Confessions of a Basic Economy Flyer

Dear Reader,

I am off on another adventure – this time to Colombia! Colombia was not my original destination, in fact, my search was open, and I waffled between a few places. I chose Cartagena, Colombia because it was the furthest south that I could venture within my budget. I booked my flight to Cartagena through Delta’s “Basic Economy” class. If you’ve never flown internationally on Basic Economy, but are curious about it, you may want to keep reading.

First, it is important to note that Delta’s Basic Economy class is non-refundable, non-changeable, and non-upgradeable. When I bought my ticket in November, this sounded fine to me, however, 24 hours before takeoff, I started to have second thoughts. One reason for this is the fact that I had a short layover (just under one hour), which meant that I would have to dash from the domestic to international terminal to catch the only flight out of Atlanta to Cartagena that day. Under normal circumstances, this sort of connection is easily done, however, if there is any sort of delay (even 15 mins too long at the gate) this could mean missing the final boarding call.

Flying Basic Economy (normally) means that you are unable to pick your seat. I was originally booked in row 36, which is just three rows from the very back of the plane. Being seated there could mean a literal 15-20 min delay to allow all passengers ahead of you to gingerly retrieve their luggage and deplane at their leisure. I was anxious to move up as close to the front as I could. 24 hours before boarding, I was offered a small window to change seats through the online system. The closest I could get was row 29, an exit row. When I arrived at the airport, I tried once more to move up my seat. I explained my layover situation to a gate agent and he kindly moved me up to row 20 (a miracle in my book!).

Boston Logan Airport, winter 2020

Once my seat was confirmed, I had to wait to board. One of the trade-offs of booking Basic Economy is that you will be the absolute last group to board the plane. If you are traveling with checked luggage or just a personal item, this will not be a problem for you. I, however, opted to bring a carry-on item and a personal item. The flight from Boston to Atlanta was completely full. So full, that the gate agent announced that they would need to check 15-20 passengers’ carry-on luggage to their final destinations, due to insufficient overhead space. I looked around me at the crowded gate and saw very many rollerboard suitcases. These are the sorts of items that would certainly not fit under one’s seat. Having flown many times on such flights, I was conscious of the fact that I may not have access to precious overhead bin space. To improve my odds of a securing the overhead real estate, I opted to fit all my belongings into my smallest rollerboard bag, which looks like a small duffel bag on wheels.

As boarding commenced, the patient gate agent repeated her petition encouraging passengers to check their rollerboard luggage rather than bring it on board. Once first class and the other premium classes were boarded, the gate agent spoke again through the overhead system, changing her tone. She then declared that there would not be space for all rollerboards and that all passengers in Basic Economy would need to check in their bags. I looked around me and could feel my fellow Basic Economy compatriots sweat and look for ways to avoid this apparently undesirable outcome. I swear it was as if we were willing others with our eyes to check in their rollerboard luggage and spare us. There were even a few individuals in Basic Economy who tried to blend in with Main Cabin guests with no luck, as they were all sent out of the line to wait with the rest of us.

The gate agent then announced that Main Cabin 3 (aka the cabin before us humble Basic Econom-ers). Near the end of this call, instead of calling for Basic Economy, the gate agent invited anyone without a rollerboard suitcase to board. At that moment, I quickly slid down the handle of my rollerboard suitcase and picked it up as if it were a soft, light bag. I handed my ticket to the agent and she gave my bag a cursory glance and allowed me on board! Although my bag has wheels, it is quite narrow, and I did manage to find a tiny slot for my luggage in the overhead bin – success!

My flight to Atlanta was smooth and we touched down about 15 mins early. However, there was no time to spare, because after several minutes of positioning and deplaning, I only had 10 mins until boarding started to get from Atlanta’s domestic terminal to the international one. I knew this quick changeover was coming and I made sure to prepare myself. I searched the gate information of my connecting flight to Cartagena beforehand, so I did not have to waste precious minutes finding a screen and locating the flight information on the ground. Atlanta’s concourses are connected via the “Plane Train” which is located on the lower level of the terminal on the airside. The Plane Train was fabulous! Trains came at intervals of under two minutes. I found myself at my gate in under 15 mins (not bad for my first time at the world’s busiest airport!).

Plane Train, Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport, winter 2020

Boarding was much less eventful on my flight to Cartagena. An interesting note though, first class was full, Comfort+ (aka premium economy) was almost TOTALLY empty, and economy was near packed! Other passengers took note of the empty middle section of the plane and a few chose to upgrade on board so they would not be stuck sitting in the middle seat for the international flight. Although, I was unable to choose my seat (darn Basic Economy), I got lucky and received an aisle seat with no one assigned next to me!

I don’t know how you choose to fly, Dear Reader, but I hope my experience with Basic Economy can be of use to you if your new year takes you to places far away. In my opinion, Basic Economy is perfect if you are an uncomplicated (or cheap) flyer. If you are content with the fact that you cannot receive upgrades (neither complimentary nor for purchase!), you have no carry-on luggage, are okay with being seated wherever, and don’t feel bad about having to board last, then why not fly Basic Economy! However, if you have even an inkling that one of the above may be inconvenient for you, then you are better off paying extra for a different class. Basic Economy is non-refundable, non-changeable, and non-upgrade so make sure it is exactly what you want!

For me, going to Colombia is, of course, about the destination, not about the 7-hour trip there. I consider myself lucky in this instance, but depending on my plans/ preferences/ budget, I may not choose Basic Economy in the future. I am on the plane to Cartagena as I write this (and we are beginning our descent!). I am excited to share with you, Dear Reader, some stories and pictures of my adventures to come!

Stay tuned!



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