How to avoid basic economy when paying with points

You gotta love the marketing genius that came up with the concept of basic economy.  I imagine that the first executive meeting on the topic went something like this:

Marketing Guy: Let’s introduce a fare option that is crappier than regular economy.  That way we can charge more for regular economy while telling our customers that they’ll save money with our new Crappier Economy.

Executive 1: That sounds great!  I love win-win scenarios.  Of course, in this case, our company wins and we win (with big bonuses), but our customers lose.  As I said, sounds great to me!

Executive 2: I like it too, but how can we possibly make economy any worse?  We’ve already put 12 seats across on planes designed for 4, we’ve installed thinner and more uncomfortable seats, and we’ve reduced legroom as far as the laws of physics allow.

Executive 3: Let’s make them sit in the middle seat near the bathroom and between the stinkiest and rudest passengers!

In order to pull off the goal of making Basic Economy crappier than regular economy, the airlines took away advanced seat assignments, the ability to upgrade, and the possibility of escape (no more same day changes, refunds, etc.).  And, they made it so that Basic Economy passengers always board last via the Basic Economy Walk of Shame.  AA and United didn’t think that was bad enough so they also banned carry-ons that won’t fit under the seat, and reduced (AA) or eliminated (United) elite qualifying earnings.  One can argue though that Delta’s policy of allowing carry-on bags is actually worse.  After schlepping their bags to the back of the plane, Delta’s Basic Economy passengers inevitably discover that the overheads are full and have to fight their way back to the front to gate check.  I’ve done that.  It’s not fun.

Avoid Basic Economy, with paid flights

When searching flights on their own website, Delta makes it very clear which selections are Basic Economy, and it’s easy to pick an alternative.  I think it’s safe to assume that AA and United will do the same.  If there was a way to make money by betting on AA and United copying Delta, we’d all be rich.

Delta Minneapolis to Kansas City Basic Economy vs Main Cabin

Online Travel Agencies

Expedia doesn’t do much to show that your selection is Basic Economy but it does give the option to upgrade to Main Cabin during the check-out process:

Delta Minneapolis to Kansas City Basic Economy via Expedia Delta Minneapolis to Kansas City Basic Economy via Expedia Upgrade Option

Similarly, Orbitz lets you select your fare before checking out:

Delta Minneapolis to Kansas City Basic Economy Upgrade via Orbitz
Avoid Basic Economy when paying with points

With my brief survey of paid options (above), it appears to be pretty easy to avoid Basic Economy if you want to.  But what if you’re paying with points?  I’m not talking about using airline miles to book awards.  I’m talking about using bank points to pay for flights.

Let’s look at Amex, Chase, and Citibank…

Amex Pay with Points

Usually you’ll get poor value when using Amex Membership Rewards points to pay for travel.  At most, you’ll get 1 cent per point value.  But, there’s one huge exception.  If you have the Business Platinum card, you’ll get a 50% rebate when you book economy flights with your preferred airline or when you book business or first class flights with any airline.  That means that you’ll get 2 cents per point value instead of 1 (which is awesome, by the way).

So, back to the question… Can you avoid Basic Economy when paying with Amex points?

When you initiate a search on the Amex Travel Home Page, you can choose to search for economy, premium economy, business class, or first class fares.  Strangely, if you go to their advanced search page, the premium economy option disappears.

AmexTravel Search

When searching for economy fares, the search results display the words “Basic Economy,” but they don’t otherwise do anything to make it obvious that you’ve just found a Crappy Economy fare.

Delta Minneapolis to Kansas City Basic Economy via Amex Travel

In my experience, when Basic Economy fares are present, there appears to be no way to book main cabin economy with Amex Travel.  I searched everywhere I could find within their online interface, I tried online chat, and I tried calling.  No one could book main cabin economy!

