You’ve seen those mysterious airline fares—you know, the economy tickets that can cost as much as 10 times as the cheapest fare. Who in their right mind is going to pay that, you ask? Well, you would be surprised.
Buying an airline ticket can be a confusing process, made even more confusing by the recent introduction of basic economy fares from the big three legacy airlines. And if you have ever tried to change a ticket more than 24 hours after purchasing it (you knew you could do that for free within 24 hours from U.S. travel sites, right?), there are some big fees that can stand in your way. You may be charged as much as $400 to change an international ticket—not to mention the cost of the difference in airfare for your new departure date.
There is no cheap way to avoid these fees. If your plans are apt to change, however, it might be worth considering flexible airline tickets, which all airlines offer (although they may have different names). But sometimes, flexibility isn’t the only thing that comes with these tickets. Let’s examine if a full-fare ticket might work for you on your next trip.
Here's who's usually buying those flexible full-fare tickets
Corporate travelers are the primary audience for these types of pricey tickets, which come with much greater flexibility, allowing date and time changes without penalty. Large companies often have negotiated contracts with the airlines, which give them a discount on air travel as well as increased flexibility. Sometimes, these companies even agree to only purchase unrestricted, flexible tickets as part of the discounted agreement.
Fully refundable tickets also negate the need to purchase travel insurance on your airfare. As individuals, we are not afforded the same privileges as large corporations, but there are great ways to double dip as a frequent flier.
Are they a good deal?
You might need to get a calculator to determine if these fares are worth it; if you do your homework and you’re paying from your own wallet, you can usually score a better deal. Airlines operate on razor-thin margins, and typically their profit only comes from a handful of travelers who are paying these most expensive fares (and it doesn’t necessarily mean they are sitting in first class). If you think your plans might change, add up the cost of the cheap fare you bought and any potential change fees; sometimes, you can just trash your cheap ticket and buy a new one if that works out to be less expensive.
Occasionally, the difference between the cheapest ticket and the most flexible ticket may not be that great, and it might be worth it if you think you might need to change or cancel a ticket. In addition to greater flexibility, these tickets sometimes come with perks like a bonus in mileage earning and even the occasional upgrade.
You read that right: Sometimes, if you buy a flexible economy-class ticket, you can get a free upgrade to first class. These are called Y-UP fares in the industry and are actually expensive economy-class tickets that can automatically clear you into a first-class seat. This means that if you have to change your ticket, you might be put back in economy (since that’s the fare that you paid), but if you can score a Y-UP ticket, it can be a pleasant surprise. There is no easy way to search for these, and they often appear as discounted first-class tickets when you search for airfare. Just like economy tickets, first-class fares come in refundable and flexible or nonrefundable versions.
Another way these can be beneficial is if you are short on requalifying for elite status. These fares often come with more miles that count toward status. In a last-ditch effort to requalify at the end of the year, these can be a good, albeit pricey, solution.
Don’t forget about basic economy fares
Legacy airlines like American, Delta, and United have rolled out a new fare class known as basic economy. These are the exact opposite of a flexible economy ticket because they come with a slew of restrictions (no flight changes, no seat assignments, no upgrades, and in the case of United, restrictions on carry-on bags). Airlines introduced these due to the growing competition from low-cost airlines like Allegiant and Frontier, but they didn’t really lower airfare any further. On the contrary, to get the same perks you had before, you have to buy a higher fare class unless you want to risk being stuck in the middle seat.
While flexible economy may be the fare class that you almost never book, it pays to know what it is and when it can come in handy. In short: If you don’t work for a company that buys your airfare, this price may be out of reasonable reach for many. Of course, there’s always Southwest Airlines, which continues to win flyers over by not charging ticket change fees at all, even on its cheapest fares (you just pay the difference in price)!