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Airline classes are complicated. Here’s how to know which one you need.

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

I first knew something was amiss when I couldn’t choose a seat for a work trip to London. I checked around, then discovered the horror: I had unintentionally booked an international trip with a highly restrictive “basic economy” fare.

Ultimately, I paid extra to choose my seats and avoid the fate of spending nearly seven hours sandwiched in a middle seat. But that unpleasant surprise is becoming more frequent as airlines increasingly carve their cabins into smaller sections with varying perks.

Deciphering the language is no easy task. Depending on the airline, travelers might see fares called Saver, Blue Basic, Main Cabin, Comfort Plus, Premium Plus, Mint or Polaris. And even when fares are comparable, the details may vary slightly from carrier to carrier.

“It’s really, really confusing,” says Henry Harteveldt, a travel-industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group.

JetBlue enters the basic economy battle with a ‘humane’ take on budget fares

Almost all major U.S.-based airlines that aren’t ultra-low-cost carriers now sell a form of basic economy, as well as regular old economy (often with extra-legroom upgrades available). American, United and Delta offer “premium economy” sections on certain long-haul flights, a step up from standard coach seats. And in many cases, first class is actually going away in favor of high-end business class.

For consumers, the changes in recent years mean a new kind of vigilance is required to know what they’re getting into before they step on a plane. Want to bring carry-on luggage? Expecting to choose your seat? Want extra legroom? Read the fine print!

With that in mind, here’s an overview of the options travelers might find on most U.S. carriers, as well as who should choose — or avoid — each.

This is the cheapest, least flexible, unfriendliest option you can book. It comes with so many restrictions — no refunds, no changes, last to board — that airlines remind passengers what they’ll be missing out on if they book the ticket.

Seth Kaplan, an airline expert, says the message comes across as: “Are you sure you really want this? This terrible, awful thing that we happen to be selling?”

Not all basic economy is created equal. On United, for example, passengers can only bring a personal item that fits under the seat. Delta, American, Alaska, Hawaiian and JetBlue, on the other hand, allow a carry-on and personal item, though they don’t guarantee space in the overhead bin will be available by the time people board. Most airlines don’t let passengers in basic economy choose a seat until they check in or at all, though JetBlue allows travelers to pay a fee to choose their seat in advance.

Also known as: Saver on Alaska Airlines, Blue Basic on JetBlue, Main Cabin Basic on Hawaiian.

Who it’s for: Definitely not families who need to sit together; in most cases, passengers can’t be sure they’ll be in seats even near each other. This category is really for bargain hunters willing to sacrifice control and whose plans aren’t subject to change. They shouldn’t mind sitting in a middle seat or handing their bag over to be gate-checked if overhead compartments are full by the time they get onboard. Late airport arrivers are in good shape, because basic economy boards last.

Delta woos economy international passengers with free cocktails and actual place mats

Here we have the section most travelers will recognize, though not necessarily love. You can pick your seat, you can bring the standard carry-on bag and personal item, and you’ll board close to the end but not absolutely last.

There is a wrinkle, though: Several airlines now offer moderate upgrades in the standard economy cabin to sweeten the experience a little. Delta’s Comfort Plus boasts early boarding, dedicated overhead bin space, up to three more inches of legroom, booze on most flights and “premium” snacks and meals on long-haul international flights as well as some domestic flights. With Main Cabin Extra, American promises more room at the front of coach, early boarding and free beer, wine, spirits and snacks. United’s Economy Plus gets extra legroom, plus a seat closer to the front of the cabin. On Alaska Airlines, “premium class” includes four inches more of legroom, priority boarding and free alcoholic drinks.

Also known as: Blue on JetBlue and Main Cabin on Delta, American and Alaska.

Who it’s for: The Every-traveler who doesn’t need a lot of extras (but doesn’t want to be at the complete mercy of the airline). Families can swing this without worrying about getting split up. So can business travelers with skimpy expense accounts. And depending on the route, extra legroom upgrades can be a modest expense for a little more comfort — a perk worth considering even for those who aren’t big spenders.

A newer category in the United States, this isn’t available everywhere — generally just on select international routes. It’s a separate section of the cabin with cushier seats, better food, an expedited security process, priority boarding and other perks. These seats come with privilege, no doubt, but still carry the down-to-earth “economy” moniker.

“There’s just a population of people in the world who want something nicer than economy and are willing to pay, but can’t afford business class,” Kaplan says.

Also known as: Premium Select on Delta, Premium Plus on United.

Who it’s for: Some business travelers who will be able to get away with these. Leisure travelers who aren’t pinching pennies and value a more comfortable long-haul trip (but don’t want to splurge for the truly extravagant options) can find a happy medium here. And maybe royalty? Prince Harry, according to media reports, was spotted in a premium economy cabin on All Nippon Airways heading back to London from Japan this month.

Often, business class is the top-of-the-line option, but bear in mind that the international or cross-country experience will be better than on a shorter trip. Airlines really want to keep high rollers happy, so expect lie-flat seats, high-end food, comfy amenities, more attentive service and an all-around better experience. Prices are significantly higher than economy products.

Also known as: Mint on JetBlue, Delta One, Polaris on United

Who it’s for: Travelers who aren’t paying their own way or have lots of miles to redeem.

Would you pay more for extra legroom on your next flight?

Once the epitome of travel luxury, first class is becoming a little less aspirational these days.

“Business class got so nice, long-haul, that … a lot of airlines started getting rid of first class because nobody needed anything nicer than business class,” Kaplan says.

Delta, American and United all offer domestic first class, where you can expect wider seats, more legroom, priority boarding and better food. American has an international and cross-country product on certain aircraft called Flagship First that offers a lie-flat seat, “chef-inspired dining,” private check-in and more.

Who it’s for: More often, no one. What’s the point? Maybe if there’s no room left in business class, or if first class is a true bucket-list item, travelers will want to splurge on this.

This is actually an economy product only available on Air New Zealand, and technically it’s called “Economy Skycouch.” The product has earned the nickname “cuddle class” because it allows a row of three economy seats to be turned into a couch with an extra footrest that gives the cushion more room.

Who it’s for: Honeymooners, couples who want to snooze in close quarters, families with small kids who could use the space or solo travelers who want to stretch out across three seats.

Etihad Airways offers this three-room apartment on one type of aircraft to or from a handful of destinations. It comes with a private bedroom, living space, shower, in-flight butler and limo to the airport.

Who it’s for: Anyone who wants to fly in the comfort and privacy of their own three-room home. Or travelers who want a private-jet-like experience on the same plane as others who will be jealous of them.

Read more:

How to avoid basic economy class airfares

Champagne, duvets and a 180-degree seat: A frugal traveler’s introduction to first class

The Golden Age of airplane food is over. The future: Snacks and sustainability.