Reader Questions are answered twice a week by TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Ethan Steinberg.
While basic economy has been around in the U.S. for several years now, it’s starting to expand to more and more international carriers as well. For flexible travelers who pack light this can mean lower fares, while other passengers might find themselves getting charged more for benefits like seat selection and carry-on bags that used to be free. TPG reader Clive wants to know if he can get around the restrictions of basic economy on a partner airline by using a credit card from a U.S. carrier …
I’m booking a ticket from San Francisco to London through Delta, but flying in Virgin Atlantic basic economy. If I pay with my Delta card, will Virgin Atlantic still make me pay to check a bag?
TPG READER CLIVE
Basic economy has been an interesting case study in airline marketing policies. While airlines have advertised these new bare-bones fares as “providing more choices to cost conscious consumers,” in most cases basic economy costs the same as discount economy tickets used to, and passengers need to pay more to get the same benefits they’re used to. The goal of basic economy is to provide an additional revenue stream for airlines, so it makes sense that they give a pass to customers who are already engaging with them in a profitable way, such as by holding a cobranded airline credit card.
Delta, United and American Airlines all differ in terms of how restrictive their basic economy fares are, but each allows passengers to get around some of the worst restrictions by carrying a cobranded credit card (usually in the form of free checked bags and priority boarding). For example, Delta credit card holders who purchase a basic economy ticket for flights operated by Delta board in group 5 instead of group 8 and are still allowed one free checked bag.
Related: How to use credit cards to defeat basic economy
Unfortunately, this exception does not extend to partner airlines. That means if you purchase a basic economy fare on a SkyTeam airline or another carrier like Virgin Atlantic that has an individual partnership with Delta, your Delta credit card won’t help you out. Even if you buy a regular economy ticket, the first checked bag free that Delta’s credit cards offer is only valid on Delta flights. In other words, Clive will still have to pay for a checked bag on his Virgin Atlantic economy light fare despite being a Delta credit card holder.
While the U.S. legacy carriers are incredibly similar in terms of the way they award miles for flights, allow members to qualify for elite status and even how they price award flights, basic economy is much less standardized. As mentioned above, the three legacy U.S. carriers each have different answers to the question of “just how bad is basic economy,” and many international airlines have come up with slightly different variations as well. One potential workaround is if you have elite status within a major alliance (Star Alliance, Oneworld or SkyTeam), where your elite baggage benefits might outweigh the restrictions of your cheap basic economy fare. Of course this varies heavily depending on what status level you hold, how you earned it and what airline you’re flying with, and it’s a moot point for Clive anyways since Virgin Atlantic is not a member of SkyTeam.
Despite the incredibly close relationship between Delta and Virgin Atlantic, holding a Delta credit card won’t earn you a free checked bag when you book a Virgin Atlantic economy light fare. The U.S. airlines have made it easy to avoid the worst of basic economy by holding the right credit card, but these cards generally won’t help you when flying international basic economy on a partner airline.
Thanks for the question, Clive, and if you’re a TPG reader who’d like us to answer a question of your own, tweet us at @thepointsguy, message us on Facebook or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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