Travel news and advice

Basic economy: why cheap long-haul flights could be the best deal for savvy travellers

If you’re carbon conscious, don’t mind where you sit, you hate airline food and don’t like paying for other people’s luggage, basic economy – with ‘get what you pay for’, inflexible tickets – could be perfect for you

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 April, 2018, 8:47am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 April, 2018, 9:41am

Discount flights are so hard to ignore, and yet the recent trend for a “basic economy” tier on aircraft has caused uproar. 

Although a hard definition of what a basic economy fare actually consists of is still up in the air, it usually means you can’t make changes to your ticket, you get no food or drink, you can’t select your seat, and you can’t check in luggage. You have to pay extra for everything. 

It’s a trend that started in the United States, with the full-service airlines American, Delta and United trying to compete with low-cost competitors whose super-low fares easily win on price comparison websites despite offering less.

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So this is largely about advertising. “The objective is to attract passengers with the lower fare and then have them ‘spend up’ to a normal fare once they understand the product,” says Will Horton, analyst at Capa Centre for Aviation in Sydney, Australia.

However, understanding the product may lead some to believe that less is more. Have you ever travelled with hand luggage only? Since a standard economy long-haul ticket includes two free checked bags (at least, for now), those who travel light have effectively been paying for other people’s stuff. 

The unbundling of fares allows travellers to pay for what they really need. In a way, it is a more personalised way of buying flight tickets
Amy Wei, senior director, Kayak search engine 

It’s also greener. “Minimal baggage in economy is the way to go for the carbon-conscious traveller,” says Justin Francis, CEO at Responsible Travel. 

“The key factors are the type of plane you fly in, the length of your flight, and whether it’s a direct flight (because taking off and landing burns extra fuel), the class of ticket you buy, and the weight of your luggage,” says Francis.

Seat selection is another “bonus” that could soon cost extra. If you travel on your own, you may not care where you sit, and some couples could also be willing to sit separately if it means a chance to save money. 

Ditto food and drink. Most passengers hate airline food and complain about it incessantly. So why is anyone mourning its demise? 

It’s a similar case for tiered boarding. British Airways last year announced that basic economy ticket-holders would board the plane last, prompting some to call them the “walk of shame” tickets. The real “walk of shame” is the 300 people queuing at the airport gate for an hour to get to an airline seat that has been pre-assigned to them.

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In Asia there is a wider gap between full-service airlines and low-cost carriers than in other regions. “Asia’s full-service airlines have bigger hot meals, superior on-board and lounge experiences, operational reliability and brand value,” says Horton. He also points out that the difference between Cathay Pacific and HK Express is much larger than between British Airways and easyJet. 


However, low-cost long-haul in Asia means that the likes of Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines are competing mostly with Gulf airlines, since the sweet spot for basic economy is eight-hour flights. 

In the end, it comes down to having the choice. “The unbundling of fares allows travellers to pay for what they really need,” says Amy Wei, senior director, APAC of search engine Kayak, which has started to display the price breakdown for each cabin class. “In a way, it is a more personalised way of buying flight tickets.”

For frequent fliers who know how to travel efficiently, don’t like paying (or queuing) for things they don’t use – and who always check the small print – basic economy is here not a moment too soon.