Air Travel

Flying Basic Economy? You Might Not Earn Frequent Flier Miles

A guide to the major carriers that do and don't offer frequent flier miles in the bare-bones cabin class.
airplane in sunset sky international flight
Anya Berkut/Getty

While flying in the world’s best first or business class cabins is an experience worth splurging on, most travelers are looking for the cheapest airfare possible—usually, that's basic economy. And although some economy cabins are seeing improvements, it’s important to know that not all coach fares are created equally.

Basic economy is the newest fare class designed to compete with low-cost airlines by stripping away certain benefits that are traditionally bundled into a ticket. If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to get burned by one of these more restrictive fares, especially if you’re looking to plump up your mileage balance.

Some airlines are simply better than others when it comes to earning frequent flier miles on basic economy fares. Here’s what you need to know about earning airline miles in this bare-bones fare class on board the biggest U.S. carriers.

Airlines that offer ample miles in basic economy

On basic economy tickets, American Airlines still awards redeemable frequent flier miles based on a rate of five miles per dollar spent for fliers (and even more if you have elite status) as well as loyalty points that count toward achieving elite status. Frequent flier elite members and most American co-branded credit card holders are also eligible for their respective benefits including seat upgrades, priority boarding, and free checked bags with these fares.

Alaska Airlines’ MileagePlan remains a flier favorite since it awards redeemable miles based on distance flown as well as mileage toward elite status, even for its version of basic economy. As one of the newest members of the Oneworld alliance, it’s a great option if you’re looking to maximize mileage earning on inexpensive, long flights. Its basic economy tickets, dubbed Saver Fares, award redeemable and elite status-qualifying miles, but don’t include advance seat assignments or complimentary elite-status upgrades. Saver fares board last, too.

Making things easy, Southwest doesn’t have basic economy tickets, and even its cheapest fares come with a carry-on bag, two free checked bags, and the ability to choose any seat once you board. You’ll earn at least six Rapid Rewards points for every dollar spent, and this counts toward A-List elite status.

You’ll earn some basic economy miles with these airlines, but…

United continues to treat its basic economy fares in the same manner as other tickets when it comes to earning MileagePlus redeemable and status-qualifying miles. While you won’t be able to bring on a bag that fits in the overhead bin (only bags that fit underneath the seat in front of you are allowed, except for elite status members or any passenger on United flights to Europe), you’ll still earn Premier Qualifying Points (PQP) toward status, but not Premier Qualifying Flights (PQF). United has a caveat that you must fly at least four flights to be eligible for any elite status level, but basic economy tickets do not count toward that four-flight minimum. Additionally, you won’t be able to check in online since the airport agents will want to make sure you don’t sneak on a carry-on bag that’s too big, and elite status members cannot take advantage of most of their benefits.

JetBlue awards just a third of the TrueBlue points that you would normally earn on its Blue Basic (basic economy) fares, and you still cannot bring a carry-on bag unless traveling to or from London or if you have Mosaic elite status. Seats cannot be assigned in advance until the check-in window opens.

When it comes to overseas airline programs, many major programs like Air France-KLM’s Flying Blue, Lufthansa Group’s Mileage & More, and Avios from IAG (Aer Lingus, British Airways and Iberia) award redeemable and some amount of elite status-qualifying miles on basic economy tickets. Still, they have plenty of other restrictions like change fees, no advance seat assignments, and baggage limits.

You won’t earn any miles in basic economy with this major airline

Delta Air Lines was one of the first to nix mileage earning on its basic economy fares. As of this year, basic economy tickets are not eligible for mileage earning. Previously, general members without Medallion status earned five SkyMiles per dollar spent (and years ago, you earned miles based on distance flown). You won’t even be able to inch toward elite status since these fares don’t earn the airline’s necessary Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs), Medallion Qualifying Segments (MQS) or Medallion Qualifying Dollars (MQDs) that you’d need.

These fares are very restrictive and do not permit advance seat assignments, Medallion elite status upgrades, or ticket changes—although you can bring a carry-on bag. Delta, ever the innovator, may not award the elite status-qualifying miles you need on basic economy tickets, but if you pay even less (by redeeming SkyMiles for a frequent flier award ticket on Delta), those tickets now count toward achieving elite status. Go figure. 

When flying a basic economy fare, it’s important to know the restrictions and mileage-earning policies. In many instances—including when flying with bags or with companions you want to sit next to—it is worth spending more for a ticket in the next fare class.