Main Cabin vs. Basic Economy: Close-Up Look at Delta and American Airlines & How to Decide Which Is Right for You

Every trip spars a new war between comfort and cost. The fight begins as soon as you go to book your ticket and have to decide: Main Cabin vs. Basic Economy. 

Is there such a thing as a right or wrong answer? What exactly are you paying for when you’re paying for a “no frills” Basic Economy fare, and does a Main Cabin seat on Delta differ from American Airlines?

In the neverending fight between Main Cabin vs. Basic Economy and Delta vs. American, we’re here to help you decide where and with whom your money is best spent. So, here’s everything you need to know about flying Main Cabin and Basic Economy with two of the biggest airlines in the business.

Table of Contents

Is Main Cabin the Same as Basic Economy?

Main Cabin and Basic Economy fares are relegated to the same section of the plane. That’s about where the similarities end. Of their many differences, the biggest comes down to cost. Travelers will find Basic Economy tickets noticeably cheaper than Main Cabin ones. 

Of course, that does prompt the question of how Basic Economy can be so much cheaper. And, of course, it all comes down to what you can do with a Main Cabin ticket vs. a Basic Economy ticket. With the former, you’ll have a lot more freedom and flexibility, while with the latter, you’ll notice some blatant restrictions that may affect how you plan your travel. 

Between extras like flexible flights, cancellations, and seating choices or cheaper fares, you’ll likely find one option more appealing.

Why Do Basic Economy Fares Exist?

You may be thinking that these no-frills but low-price fares sound familiar. And you’d be right.

When low-cost carriers came along, the major airlines needed an option to offer passengers who might be lured away by the low price tags. So, from the jump, Basic Economy fares were designed to compete with budget airlines’ low fares. Hence the low cost and few—if any—extras they include.

Thus, most major airlines offer two kinds of Main Cabin tickets: Main Cabin (also known as regular Economy) fares and Basic Economy fares. And while the cheaper fare may seem better on the surface, it’s worth considering what you’re giving up to lower the cost of your travel. 

That said, they are called frills for a reason, and if what you’re giving up isn’t necessary, you may find the low price tag worth some slight discomfort and less flexibility on your trip if it means saving money.

But, to know if it’s worth it, you need to know what you’re getting in return. And you may be surprised, or not, to discover that your Basic Economy vs. Main Cabin experience will differ by airline. 

A Tale of Two Carriers: Delta and American Airlines

Two of the largest airlines in the US, by the number of passengers they service alone, are Delta Air Lines and American Airlines. So, it seems fitting to compare the Basic Economy vs. Main Cabin experience these airlines offer for a clear picture of what most flyers are getting when booking their next flight.

Delta Basic Economy vs. Main Cabin

Delta Air Lines is one of the biggest airlines in the US. Consequently, it’s a top choice for many passengers hoping to fly domestically and internationally. 

However, while it offers everything from Basic Economy to first-class fares, most people aren’t shelling out the thousands of dollars required to fly first class on Delta. Instead, the most common fare types are Basic Economy and Main Cabin. 

As you might have guessed, Delta’s Basic Economy fares include far fewer frills and extras than you’ll find with a Main Cabin fare. 

Here’s what you can expect on your Delta flight, depending on if you’re flying Main Cabin vs. Basic Economy. 

Baggage Allowance

Delta Air Lines affords the same baggage allowance to both fare types. With a Basic Economy or Main Cabin fare, passengers can bring a personal item to fit under the seat in front and a carry-on bag to put in the overhead bin.

However, if you’re traveling on a Delta Basic Economy fare, you may want to pack light. Basic Economy passengers board last, so you may have difficulty finding space to store your carry-on luggage overhead. 

Seat Selection 

Main Cabin tickets allow families and picky travelers to select any available seat on their upcoming flight. 

Contrastly, Basic Economy passengers can only cross their fingers and hope for the best, as Delta randomly assigns seats at check-in. And while you can occasionally purchase basic economy seats for a fee, don’t be surprised if many of your options include a middle seat or a location in the back of the plane.

Consequently, if you’re flying with family or friends and want to sit together, you’re better off saving time and stress by upgrading to Main Cabin fares.

Standby and Ticket Changes

The pandemic put travel up in the air, metaphorically speaking. But even with travel back on the rise, Delta has made it easier to keep your plans flexible with no change or cancellation fees. However, it will likely be no surprise that this new policy only applies to Main Cabin tickets and upgraded fares. 

