How to avoid basic economy when paying with points


Please find an updated version of this post here: How to avoid basic economy when paying with points.

a group of people in an airplane

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…

UPDATE: With United Airlines, it’s pretty easy to avoid Basic Economy with many pay with points options.  For full details, see: How to avoid United Basic Economy.

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 exception.  If you have the Business Platinum card, you’ll get a rebate when you book economy flights with your preferred airline or when you book business or first class flights with any airline.

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. 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.

UPDATE: With United Airlines, it’s pretty easy to avoid Basic Economy with many pay with points options.  For full details, see: How to avoid United Basic Economy.

Reader Tips?

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

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[…] Greg The Frequent Miler posted about booking avoiding Basic Economy fares back in January and noted the limitations in avoiding Basic Economy within the Amex online travel portal. And while those online limitations still remain today, there is a method to avoid Basic Economy and still utilize the Amex Pay with Points feature! […]

[…] the time since I published “How to avoid basic economy when paying with points,” United rolled out their Basic Economy product to virtually all domestic routes.  And, it […]


Actually, my question was the converse. I’d *like* to book a basic economy, because I have a MPE and the downsides (other than seat assignment) don’t apply if you have the card. That is, I could still check a bag for free, bring along a carry-on, and get an early boarding group. But TYP doesn’t let me book basic economy, just regular.


That’s correct, but I think only as to Delta… For Delta, the TYP site includes basic economy fares (and now flags in red letters that you don’t get an assigned seat, etc. – the thing that go with basic economy).


Greg, Have you looked into Merrill + redemption?

As far as I can tell, if you choose ‘Economy’, it only gives Basic Economy options (for DL in my case) and if you choose ‘Premium Economy’ it only shows DL comfort fares – nothing in between, I mean just the Main Cabin Fares. For UA and AA though, I was able to see Main Cabin fares, but more expensive. I guess UA & AA don’t have Basic Economy on this specific route I was searching for.

I read somewhere their back-end is Orbitz, so I tried it – same exact results. It’s unfortunate I can’t get the Main Cabin fares to show up.


I did call- not much help. I was told whatever shown to the customer already is what they see on their end too. I ended up talking to a supervisor and he’s the one told me to select Premium Economy – and you know what happened after that.

Maybe I could try calling again and see if I get a more knowledgeable agent.


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?


It mitigates (a) the carry-on limitations, (b) the last-boarding-group rule, and (c) you still get the free checked bag. But you still don’t get a seat assignment, you can’t change seats, and you’ll likely be stuck in the middle.

[…] most of my ideas, someone smarter than me already had it. Frequent Miler wrote a piece in late January studying this question. This was before the wider rollout of American and United fares today, but […]


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.


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…


Any idea if you can avoid basic economy with US Bank Flexperks


I’ve successfully booked main cabin on Delta via amex mr (with 50% amex bus plat rebate) and chase ur by calling in.


I just booked main cabin by calling UR. You need to give them the fare class which for my flight was V.




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.


Thanks for checking!


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.


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.


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.