Determining whether the cheapest plane tickets are worth the savings

Are basic economy or “saver” tickets really worth the cost savings?

There’s a little mix of math and magic that goes on each time I buy an airline ticket.

I always try to seek out the lowest fare for a particular route, then make my plans accordingly. Lately, there has been an abundance of cheap fares, both domestically and internationally. In fact, there’s a new crop I can share with you today.

But airlines are turning up the heat to coax travelers into paying more for tickets to accommodate pre-reserved seats, access to overhead bin space, carry-on luggage, frequent-flyer perks and upgrades. Instead of basic economy or saver, it’s more appropriate to refer to the cheapest of the cheap tickets as “economy-minus.”

This week, Delta Air Lines ramped up its war on basic economy travelers. If you buy the cheapest of the cheap seats, you no longer will earn frequent flyer “SkyMiles” credit.

But because of the way Delta calculates SkyMiles, it’s not like you’re losing out on that many miles.

[Rick Steves is ready to talk travel again]

Unlike Alaska Airlines, Delta calculates SkyMiles based on the amount of money you spend for the ticket, instead of how many miles you fly.

Between Anchorage and Seattle next month, the cheapest basic economy ticket costs $67 one-way. Again, with the economy-minus treatment, there are no advanced seat assignments available. You’re the last to board, so the overhead bins may be full. After Jan. 1, you won’t earn mileage credit. It’s truly a “last class” experience.

If the miles are important to you, upgrade to a main cabin fare for an extra $25 one-way. The seat and the legroom are the same. And you’ll earn a whopping 69 SkyMiles. If you pay with a Delta American Express card, you’ll earn double miles, based on the dollars you spend, whatever kind of ticket you buy.

The magic part of my personal airfare calculus is that somehow I can outsmart or at least nudge the algorithm to secure some sort of upgrade to a seat with more legroom.

If you are a SkyMiles member and have an Alaska address, you can check two bags for free between now and April 30, to or from the Lower 48. That’s true even if you pick the cheapest tickets.

How much does it cost to get out of basic economy into the mileage-earning, reserved-seat-eligible main cabin? Well, that varies by route and by flight.

Between Anchorage and Seattle on Jan. 19, it’s an extra $25 each way. If you want some extra legroom, a “Comfort+” seat costs $137 each way. That’s double the cost of a basic economy ticket. First class tickets start at $267 each way.

Between Anchorage and New York/LaGuardia or New York/Newark, a basic economy ticket costs $139 each way in mid-January. A main cabin ticket costs an additional $25 each way.

Flying from Anchorage to Eugene, Oregon, the difference between basic economy and main cabin is $32 one-way. Between Anchorage and Jackson, Mississippi, the difference is $50 each way.

If you’re flying internationally on Delta, the calculus changes a little bit. That’s because getting a main cabin seat also includes one checked bag. Delta’s “two free bags” for Alaskans only applies to tickets between Alaska and the Lower 48.

On international itineraries, bag fees can be expensive. For example, between Anchorage and Madrid is $75 for the first bag. But if you choose a main ticket for an extra $150, your first checked bag is included, along with SkyMiles credit and pre-reserved seating.

At this time, other airlines including Alaska Airlines and United Airlines have made no announcements that they plan to copy Delta’s scheme. But they might.

If you’re planning to fly to Europe in January, February or March, prices are really cheap. That holds true even if you’re flying to far-flung destinations like Budapest, Kyiv or Athens.

United has a couple of good deals to Europe: tickets to Dublin, Lisbon and Paris for between $580 and $600 round-trip in basic economy. If you’re flying on the cheap with United, you cannot even take a regular roll-aboard suitcase with you in the cabin. United won’t let you use online check-in if you have basic economy. Rather, they want to put eyes on you at the airport to make sure you’re not trying to take a bag with you. They will charge you.

The best deals to the rest of Europe, from Madrid to Warsaw, are on Delta. But United’s prices are similar — usually within $50 round-trip. Today, for most destinations, the difference between basic and main economy is about $150. That price can and does change, depending on the routing and demand.

The upgrade to Comfort+ can be an extra $150-$300 round-trip. Keep in mind that Delta has SkyTeam partners like Air France, KLM and Virgin Atlantic. If you opt for a Comfort+ seat, you may end up in regular economy on the partner carriers. The same is true with United and its partners Air Canada and Lufthansa.

A whole bunch of my favorite European destinations are on sale right now for $550-$600 round-trip in basic economy. That includes destinations in Spain and Italy, Copenhagen, Tunis (technically in Africa), Vienna, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Brussels, Paris and Prague, among others. When I checked last week, the sale prices were good only in January and February. Today, some of these sale prices stretch into early April.

If you’re traveling internationally, there are several considerations as the new omicron COVID-19 variant makes its way through the world.

First, the federal mask mandate on airplanes, buses and trains has been extended through March 18.

Second, travelers returning to the US from foreign countries must get tested within one day of their return flight. Finding a reliable, affordable test within that window could prove difficult and expensive, depending on where you are in the world. You may want to consider taking some portable tests with you to self-administer. Companies like eMed will sell you a six-pack of the tests for $150. The cost includes a telehealth appointment, which you must have to get a successful test that border agents will accept. Right now, those tests only are valid through Feb. 1. There likely will be other take-along tests that are valid during the spring and summer.

So, in addition to getting a test, it’s important to consider where you plan to catch your flight back to the US Depending on your test result prior to departure, you may end up spending a couple of extra weeks in quarantine.

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