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Everything You Need to Know About United Basic Economy

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Basic economy fares have reshaped travel, as airlines charge travelers more for what they once got for free. And United basic economy fares are easily among the worst.

United has the single most-punitive restriction for basic economy flyers, so it pays to be hyper-vigilant about what you get and what you don't. We gave it the lowest score in our battle of basic economy that compared all three major U.S. airlines – and it wasn't particularly close.

But why is it so bad? What do you get, and what don't you get? And how can you make United basic economy a little less painful? Let's break it down.



What is United Basic Economy?

United basic economy is much like a basic economy ticket on any other U.S. carrier: It's the airline's cheapest fare.

And while it gets you the same standard economy seat and experience once you get on the plane, it's loaded with restrictions that can make it more painful.

There's no way to spin this one: United has some of the worst basic economy fares out there of any major U.S. airline.

  • Baggage: Get a personal item for free; pay at least $35 each way for a checked bag (or $75 each way to Europe). No carry-ons allowed unless flying to Europe.
  • Seat Selection: Available for a fee, typically starting at $10. Otherwise, seats are automatically assigned.
  • Boarding: Boards the plane last in the final boarding group.
  • Earning United MileagePlus Miles: Yes, you'll earn redeemable United miles based upon the price of your ticket. 
  • Earning Status: You’ll earn Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) but not Premier Qualifying Flights (PQFs) toward status with United.
  • Upgrades: Not eligible for complimentary upgrades with United status, nor can you pay for an extra legroom Economy Plus seat.
  • Ticket Changes and Cancellation: No free change or cancellation is allowed except within 24 hours of booking. Otherwise, you can cancel a domestic roundtrip for a voucher minus a $99 fee – or $199 for an international roundtrip ticket.


united basic economy restrictions


United's basic economy fares are easily the worst among the major U.S. airlines. And there are no signs that it will get any better.

Unless if you're flying to Europe or other long-haul destinations, you won't get a carry-on bag. That alone is proof that United is hoping to force flyers to pay up for a main cabin economy fare – generally another $70 to $80 or more on a roundtrip ticket within the U.S. … and a whopping $200 over to Europe and back. Only JetBlue with its Blue Basic fares has matched this punitive policy.

These fares are a huge cash cow for United and other airlines. And unfortunately, basic economy fares are generally priced at what main cabin fares once were. On United and other airlines, you're paying the same amount but getting less with basic economy.

Read more: No, You're Not Getting a Good Deal on a Basic Economy Fare

One saving grace of United basic economy? Unlike Delta basic economy, you'll still earn both redeemable United MileagePlus miles and at least some credits toward United elite status. After a brutal change in late 2021, you no longer earn either with Delta.

Still, a few things about these fares are worth highlighting even further – some good, but mostly bad.


Basic Economy is Strict with Carry-Ons

Let's start with the bad news: No carry-ons.

Unless you're flying across the Atlantic Ocean or to another long-haul international destination, all you get is a small personal item like a backpack when flying. And United executives say they have no plans to change this, even as both Delta and American allow carry-ons for all basic economy passengers. It's the most restrictive fare for the airline and the harshest measure of any basic economy fare in the U.S.

And that comes with a double whammy…


No Online Check-In, Either

Because you can't bring a carry-on bag onboard, you have to finalize checking in for your flight at the airport. Yes, that's right: No online check-in when flying United basic economy.


united basic economy check in


Some travelers who purchase basic economy might be able to check in online if they're also checking a bag. But that's a moot point: You'll have to go to the desk at the airport to check your bag, regardless.

Read more about checking in online with United!


Pay Up For Seats

If there's one upside to United basic economy, it's the ability to pay for a seat assignment.

The window to pay up for seat selection opens right when you book your flight – earlier than you'll find on many airlines. And the price is often right: We've seen seat selection fees as low as $8 to $10 a seat. Generally, seats toward the back of the plane are the cheapest. And a middle seat will almost always cost you less than an aisle or window.


What Routes Have United Basic Economy Fares?