Basic Economy tickets are generally known to be restrictive, especially when it comes to cancellations and changes, and Delta is no different.

Delta Basic Economy tickets aren’t eligible for standby or same-day changes. Not even Delta’s elite passengers can change their Basic Economy fares, as these tickets are only eligible for changes during the 24-Hour Risk-Free Cancellation window. 

So, if your plans aren’t set in stone, it may be a good idea to upgrade to Main Cabin and save yourself some worries.


Main Cabin fares come with no restrictions on upgrades, meaning after purchase, you can choose to upgrade your flight to Delta Comfort Plus, First Class, or Delta One. 

Delta Basic Economy is a different story. These fares aren’t eligible for upgrades. Once you’ve purchased your tickets and passed the risk-free cancellation window, you’re stuck flying Basic Economy. So, even if you’re a Delta Medallion member or have the money/miles to pay for an upgrade, you won’t be able to do so with a Basic Economy ticket. 


Delta has nine standard boarding zones. Following upgraded passengers and Delta flyers with SkyPriority, Main Cabin 1 includes Silver Medallion Members, specific Delta cardholders, SkyTeam Elite, and more, while Main Cabins 2 and 3 cover the remaining cabin members, who all board before Basic Economy. 

Basic Economy passengers are the last ones to board, which is why it’s a good idea to pack light in case overhead bin space runs out.

Earning Miles 

One past bright spot in the Main Cabin vs. Basic Economy fare comparison was that Delta allowed passengers to earn Medallion Qualifying Miles, Medallion Qualifying Dollars, and Medallion Qualifying Segments while flying Basic Economy. You only had to worry about the time and ticket purchases it would take to earn Medallion status on a cheaper fair.

Notice the past tense, however; unfortunately, even those worries are no more. As of January 1st, 2022, passengers can no longer earn miles with a Basic Economy fare, so you’ll need a Main Cabin ticket or higher to qualify.

Price Difference 

Here’s what it all comes down to. After comparing Delta’s Basic Economy vs. Main Cabin experience, you want to know how much cutting out the frills will save you. And while you won’t find one standard price difference, as it varies by route, you can expect to save between $50 to $80 roundtrip on domestic flights in Basic Economy. Expect those savings to increase to $150 or more flying internationally. 

The exact price differential on a specific route will likely determine which ticket offers more value between Delta Basic Economy vs. Main Cabin.

American Airlines Main Cabin vs. Basic Economy 

With over 800 fleets and more than 200 million annual passengers (pre-COVID), American Airlines isn’t just the largest airline in North America; it’s the largest in the world.

Like other airlines, American Airlines offers several different fare types: Basic Economy, Economy (Main Cabin), Premium Economy, Business Class, and First Class. 

Compared to other airlines in the US, American Airlines offers some of the best Basic Economy fares with the fewest restrictions vs. its Main Cabin fares. Of course, fewer restrictions may not seem like much on paper, but just like a few extra inches of legroom in an economy seat, it can feel a lot different in practice.

Baggage Allowance

American Airlines provides Main Cabin and Basic Economy ticket holders with a personal item and one free carry-on bag on every flight. 

However, because the latter boards last and Main Cabin boards just ahead, there is a possibility the overhead bin space might run out before you settle into your seat. If that happens, your carry-on bag will be gate-checked for free, and you can pick it up at baggage claim. 

Pro-tip: Don’t book Basic Economy or Main Cabin if you need to disembark quickly. Paying extra for priority boarding is another option.

Seat Selection 

Main Cabin tickets include a complimentary seat selection when you book your flight. You can also buy Preferred seats or a Main Cabin Extra seat for benefits like extra legroom and early boarding.

On the other hand, Basic Economy charges a fee if you want to select a specific seat (waived for AAdvantage members). The other option is to forgo the seat selection and have it assigned for free at check-in.

Note: American Airlines will attempt to seat families with Basic Economy tickets together. However, when limited seats are available, the airline will put children under 15 with at least one adult.

Standby and Ticket Changes

All travelers know plans can change in an instant. If a last-minute emergency crops up and you need to change your Main Cabin ticket, you can do same-day changes for a fee or change your ticket any time before your flight and pay the fare difference.

However, while Main Cabin passengers can get a refund on refundable tickets, Basic Economy ticket holders can only cancel or receive a refund within 24 hours of booking. Otherwise, they have to make do with their original tickets. In general, American Airlines doesn’t allow flight changes or refunds on Basic Economy fares.

