Las Vegas flight this week.
3) Do the math. Basic economy tickets are designed for price-sensitive travelers. Airlines do their best to scare passengers from buying them during booking, with pop-up windows and alerts galore about the restrictions, including no seat assignment, and listing the price difference over a less-restrictive regular economy ticket.
The gap between basic economy and regular economy varies widely. Sometimes the savings are well worth it, even with seat fees. In other cases, hefty seat fees can eat up any savings over a regular economy ticket.
Take the United flight from Los Angeles to Chicago: The fare difference between basic economy and regular economy was $80 round trip. Paying $13 each way for an aisle seat would still put you ahead $54. (Note, though, that United is the only airlines that forbids basic-economy passengers from bringing a standard carry-on bag. Only personal items that fit underneath the seat are allowed, and the policy is strictly enforced.)
Conversely, paying Delta $29 each way for a seat assignment on the Atlanta-New York trip would wipe out the $40 round trip savings between basic economy and regular economy.
My one-way American basic economy ticket from Chicago to Las Vegas was $35 cheaper than regular economy. A $9 seat fee would have still made it a deal, the $45 I ended up paying, not so much.
One challenge here for ticket shoppers: only United lets you see the basic economy seat fees in advance on its website (though American does if it's an international flight.) So if assigned seats are critical to you, do the math using samples from this story..
4) Buying a regular economy ticket instead of a basic economy ticket does NOT guarantee you will get your pick of seats without paying a fee.
In their side-by-side comparisons of basic economy versus regular economy tickets on their websites, American, United and Delta each tout the opportunity to select your seat as a benefit of regular economy tickets.
Read closely though and you'll see the qualifiers: American says "fee may apply,'' Delta says you can select "available seats'' and United says "complimentary seat assignments are offered when available.''
Depending on the flight and how far in advance you book, your only choices might be a free middle seat, or there may not be two seats together. The flights I spot-checked had free seats available when buying a regular economy ticket, but plenty of the seats were for sale.
Seat fees have become so prevalent, many travelers mistakenly think they are getting more legroom, a cushier seat or other perks by paying the fee. Those perks are reserved for travelers paying an even higher fare or seat price.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Basic economy ticket: Get a flight seat assignment — for a price