By Jessica Plautz
March 08, 2018
Credit: Courtesy of Hipmunk

If you haven't purchased a flight recently, you may not have noticed how airlines are stripping amenities to offer “basic economy” fares. These fares might appear cheap at first, but they aren't such a great deal if you like things like picking a seat. And they've made comparison shopping flights even more difficult.

Flight search engines are adapting, however, and Hipmunk on Thursday unveiled new features in its flight search results that can help travelers better compare what it is they're buying. Hipmunk is the latest search engine to better surface basic, main cabin, and business fares — like Google Flights, Hopper, and Kayak — and with some features, it is also the first.

When searching for a flight on the site, users can easily see if a fare is “basic,” and quickly get additional info on what that means on that particular airline. Results also include the fare to “upgrade” to regular economy, and fliers more interested in comfort over price can remove “basic” fares entirely from the results.

Credit: Courtesy of Hipmunk

“Travelers often choose a flight based on what’s displayed at the time of booking, only to find out when it’s too late that they can’t use the overhead bin,” Hipmunk CEO Adam Goldstein said in a statement.

A pop-up offers even more detail on what each fare provides. Goldstein told Travel + Leisure that (although the proliferation of basic economy might indicate otherwise) this transparency is something airlines want. After all, if you don't get the service you want, they have an unhappy customer — and if you don't know that you could have avoided a hassle by spending $20 or $30 more, they lose out on profit.

Credit: Courtesy of Hipmunk

Basic economy has fundamentally changed how travelers search for airfare, whether they realize it or not. When you search for a flight, the cheapest price is now the most basic fare, which many — if not most — travelers would not be satisifed with. Fees for services like a preferred seat, overhead bin space, in-flight food, and more vary airline by airline, but those fees are not typically listed until a flight is selected.

That final price, with every service any particular traveler actually needs, can be hidden on a final page, far from useful comparisons to other flights and airlines.

Especially important as more major U.S. airlines expand “basic economy” even more: American last week announced a basic option on some flights to Europe.

Travelers should soon expect every airline to do so: Virgin Atlantic announced Wednesday it will offer “Economy Light” fares, which will not include a seat pick or any checked baggage.

If that all sounds like it's making flight searches even more frustrating than they were before, that's because it is. But Hipmunk on Thursday went a step further than the competition, adding a feature that shows how many frequent flier miles a flight will get within the search results.

Credit: Courtesy of Hipmunk

While better highlighting basic economy fares should improve searches for all travelers, those eager to get the most out of every dollar they spend in the sky will appreciate the extra help to maximize rewards.