One bright spot if you are a Basic Economy passenger is that you can do same-day changes on select flights for a fee. 

The other option available is same-day standby. Of course, depending on the route, these can have limited inventory. So, barring emergencies, it’s best to choose the date and time carefully to avoid any issues with your flight.


Main Cabin tickets are eligible for complimentary and paid upgrades. So, if you purchase a Main Cabin ticket and want to upgrade to business class or use your miles to upgrade to a first-class ticket, you can do so with no change fee.

Meanwhile, the only way to upgrade your experience in Basic Economy is by being an AAdvantage member. AAdvantage elites still receive benefits on Basic Economy tickets, including upgrade privileges like those seen in Main Cabin, free and discounted seats, preferred seating, and more. 


Whether Main Cabin or Basic Economy, AAdvantage members board with their respective groups. So, if you booked a basic fare, you can still board early and get access to the overhead bins to store your carry-on bag.

However, non-elite members flying with these fares will be in the next-to-last and last boarding groups, respectively. So, for those in boarding group 9, the last group, there’s a high likelihood the overhead bins will be full, and you may have to gate-check your carry-on bag. 

And while passengers with a Main Cabin ticket can purchase priority boarding if this is a worry, priority access isn’t available to Basic Economy ticket holders.

Earning Miles 

As of January 1st, 2022, passengers flying with a Basic Economy ticket earn award miles and loyalty points. Consequently, passengers can choose either fare type and safely earn miles and status on American Airlines. 

Price Difference 

It’s no question that flying Basic Economy will save you money on American Airlines. But just how much money can vary greatly depending on the route. 

Domestic flights can vary from $10 to $100 on American Airlines, while its international flights range from a $40 difference to a $150 difference between Main Cabin and Basic Economy. 

Of course, the benefits easily outweigh the slightly higher price tag on the lower end of the spectrum. The final choice will likely be based on budget or convenience, and which is more important. 

Is Upgrading to Main Cabin Worth It?

For budget-conscious travelers, it all comes down to price. In the battle of Main Cabin vs. Basic Economy, the latter will consistently save you money on the base fare. However, upgrading can be worth the higher cost if you want more flexible tickets and the ability to earn standard rewards. 

As a general rule, choose Basic Economy if you’re on a tight budget with set plans that are unlikely to change. However, if your plans are flexible, you’re traveling with family, or you want to earn points at the typical rate, you’re likely better off choosing Main Cabin. 

Of course, it helps to know what you’re getting before you book your flight. Double-check the airline’s Basic Economy fare terms and ensure they’re ones you can live with before booking.  

Who Offers the Best Basic Economy Ticket?

It doesn’t matter which airline you fly with; rolling in Basic Economy, you should prepare for a no-frills experience. If your main concern is price, then the only thing that matters will be which airline has the cheapest fare for your flight route. 

However, if you want the most value for your money, the best Basic Economy ticket can be found flying with American Airlines. The two most notable drawbacks to American Airlines’ Basic Economy fare are the inability to make changes or cancellations and earning miles at a reduced rate. 

With that said, this isn’t much different from other airlines you could choose to fly. And while some don’t offer any upgrades or seat selection, American Airlines’s Basic Economy tickets include seat selection (for a fee), standby, upgrades for AAdvantage elites, and redeemable miles (earned at a reduced rate) along with a carry-on bag on all domestic flights and the addition of a checked bag on select international routes.

Who Offers the Best Main Cabin Ticket?

The best airline, and consequently the best Main Cabin ticket, is a subject of debate among travelers. Each will offer their reasons why they will only ever fly economy with a particular airline; most of it comes down to things like which has the best rewards program, the most legroom, etc. 

So, depending on what you prioritize when you travel, the best Main Cabin ticket may differ. 

For those who love earning points and getting the most value for their money, Alaska Airlines ranks again and again as the airline with the best rewards program. Meanwhile, if comfort is your most important factor, consider flying JetBlue for the most width and legroom in any Economy cabin in the US. And if you need enough space in your luggage to bring back plenty of souvenirs, Southwest will give you two complimentary checked bags on every flight.

Main cabin tickets may have more flexibility than Basic Economy, but they’re far from the most premium experience most major carriers offer. As a result, you’ll likely find tradeoffs with every airline, and the best Main Cabin ticket won’t be the same for everyone. 

Whether it’s rewards, comfort, or baggage, decide what’s most important to you, and you’ll find an airline that works best. 

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