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How much does it cost to leap from a basic economy fare to a regular plane ticket? It depends.

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: November 16, 2019
  • Published November 16, 2019

Last week, JetBlue announced they now will offer their own version of “economy minus,” a stripped-down version of an airline ticket. JetBlue no longer flies to Alaska, but it was the last holdout of major airlines (except Southwest Airlines) to offer this option.

Delta, American and United call it basic economy, and Alaska Airlines calls it “Saver.” Each carrier has its own variation of this scheme, but the one common denominator is that you cannot change or cancel your ticket outside of the federally mandated 24-hour post-purchase grace period.

If you purchase this bare-bones fare on United, you must pay extra to drag your roll-aboard suitcase — and no pre-assigned seating is allowed. With Delta, you can bring your full size carry-on, but no seat assignment for you. With Alaska, you might get a seat back by the potty. Otherwise, you must wait until check-in.

The other common denominator for the basic economy/Saver fares is that even if you’re a million-miler, you won’t get an upgrade — even to a premium economy seat. It’s crowded at the back of the plane, and that’s where you’ll be sitting.

After weighing the costs and benefits of the basic economy fares for a United flight last month, I opted to pay extra for a regular economy ticket. I could’ve saved an extra few bucks by going with basic, but I didn’t want to sit in the middle seat. So I paid an extra $30. Then there’s the $30 to check a bag. There’s no chance I’ll get an upgrade on United (all my points are on Alaska and Delta).

Plus, I change my reservations every now and then — and with the basic economy fare, I’d have to buy a new ticket. Since we’re traveling at a busy time, the new ticket would be very expensive.

That said, there are lots of travelers who appreciate the extra savings with the Saver fares.

So, how much extra does it cost for Alaska Air’s main cabin fare? Well, it depends. And that makes it a little more difficult to easily compare the true cost of your next ticket.

Are you traveling from Anchorage to Seattle? You can’t go wrong with a $98 one-way ticket on either Alaska or Delta. But that is the basic economy or Saver level. Both airlines charge an extra $30 to upgrade to the main cabin. The biggest benefit is the ability to pre-reserve a seat. Checked bags still are extra ($30 for the first checked bag). Alaskans who sign up for Alaska Air’s Club 49 plan can check two bags for free.

On Alaska Airlines, if you’re an elite-level traveler (MVP or MVP Gold), you have a shot at an upgrade to either premium or first class if you book the “Main” fare.

If you’re traveling between Anchorage and Los Angeles, the “upcharge” from Saver to Main also is $30 each way. But if you’re flying from Anchorage to San Diego, the difference is between $50 and $69 each way, depending on which flights you take. Is it worth the difference? That’s for you to decide, I guess.

The upcharge from Saver to Main on flights to other destinations ranges from $30 to more than $60 one way. From Anchorage to Chicago, the difference is $30 each way. From Anchorage to Boston, the upcharge was $23-$29 each way.

Are you headed to Kansas City? Be prepared to spend $59 more each way for Main. But it’s not an exact number. Some flights cost more in Saver, with less of an upcharge to Main.

Once you make your selection for either Saver or Main on Alaska’s site, you get to pick your seat. It’s at that point you’ll be presented with the option to upgrade to premium for a few extra inches of legroom.

From Anchorage to Honolulu on Dec. 8, the upgrade to premium is $94 one way. If you’re an MVP Gold traveler, you can pay a little more to get an instant upgrade to premium or first class. But it’s a little more than the main cabin fare … not the Saver fare. Remember, those who purchase the Saver fares are cut off from any upgrades.

Traveling to Houston from Anchorage? Be prepared to pay an extra $60 each way to go from Saver to Main ($311 one way). Then, you can elect whether to pay more to fly in premium. I checked on Dec. 6 and it was an extra $64 for the Anchorage-Seattle flight and $69 for Seattle-Houston.

Some other destinations where the difference between Saver and Main was $60 each way: Anchorage-Dallas, Anchorage-Nashville and Anchorage-Milwaukee.

There are some very affordable airfares now available for travel between Anchorage and the Lower 48. There are price spikes around the holidays. And sometimes the cheapest flights offer the lousiest connections.

But the tougher part now is determining the best price for the flight you want to take. Chances are good you’ll want to pass on the rock-bottom fare, either because you change your mind or you want to play the “upgrade lotto.” What started out as a $30 charge between economy minus and regular coach fares has evolved into another trap to pad up to $120 onto your round-trip ticket.

More and more, the lowest available fare is just clickbait to get you into the sales funnel before all of the extra charges are offered. That includes fees for a regular economy fare, seats with extra legroom or (gasp) first class.