Amex Pay with Points Work Arounds

There are a couple of options for working around this limit:

  1. Book a higher class cabin: premium economy, or first class.  Often the cost for premium economy isn’t much more than main cabin, so it may be worth doing so.
  2. Book directly with the airline, pay with your Amex Business Platinum card, then redeem points to offset the charge (here: membershiprewards.com/yourcharges).  This option does not work.
  3. Book directly, then call Amex Membership Rewards and ask for a one time exception to allow you to pay with points retroactively and still get your 50% point rebate.
  4. Call the Business Platinum Travel Service at 1-800-553-9497 and try to get someone who knows what they’re doing.  Reader Bryce reports success with calling in.

Chase Pay with Points

When you book travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards you can get up to 1.5 cents per point value when paying with points from your Sapphire Reserve account, or 1.25 cents per point from a Sapphire Preferred, Ink Business Preferred, Ink Plus, etc.  No-fee cards offer only 1 cent per point value, but points can be transferred first to a premium card in order to get better value.

Chase does an excellent job of letting you know that you’re about to book a Basic Economy fare. This pops up when you select one:

Delta Minneapolis to Kansas City Basic Economy via Chase UR Basic Economy Warning

Chase Pay with Points Work Arounds

Unfortunately, like Amex, Chase doesn’t allow you to buy up to main cabin economy.  Instead, consider these options:

  1. Book a higher class cabin: premium economy, or first class.  Often the cost for premium economy isn’t much more than main cabin, so it may be worth doing so.  Note: To change the class of service that you search for, click the drop down box that shows the number of travelers.  You should then see the option.
  2. Call Chase Travel to book the flight: 1-855-234-2542. I hope that main cabin fares on AA, Delta, and United can be booked by calling, but I don’t know for certain.  Reader Bryce reports success with calling in.

Citi Pay with Points

Those with a Citi Premier card can use Citi ThankYou points to book travel at a value of 1.25 cents per point.  Until July 23rd 2017, Citi Prestige card holders can do even better when booking flights: 1.6 cents per point for American Airlines flights and 1.33 cents per point for other airlines.  That said, Citi does a crappy job of showing you that you’ve picked a Basic Economy fare.

To see that you’ve picked a Basic Economy fare, you have to click Show Details, and you have to know that, with Delta, “Economy Class (E)” means “Basic Economy”.

Delta Minneapolis to Kansas City Basic Economy via Citi ThankYou

Worse, once you’ve added the flight to your cart and stepped through the checkout process, there is absolutely no indication that you’re about to get screwed get a Basic Economy ticket.

Delta Minneapolis to Kansas City Basic Economy via Citi ThankYou Final Checkout

To avoid Basic Economy flights online, the only option I see is to book a first class ticket.  Premium economy isn’t shown as an option.  It might be possible to call to book Main Cabin or Premium Economy, but I haven’t tried.  I’ll update this section once I learn more.

Reader Tips?

Do you have any suggestions besides those presented above for avoiding Basic Economy when booking with points?  Please comment below.

About Greg The Frequent Miler

Greg is the owner, founder, and primary author of the Frequent Miler. He earns millions of points and miles each year, mostly without flying, and dedicates this blog to teaching others how to do the same.

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  1. Thanks for the research on this. My comment is slightly off-topic, but validates why the usually referred to as “crappy” capital one venture card reimbursement (I think it also applies to Barclay’s Arrival Card) is a better 2 cents/mile airfare card than many of the others. (albeit it doesn’t have any bonus categories to ratchet up accumulations). since you can book directly with the airline and not worry about portals. Then, when it appears on your statement, simply be reimbursed with your points.

    • @Larry D: So, being unfamiliar with the Capital One Venture product…. Are you saying that they refund your purchased ticket as one point per $.02 spent?

      Please elucidate if you do not mind.

