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There has never been a better time to fly more for less.

Marisa Garcia
January 24, 2017

America’s three largest airlines are competing with low-cost rivals by introducing extra-low fares.

Some travelers see the restrictions of these “bare fares” as a final assault on all things decent, and others have resigned themselves to harsher skies. But bare fares can be a golden opportunity to travel more often.

To get the most out of less, you need to know your travel pain threshold and adjust your expectations.

What you’re getting

First, know that bare fares aren’t first class.

You get the same Economy seat as everyone else, with the same (relative) standard of comfort. The biggest disadvantage is that you don’t get to choose your seat.

American Airlines will let basic economy passengers pick from available seats for free at check-in, or for a fee 48 hours prior before departure. Delta and United will assign seats a check-in. You don’t get to pick.

Not having your pick of seats from the moment of booking—or ever—increases the likelihood that you’ll be stuck in the middle seat. Maybe you're okay with that on any flight if it means saving money, or maybe you have a time limit to how long you can be stuck between two strangers.

If you need a guarantee of a window or aisle seat, or if you want the legroom in the exit row, bare fares are not right for you.

Check the airline’s seat map for the flight you want to book, and compare to flights around that time. You might discover a flight at a different hour or on different day of the week which is less crowded. Flights scheduled around business hours, and flights departing on Sundays, Mondays or Fridays will be in high demand.

If you can, avoid holidays and peak vacation weeks. Bare fares are ideal for those with flexible travel plans.

Next: Do you need four pairs of shoes for that overnight trip? Because bare fares are about traveling light.

We’re not judging, but if your wardrobe requires a lot of costume changes, bare fares might not be a good fit.

American will let you travel with a single personal item which must fit under the seat. You will pay the same as everyone else for any checked baggage in advance. If your carry-on bag is too bulky, you will need to check it, in which case you'll pay standard baggage fees plus a $25 penalty. Elite customers and eligible AAdvantage credit cardmembers can bring one personal item and one roller-bag onboard. They also get a free checked bag.

United has a similar policy to American’s: One small carry on bag and no overhead bin space. This baggage restriction doesn't apply to MileagePlus Premier members, MileagePlus credit card holders, or Star Alliance Gold members.

Delta’s baggage policy is the same whether you buy an Economy or basic Economy fare. You can bring one small personal item (purse or laptop bag) to fit under the seat, plus a carry-on bag which fits in the overhead bin. Delta doesn’t charge for checking-in your bag at the gate.

And last—but never least—bare fare passengers will have to wait to board.

This is a glass-half-full situation. You aren't fighting for space in the overhead bin, so what's the rush? If you’ll be stuck at the back of the plane—or wedged in the middle seat—the last thing you want is to board first. Sit down at the gate, relax, finish your coffee, and watch the lemmings rush into the tin can.

How to book

If you get nothing else, these larger airlines offer extended network, more destinations, and often better schedules. But before you book with the big guys, check other smart budget options.

Remember: This all started with domestic competition.

Southwest Airlines’ offers good value. There’s no fee for up to two checked bags, and no fees to change your ticket up to 10 minutes before your flight. Plus, you’ll find Wi-Fi and entertainment onboard. Southwest also has open seating: The first people to board the plane get their pick of the best seats, because we are all special individuals and getting on a plane can be a fun group sport. To make this process more attractive, early check-in earns the right to board sooner. Or you can buy your way to the boarding ‘A’ list for a fee.

JetBlue features comfort, free high-speed Wi-Fi, and in-flight entertainment. You also get unlimited snacks and nonalcoholic beverages for free. The airline also touts the best legroom in coach, and offers extra legroom seats for a fee. Boarding is by row, but you can pay for priority. The standard Blue fare allows one carry-on and one personal item. You also get one free checked bag to select international destinations. Fees apply to ticket changes.

The recently merged Alaska and Virgin America each offer a great flying experience for smart fares, with few restrictions. Include them in your comparison shopping.

When booking a bare fare, confirm your schedule. Make sure you’ll fly on the fourth, or the fifteenth, or whatever.

These fares don’t allow changes or refunds. If you have to change your travel plans at the last minute, you’ll need to pay. If you have to cancel, you’ve made a donation to the airline’s bottom line.

And when it comes to deal shopping, don’t ignore the long-haul bargains.

There are many good deals around the globe, including from large network carriers: Norwegian and WOW Air have stirred up the transatlantic market with ridiculously cheap fares. When flying with WOW, you’ll have a stop in Iceland. Norwegian offers direct flights but a somewhat more limited schedule than the big players. If your schedule is flexible—or if you’ve always wanted to see Reykjavik—these are great budget choices.

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Canada's WestJet offers good value for money, and flies to international destinations, including Dublin, Glasgow, and London.

KLM’s basic Economy fares are often great bargains and let you add options, ranging from your choice of seats to extra baggage, even a bespoke dining menu. Because KLM is a large network airline, part of the Air France/KLM group, and a founding member of SkyTeam, you will find plenty of international flight options at low prices. Air France/KLM also plans to launch a low-cost airline soon, offering even better deals.

IAG airlines, which owns Aer Lingus, British Airways, Iberia, and Spanish low-cost airline Vueling, will soon launch a low-cost long-haul airline flying to the U.S. Keep an eye out for that as it’s bound to drive all the fares lower.

Within Europe, you have a broad choice of low-cost airlines, all of them are reasonably good. The top three are Ryanair, easyJet, and Norwegian.

Asia is a low-cost cornucopia. Air Asia, IndiGo, JetStar, Nok, Peach, Scoot, and TigerAir stand out.

Azul, GOL, and VivaAerobus offer good low-cost choices in Latin America, but don't leave out flagships like Aeromexico, Avianca, and LATAM. You may find bargains.

There has never been a better time to fly more for less. With the right mindset, and managed expectations, budget-travel can be a pleasure. And remember: Even the most crowded cabins are open to broad new horizons.

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