Ugh: Basic Economy Comes To Alaska Airlines

by Chris Dong

Starting today, Alaska Airlines customers will be subject to the annoyance of basic economy fares that previously only plagued the airline’s competitors. The new fare to beware of is called “Saver,” and it actually isn’t as bad as some of its cousins.

Alaska is among the last major North American airlines (besides Southwest and JetBlue) to introduce a reduced service fare. The introduction of basic economy in recent years has added a new layer of price discrimination between business travelers and casual leisure travelers, allowing carriers to advertise fares that are closer to ultra-low-cost airlines while compelling business travelers to pay up (or else).

A leisure traveler might be willing to sacrifice comforts like seat selection and overhead bin access, but many employers have at least some respect for their workers while on the clock, and would pay up to a normal economy fare. More critically, airlines block elite frequent flyer benefits, like upgrades and bonuses, on basic economy tickets, pushing elite frequent flyers to pay up to a higher fare.

Since its acquisition of Virgin America a few years back, Alaska Airlines’ has felt heat from investors to increase fare and ancillary revenue on par with its larger competitors. However, today, Alaska released final details about what this basic economy fare would include. It also began selling saver tickets on for flights departing in January 2019.

The Details About Alaska’s “Saver Fares”

Alaska Airlines EasyBiz business frequent flyer program

Say goodbye to upgrades if you’re an elite and buy “Saver”

The Good News

First, the good news. Alaska’s “Saver Fare” is definitely less restrictive than the basic economy fare of either Delta, United, or American. This includes full Mileage Plan earning (1 mile flown = 1 mile earned), a full-size carry-on allowed, and online seat selection (albeit more limited than Main fares).

The Bad News

Alaska is very transparent about the restrictions on its Saver fare and lists them out on its website in full.

These restrictions include:

  • Limited seating may be available at the time of purchase. Most seats will be assigned at check-in.
  • We can’t guarantee that parties of two or more will be seated together.
  • No refunds are allowed beyond the first 24 hours after ticketing.
  • No changes, including same-day confirmed changes, are allowed for Saver fares.
  • No standby is allowed for Saver fares, even for elite status guests.
  • If a guest is a no-show for any flight during a trip, all other flights within that trip are automatically canceled, with no refund available.
  • Saver fares cannot be combined with any other fare types on the same itinerary.
  • Saver fares are non-transferable.

Similar to its larger competitors, the only elite benefits recognized are boarding status and checked bag fee waivers. While elites can’t be auto-upgraded, Saver fare customers can still purchase an upgrade online to Premium (extra-legroom economy) and to First Class at the airport (pending availability). Same-day confirmed flight changes are also scrapped.

This is the full list comparing the new Saver fare, Main fare, and First Class.

The Ugly News

Airlines like to say basic economy (or “Saver” in this case Alaska) gives customers more choice. Sure it does, but it also comes at the cost of increasing the fare for a normal economy ticket. Let’s look at a quick example.

I searched for fares between Seattle and the Bay Area in February to see what Saver fares would look like. Most of the results weren’t yet available in Saver (the N/A box), but I noted the pricing.

Pricing for a flight between Seattle and Oakland on February 12th…

Less than 12 hours later, I searched again for the same flights. Lo and behold, Alaska loaded more Saver fares. And guess what? “Saver” didn’t lower the fare, it just made the Main fare (normal economy) more expensive by $30. That folks, is price discrimination.

A Commitment To Customer Service (And A Jab At American?)

While Alaska isn’t known for the most modern cabin amenities, the airline does have a reputation for great customer service. In a likely jab at airlines like American, which announced that basic economy passengers are last in line for help during flight disruptions, Alaska included this FAQ:

What happens if I’m flying on a Saver fare and my flight is delayed or canceled?

If your flight is delayed or canceled, you will be provided the same choices as a guest on a Main fare. See our customer service commitment for more details.

The Upshot

Note Alaska’s branding—not once is the phrase “basic economy” used. For everyone in the know, that’s still exactly what Saver fares are. Basic economy is generally loathed, but Alaska does seem to have done a decent job in making its version not quite as terrible as the competition. However, like the other airlines its following, Alaska’s new fare class just increases the normal economy fare. Pay the same and get less or pay more and get the same as you do now. Great.

Next up, I’m curious to see how JetBlue plans to implement its basic economy. Stay tuned, and get used to paying extra to enjoy the basic comforts of today. Puke (again).

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Bill Shuman November 21, 2018 - 12:23 pm

Chris, nice article. Hate that airlines keep doing this and now charging more for bags. I was glad that Alaska was holding out. Any idea how this is impacting points bookings?

747always November 27, 2018 - 9:20 pm

I think its only fair to have this. Most flyers buy on price and price alone. Basic economy takes care of that, while allowing the airline to earn a slight premium for those who want benefits and flexibility. I fly for vacations only twice a year, but happily book a higher fare class to ensure refundable cancellations

Robert February 21, 2019 - 10:56 am

But look at the example above. The new fare class didn’t introduce cheaper seats with fewer features. They’re the same price seats with fewer features, and the fares with the “benefits and flexibility” we already had are now more expensive.

Mike December 23, 2018 - 10:24 pm

This sucks so much. I have been flying on them twice weekly, and made the choice to go with them instead of Southwest due to being able to choose seats… I finally have status, and they want to charge me an extra $40 per flight… Helloooo southwest.

John Harper December 27, 2018 - 11:51 pm

I’d take a chance at the comp upgrades.

Sergey January 17, 2019 - 1:07 am

seems like they are just playing a game, so tickets look cheap when you search for them. I fly with kids, and I need to know I am seated together, I do not care about other silly upgrades they offer when you use “main”. Now I have to filter remove alaska from search even though they appear cheap in search results. This is very annoying, please stop doing this.

Mary April 4, 2019 - 2:32 am

Seat selection should NOT be an upgrade. It doesn’t cost the airline more money when people are selecting available economy section seats on their computer when they purchase their tickets. It’s a scam. Southwest may not include seat selection at purchase but at least you can select it when you baoard. And their luggage deal can’t be beat. And they finally have direct flights to SAN. No brainer.


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