American Airlines Main Cabin: What to Know - NerdWallet (2022)

Long gone are the days of airlines simply selling "economy" tickets. American Airlines is one of many airlines that sells seats in its economy cabin through a variety of ticket types — from basic economy to Main Cabin Extra and now even Main Plus. What was previously referred to as "economy" is now dubbed American Airlines main cabin.

What's even more confusing, potentially, is that basic economy tickets, main cabin tickets, Main Cabin Extra and Main Plus tickets are all located in the same cabin on the aircraft: main cabin.

Here's what you need to know to determine whether main cabin is the right type of ticket for your next American Airlines flight.

What is main cabin on American Airlines?

American Airlines Main Cabin: What to Know - NerdWallet (1)

American Airlines refers to its standard economy class product as main cabin. American Airlines main cabin ticket experience falls in between American Airlines' basic economy and Main Cabin Extra — which is an extra-legroom seat that includes perks like early boarding and a complimentary alcoholic drink.

» Learn more: American Airlines boarding groups and how you can upgrade

What to expect flying American Airlines main cabin

American Airlines main cabin is your typical airline economy experience, which includes:

  • Seats with modest legroom.

  • No charge for a seat selection.

  • Ability to carry on a full-size bag plus a personal item.

  • Complimentary drinks and snacks.

Seats: Main cabin seats are arranged with 30 to 32 inches of pitch, depending on the aircraft type. That's not spacious by any means, but it's a couple more inches of legroom than the 28 inches of pitch you'll find on Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines. If you need more legroom, consider purchasing a Main Cabin Extra seat for 3-5 inches of extra legroom — depending on the aircraft type.

Food and drink: On domestic flights longer than 250 miles, American Airlines main cabin passengers get a choice of complimentary non-alcoholic drink and a small snack of cookies or pretzels. Main cabin passengers on select coast-to-coast flights get a complimentary meal. And you'll get a complimentary meal, beer, wine and spirits on select Hawaii and long-haul international flights.

Boarding: Passengers with main cabin tickets generally board during Group 7 or 8. You can boost your boarding group to Group 6 just by being an AAdvantage member. Or, upgrade your boarding group further by being an AAdvantage elite member or credit card holder.

» Learn more: The best airline credit cards right now

How to book American Airlines main cabin

American Airlines main cabin tickets can be purchased directly through the American Airlines website. You can start your flight search right on the homepage. Depending on which route you search, American Airlines will show between two and five different price options for each flight. While the other cabin options may vary, there should always be a "Main Cabin" option.

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Start by selecting the “Main Cabin” price. You'll then need to run through a gauntlet of pop-ups and upsells — from first class upgrades to converting your ticket to being refundable. Then, you'll get a chance to select your seat and pay for your ticket.

American Airlines Main Cabin: What to Know - NerdWallet (3)

If booking through an online travel agency or travel card booking portal, the branding may vary. However, you will likely book an American Airlines main cabin ticket if you avoid tickets labeled "basic economy."

» Learn more: How to make the most of basic economy on American

Is main cabin worth it?

American Airlines' basic economy isn't as uncomfortable as it has been in the past. But, it may still be worth paying extra to book a main cabin ticket instead of a basic economy ticket on American.

The main benefit of booking main cabin instead of basic economy is the ability to change your flight after booking. Basic economy tickets aren't eligible for changes. However, American Airlines main cabin tickets can be changed or canceled — generally without a fee.

American Airlines Main Cabin: What to Know - NerdWallet (4)

While basic economy tickets don't include free seat selection, main cabin passengers can select standard seats for free. They also get a slight discount when purchasing Preferred or Main Cabin Extra seats.

» Learn more: How to save money on American Airlines flights

The last aspect comes down to when you board. Basic economy passengers board in the last boarding group. By that point, the overhead bins might be full and you might have to gate-check your carry-on bag. To have a better chance of carrying on your bag, consider booking a main cabin ticket instead so you can board earlier.

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However, the biggest factor in determining whether or not main cabin is worth it is the price difference. In the example above, American only charges $10 more for main cabin than for basic economy.

This price difference is almost certainly worth it for the flexibility to change your flight, select your seat and avoid boarding last.

» Learn more: American Airlines main cabin vs. basic economy

Ways to get good value

As with any airline tickets, the way to get the best value out of American Airlines main cabin tickets is to be flexible and avoid peak travel dates and holiday periods. However, there are some additional ways to save on these tickets.

Book early and check for price drops

In 2020, American Airlines eliminated change fees on most main cabin tickets. Now, you can change flights, dates or even cancel your flight entirely without having to pay a fee. That unlocks the ability to book early and then watch for price drops.

If you see the price of your flight drop, you can change your flight and capture the price difference as a travel credit.

» Learn more: How to rebook and save when American Airlines prices drop

Use AAdvantage miles

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By being flexible and booking early, you can get excellent mileage rates on American Airlines main cabin through AAdvantage Web Special awards. At the time of writing, we are finding domestic awards pricing as low as 6,000 AAdvantage miles each way — even on a long route from Atlanta to Los Angeles.

» Learn more: The best American Airlines credit cards

Redeem partner miles

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Experienced points and miles collectors know that sometimes the best way to get good value on American Airlines is to book via an American Airlines partner.

For example, MileSAAver awards to the Bahamas or the Caribbean in American Airlines main cabin cost 15,000 AAdvantage miles each way. However, you may be able to book American flights to the Bahamas or Caribbean for 7,500 Avios — such as Charlotte, North Carolina to Marsh Harbor, Bahamas.

» Learn more: Is American Airlines a good airline?

American Airlines main cabin, recapped

American Airlines main cabin is the standard economy product at the world's largest airline. Main cabin isn't always the cheapest way to fly on American Airlines — as you may be able to save by booking a basic economy ticket. However, it might be worth paying a little more to get the flexibility to change or cancel your flight, select your seat and avoid being in the last boarding group.

If you're looking for more legroom, earlier boarding or perks like a free drink, consider paying a little more for a Main Cabin Extra seat instead.

Photo courtesy of American Airlines.

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