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Flying economy class? Make sure you know what "economy" means

The success of low-frills carriers like Southwest and Spirit shows many passengers are willing to sacrifice things like seat choice and carry-ons for a lower fare.

This year, American and United joined the trend by adding no-frills options to their economy class tickets. Delta started doing it more than a year ago. But many passengers are still catching on.

"People don't know what they're buying," said George Hobica, travel expert and founder of the travel blog and website airfarewatchdog.com.

Hobica said he's hearing from many passengers who've been caught off guard after buying economy class tickets that came with limitations they didn't expect.

"It's not obvious that you're buying a bare-bones economy fare that doesn't allow seat selection, that doesn't allow use of the overhead bin, and is not refundable at all," Hobica explained.

Hobica finds the degree of clarification you get depends on how you book your flight, and in some cases how much clicking you do online to find the fare descriptions. Third party websites and even some airline sites don't always make it immediately obvious.

"They just don't make it very clear," Hobica said.

Under the tiered economy fare model, you have multiple choices when you buy an economy seat.

With one economy fare you can choose your seat, and stow your carry-on. With a different economy fare you get extra leg room. Then there's the cheapest economy: no carry-on, less leg room, and no seat choice which means you probably get seated last and stuck in the middle. There's also no refund.

If you miss the fine print and take a carry-on, then learn your economy class seat is a no-frills economy ticket, be prepared for the gate agent to charge you to check your bag.

The added fees can make that cheap, non-refundable ticket more expensive than if you'd paid more in the first place.

"In many cases, you might as well just buy the regular economy fare," said Hobica.

Bottom line: Review all the fare categories before you commit to avoid pricey surprises at the airport.

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