Thursday, January 26, 2017

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 ExpediaDelta 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:  This is the prescribed way to use Membership Rewards to pay with points for Southwest flights since Southwest bookings aren’t possible through Amex Travel.  I have absolutely no evidence whatsoever that this will result in getting your 50% point rebate with other airlines, but it might work.  I’ll report back once I’ve tested this and/or heard from readers who have done this.

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.  I’ll update this section once I learn more.

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.

The post How to avoid basic economy when paying with points appeared first on Frequent Miler.

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