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Airfares are getting so basic.

February 23, 2017

In the name of offering customers more choice, major airline carriers—including American, Delta, and United—are offering “basic economy” fares.

In non-airline parlance, that means passengers pay a base price for the mere pleasure of sitting in a seat on a flight. They do not pick which seat, and they get basically nothing else: no overhead bin space, no snacks, no priority boarding, no passing “Go.”

Related: Fly from the U.S. to Europe for $65 One-way

If the fares are cheap enough, there will always be passengers who opt for price over convenience and comfort. But every passenger—whether saving money is a need or a preference—should know what they're getting.

So let's break it down. Travelers familiar with other budget airlines, like Spirit, will already be familiar with what costs more.

Airline: American United Delta
Seat selection: Assigned at check-in Automatically assigned Assigned at check-in
Upgrades: No No No
Overhead bin space: No; unless Elite No; unless MileagePlus Premier Yes
Personal items (under seat in front of you): Yes Yes Yes
Flight changes/refunds: No No No
Snacks and drinks: Yes Yes Yes

(I didn't include free checked bags in the chart because who even remembers what that's like.)

Related: How to Get the Most Out of Basic Economy Fares

Delta, American, and United, at least for now, are warning passengers before they book a basic airfare.

Although there are small signs of the trend reversing (like Delta bringing back complimentary meals on some transcontinental flights), the unbundling of airfares is most likely here to stay.

Of course, “basic” fares are not an original idea from the major carriers. Budget airlines—namely Europe's Ryanair and easyJet—showed the potential of the model. Spirit and Frontier in the U.S. made it more palatable to many travelers, and now the big players are diving head first into the fee game.

Whichever airline you fly, figure out what services you'll need ahead of time so you don't end up paying more after the fact.

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