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Basic, premium economy or ‘Saver’? Inside airlines’ new class system

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: August 17
  • Published August 17

There’s good news and bad news on the airfare front.

First, the good news: Fares to many top destinations in the Lower 48 are down. We’re at the end of the line for seasonal carriers like JetBlue, Sun Country and Allegiant. Tickets to the cities they serve are cheap: Seattle, Portland, Bellingham, Las Vegas and Minneapolis.

Further, the battle between Delta and Alaska Air depresses fares up and down the West Coast. That’s good for travelers.

Here’s the bad news: The cheapest fare is not always the best fare. The new “Basic Economy” or “Saver” fares look cheap at first glance. But don’t be fooled into thinking that’s the final price. It’s theoretically possible, but chances are better than even that you’ll end up spending more than the advertised low fare.

When Delta first started its Basic Economy pricing a couple of years ago, the cost to “upgrade” to the main cabin was as little as $5 each way. Mind you — you’re still sitting in coach. There’s no additional legroom when you’re in the regular “economy” section. You just pay more so that you can get a pre-reserved seat and quicker access to the coveted overhead bins.

Alaska Airlines held off on the Saver fares for a while, but now they’ve jumped in with both feet. You won’t find Saver fares on intra-Alaska routes (yet). But on routes between Anchorage and Seattle, the difference between Saver and “Main Cabin” is about $30 each way. When you pay the extra $30, you don’t get anything extra. It’s still the same old coach seat. Except you can get a shot at a seat outside of the last five rows.

The big disadvantage with Saver tickets is that you cannot change them or cancel them. If you need to change, you’re stuck with the whole bill. Further, if you’re an elite-level flyer, you don’t qualify for upgrades of any sort, even to “Premium” class. You’re stuck at the back of the bus. At least with Alaska Air, you’re free to drag your full-size carry-on bag with you at no additional charge. That’s not the case with United Air. They’ll charge you extra.

Plus, the fare is going up to get out of last class (Saver). I bought a ticket from Anchorage to Sacramento the other day and the upcharge was $45 each way, for a total of $90. There is no published fare for the upcharge from Saver to Main. Like many other airline pricing issues, it’s different in each market and on each flight. But don’t count on these charges coming down or going away. I paid the fee because sometimes I change my dates. Further, I hope and pray for upgrades. It’s one of the perks of being an elite-level flyer. So that quest for comfort cost me an extra $90.

Alaska’s Club 49 puts a dent in the endless parade of airline fees. As long as you live in Alaska, you can get a Club 49 card, which means you can check two bags free of charge when you’re flying to or from Alaska. If you happen to be flying Alaska on another flight, say from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., you still can get one bag free if you charged your ticket on your Alaska Airlines Visa card. Or, if you’re an elite-level flyer, you can check your bags at no additional charge.

Delta’s “Basic Economy” is similar to Alaska’s Saver fares, except you don’t get any shot at a pre-assigned seat until airport check-in. You still can bring a regular-sized carry-on bag with you in the cabin, unlike United, Sun Country and Allegiant. Flying from Anchorage to Seattle, the extra fee for “Economy” is $30 each way. Flying from Anchorage to Los Angeles, it’s $35 each way. From Anchorage to Las Vegas, the charge is $50 in each direction. Additionally, you have to pay for your checked bags, unless you have a Delta-branded credit card or if you’re an elite-level traveler on Delta.

Most domestic airlines, including Alaska, Delta, United and American have a third class of service known as “Premium Economy.” Typically, there’s extra legroom, about the same as an exit row. Free drinks are included and there are a few other special touches. But the big things are the extra legroom and the cabin-forward position for a quick getaway after landing.

After you’ve paid extra for what you used to get for free (garden-variety coach class), chances are you’re more likely to spend a few more bucks for a little more personal space.

Just like regular airfares, there is no fixed price for an upgrade to Premium Class on Alaska Air, or “Comfort +” on Delta. On my last ticket to Seattle, Alaska wanted $74 for a one-way upgrade to Premium Class. I opted for the exit row, since I’m an elite-level traveler. It’s got the same legroom as Premium, without the extra cost.

If I had flown on Delta, the cost from here to Seattle would have been $50 one-way for an upgrade to Comfort+, its extra legroom and free drinks. If I was flying from Anchorage to Las Vegas in regular economy (having first paid the upcharge of $50 from Basic Economy), the extra charge to move up to Comfort+ would be $83.

Some Premium Economy seats are more expensive than others. For example, between Anchorage and Frankfurt on Condor’s 767s, the Premium Economy seats are much nicer than regular coach, but not as roomy as the business class. Premium Economy travelers can check more baggage, enjoy free drinks and a special menu. On the Sept. 1 nonstop from here to Frankfurt, an economy seat costs $556. A Premium seat is $999. Is it worth more than $425 for a nine-hour flight? You decide.

Speaking of Germany, another airline, Eurowings, will begin flying nonstop between Anchorage and Frankfurt on June 1. The airline, which is a subsidiary of Lufthansa, will fly an Airbus A330-200 three times a week on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Right now, you can find the flights on Lufthansa’s website. But I wouldn’t book anything yet, as the fares are too high. It’s best to wait a while to see whether Eurowings, Condor, or both will offer some lower fares. Hint: I think both airlines will offer lower prices for next summer. Eurowings will operate the flights through Sept. 28, 2020.

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