Buying a transatlantic ticket is about to get complicated—here is your guide

Transatlantic fare war.
Transatlantic fare war.
Image: Reuters/Louis Nastro
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When it comes to booking an economy ticket for a transatlantic flight, the fine print is now more important than ever. Where once a traveler could expect a meal, a checked bag, and booking their preferred seat in advance as standard, the basic economy era is now upon us—and airlines are offering ever more fragmented ticketing options for long haul flights.

What this means for travelers, of course, is that the booking process requires even more attention to detail. Cheap fares abound, but so do tickets that might have you boarding last, in a middle seat, separated from your travel partner—and potentially with no meal, checked bag, or blanket to speak of. True, these new “baseline” fares might have you in the same seat type as a classic economy ticket, but it’s important to remember amenities matter a lot more on longer flights. The last thing you want is to board a long flight on a basic ticket unprepared.

If you’re using an online travel agent like Expedia or Priceline to search for flights, be particularly careful about booking the cheapest flight for your dates. The user interfaces of many aggregation and metasearch sites aren’t as clear on the specific ticket terms as airline websites are—and often just put the cheapest option up top. While fares for some of these flights have yet to be revealed, the short-haul basic fare for an airline like British Airways is, on average, 10-20% cheaper than the standard economy ticket.

Ahead of the April debut of many of these basic fare tickets, Quartzy has outlined some of the most important details by airline.

Norwegian & WOW air

Norwegian Air is known for proving the notion that travelers would tolerate a thoroughly “unbundled”—aka pay-for-what-you-use— service on long haul flights. Their cheapest economy ticket, known as LowFare, is among the most spartan of them all: it comes with a seat, a carry on bag and personal item (which must be a combined weight of 10kg, or 22lbs—and they’re known actually to weigh at check-in), and an in-flight entertainment system. Everything else including a checked bag, meal, drinks, and a specific seat reservation will cost you—either a la carte, or about $90 more for the lot per the LowFare+ option.

Low-cost long-haul competitor WOW Air has a similar, if even more stringent, setup. Their WOW Basic ticket is literally just a seat and a single cabin bag. Everything else will cost you. There’s also no entertainment on board, but they do give you the dignity of a charging port.

Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic is the latest to get on the great unbundling bandwagon. Starting in the spring, economy class will be split into three tiers, with the lowest called Economy Light. This new tier will be hand-baggage only, with no refunds and restricted changes to bookings, and no seat selection until check-in. You will, on the upside, still be entitled to meals, snacks, drinks, and in-flight entertainment (and an airline rep confirmed you can purchase a checked bag or seat reservation a la carte if, say, you are traveling back with more luggage than you flew out with). Meanwhile Economy Classic will remain the standard economy experience (including seat selection at booking and free checked bag), and Economy Delight will be offer more premium economy class with more legroom than a standard economy seat.

British Airways

British Airways has long had a basic option for its short-haul flights, but come April it will expand it to selected transatlantic routes. In a setup very similar to Virgin Atlantic’s (the two fierce competitors announced the change in the same week), BA’s basic economy fare will offer a hand-baggage only ticket—which includes a overhead bin bag and a personal item—but no seat reservation at booking. As with Virgin’s low-fare long-haul ticket, seat back entertainment and food and drink are included. A rep for BA wouldn’t confirm if a seat reservation or a checked bag could be added a la carte—without a full upgrade—as they can on Virgin’s basic fare.


Delta now has three economy class ticket types, with Basic Economy as its lowest-fare option. It offers you a seat in the usual economy cabin, but for flights departing on or after April 10th, charges passengers $60 for a checked bag for travel between the US and Europe. You will also receive your seat assignment after check-in—sometimes even at the gate—which means you’re more likely to get a middle seat on a packed flight and passengers traveling together won’t necessarily be seated together. There are also no upgrades (paid or complimentary), and no changes, refunds, or cancellations outside of Delta’s same-day Risk Free Cancellation policy. On the upside, you still get an entertainment system as well as complimentary headphones, amenity kits, meal, snacks, and drinks on long haul international flights only. (Delta’s domestic Basic Economy tickets differ).

American Airlines

Also starting in April, American Airlines will expand basic fare tickets to transatlantic flights (as partners in the OneWorld network, they are making the change in conjunction with British Airways). Baggage wise, ticket-holders get one personal item and one overhead bin carry on (unlike AA’s domestic basic economy, on which travelers are restricted to just a single under-seat item) and a fee will apply to any checked baggage. Unlike some competitors, passengers on AA’s transatlantic basic economy can purchase a seat reservation at any time prior to check-in, but passengers will board in group 8. The inflight experience—including meals, drinks, entertainment, and service—is the same as a standard economy ticket.

Air France/KLM

The two sister carriers—which operate in a partner network with Delta—will similarly expand their basic economy to transatlantic under their “light” fare in early April. Checked baggage is not included, nor is a seat reservation or the ability to change a booking. Checked luggage will cost €50 ($61).