      • Each VENTURE point is worth a penny on travel spending, but each dollar spent on the card gives you 2 points and thus “2 cents/mile airfare/travel card”. A similar advantage off the airline topic is you can book directly at Hyatt or SPG and be reimbursed (and thus utilize/earn elite status), as opposed to being forced to book on the Chase (or similar) portal which prohibits the elite status use/earnings. So, I think the Venture Card is a great 2 cents per dollar spent travel card, which begs the question to simply use a 2 cents per dollar spent cash back card, and then you don’t even worry about being reimbursed. Ironically, I don’t have a Venture Card anymore, but when I did, it was an easy process to be reimbursed for travel expenses. I guess they don’t pay affiliate commissions, because you’ll never hear much of a good thing from them on this site. Also, it’s clearly NOT an easy way to fly Etihad first class, so it’s a pretty boring card, and I guess that’s another reason why it’s never written about.

        • Nice thing about Venture (over A+, PNC Premier Travel, etc) is that Cap One allowed you to “reimburse” the same travel expense multiple times. In other words, if I bought a $100 ticket, I could reimburse myself 6 times for that ticket (meaning, get 6 $100 statement credits), assuming I had earned that many points.

    • Yep, that’s a huge benefit to cards like the Venture Rewards, Arrival Plus, etc.
      Carl: Both the Capital One Venture Rewards and the Barclaycard Arrival Plus card earn 2 points per dollar for all spend. Each point is worth a penny each when redeemed for travel. To redeem for travel, simply pay for any travel with either card and then go into your account later to offset the statement charges with points.

    • Venture, Arrival, et.al. are inferior to 2% cashback cards like the Fidelity Visa and Citi Double Cash since you are restricted to using your reward to offset travel purchases and it can sometimes be difficult to redeem your last few points.

  2. I hadnt heard of this change. How long ago did “basic economy” kick in? I’m going to guess Southwest will not follow suit and only gain a larger following for it.

  3. Great info, I hadn’t even thought about the ramifications of basic economy when it comes to bank points. Ugh!

    Just wait until the masses, who don’t follow all of this like us nerds do, book with bank points and unwittingly end up in the screw-you economy situation.

  4. Great info! Anotherr blog post idea/question: How can I avoid or get around the ‘multi-class’ search outputs on Alaska Mileageplan website. It seems every AA fight to LHR in 2017 from DEN is a multi-class flight with first on every short leg but coach on every second leg.

    • I don’t know if there’s any way to force it. You could try searching for non-stop flights from AA hubs (Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, etc.), then when you find a premium award that’s available, go back to find it as a one-stop from DEN

  5. Thanks, this is quite useful. But I have another question. How about airline award travel? For instance, I just looked at United award travel for some hypothetical dates and I cannot ascertain whether Economy (lowest) is Basic or main cabin. As this is how I usually book seats using points, this distinction concerns me more than the ones you proposed.

  6. This anecdote isn’t the exact same scenario, but I believe in principle it would help. I was booking a Premium Economy flight on Cathay Pacific using Chase UR points. Their website wouldn’t let me search for PE, only economy, business or first. So I called Chase Travel and was able to give them the carrier, flight numbers, and fare code (E) and they put together the exact same itinerary and price that I found on ITA matrix.

    So my assumption is that you will still be able to call Chase Travel and give them a fare code that isn’t basic economy without any trouble.

  7. Does this problem also exist for booking Visa Infinite discount air travel (such as with the Ritz-Carlton card)? That would certainly be a drag, as that benefit is one of the main reasons I got the card.

  8. Thanks, great research. I bet there will be a few upset travelers who booked CrapConomy on portals without reading the fine print and now show up with carry on or want to sit together as families… let the boarding drama ensue…

  9. It seems that if you choose to book Delta flight through other airlines website (I tried Air France), you could book yourself into main cabin with basic economy price. A hypothetical search PIT-CDG 6/7-6/14 shows delta’s nonstop service at $934. If you book through delta, $934 would book you into E class, which is basic economy. But if you choose to book your flight on Air France’s site, $934 actually gives you V class, which is the lowest fare class for main cabin on delta.

  10. Is this ‘problem’ mitigated if you have a co-branded card? For example, if you redden UR but have a Chase United card – would you still get the benefits of the United Card? Likewise, I have Silver status on United. Would that ‘upgrade’ me out of the basic economy issues?

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