Right now, United Basic Economy has been rolled out on all routes heading to the following locations:

  • U.S. Domestic Flights
  • Mexico and Central America
  • The Caribbean
  • South America
  • Europe
  • Australia
  • Asia

That's right: Practically every single route in United's network features basic economy at the starting point. Even ultra-long-haul flights to Singapore (SIN) and Sydney (SYD) have basic economy, though you can at least bring a carry-on bag and also get a free checked bag with these fares.


How to Beat United Basic Economy

There are no two ways about it: Flying on a United basic economy ticket can be a drag. Luckily, there are a few ways you can make it a little less painful.


Get Some Perks Back with a United Credit Card

The easiest way to beat some of these restrictions is by holding one of United's co-branded credit cards like the *united explorer card*.

Among the other benefits of the card, you'll be able to bring on carry-on luggage – as will any other travelers booked on your itinerary. You'll also get a checked bag for free, as will one companion else booked on your reservation.

Read more on United Airlines baggage fees!

And you'll also all get priority boarding – a significant improvement, considering United basic economy flyers typically board last.

But there's one catch: You have to pay for your ticket with the United Explorer card in order to get those benefits. It's one of the few airline credit cards that require you to pay with the card in order to get the perks.


*united explorer card*


Learn more about the *united explorer card*


Avoid a Dreaded Middle Seat Selection

On paper, you don't get to select your seat with a United basic economy fare. But in practice, that's not quite true.

United sells seat selection to basic economy flyers for an additional fee. The window to pay up for a seat assignment is open from the moment you buy your ticket. Better yet, the fees are typically quite reasonable.

Just be warned: United may try to sell you a “bundle” with seat assignment. These typically aren't a good deal – you can buy it later for much cheaper.


united basic economy seat


So just click past it and proceed through checkout and you'll get the option to pay for a seat a la carte. Take a look at the seat map for an upcoming flight from Houston-Intercontinental (IAH) to Washington, D.C.-Dulles (IAD), and you'll see that a window seat starts at just $13. A preferred seat towards the front of the cabin, meanwhile, is $27 per passenger.


united basic economy seat


The price will vary from flight to flight, but those rates are about average. Expect to pay $10 to $20 per seat. But keep in mind: That's a per-segment cost. So you'll have to pay double for a round-trip flight – and even more if your flight isn't nonstop.

If you want to make sure you get a certain seat, you're better off paying for an assignment right away. Not only will the number of available seats shrink as your departure approaches, but the price for a seat will likely increase, too. No matter what, you won't be able to upgrade from basic economy to an economy plus or first class seat.

And Unlike with Delta, you can't move around the cabin to get an available seat for free after the 24-hour check-in window opens when flying basic economy with United. But the ability to pay for a seat from day one is unrivaled.

That brings up an important point: You need to do the math on whether it makes sense to go for basic economy and add extra costs compared to buying a more-inclusive main cabin economy fare outright. 

If a main cabin fare costs an additional $70 or more roundtrip, going for a cheaper United basic economy fare could make sense. But if that upgrade fee is just $20 – as we've seen is commonplace throughout much of the pandemic – paying up for main cabin is probably worth it.


United Economy vs. Basic Economy

What's the Difference Between Basic Economy and Economy on United?

The names may sound similar, but make no mistake: These two types of airfare are not the same. And too many United Airlines flyers find that out the hard way.

Comparing United basic economy vs economy boils down to one simple fact: United's basic economy tickets have fewer perks compared to a main cabin economy fare. 

One major – and painful – difference is that with a United basic economy ticket, passengers are given a much smaller baggage allowance. Flyers with a basic economy ticket are not permitted to put a carry-on in the overhead bin – they're limited to one small personal item underneath the seat. With a normal economy fare, you can bring a normal carry-on bag onboard. 

Because of that, basic economy passengers cannot check in online or using the United app. Basic economy passengers can only check in at the airline's counter at the airport. You also can't pick a seat for free with a United basic economy ticket, while you can with a standard economy fare.

One last notable difference comparing United basic economy vs economy comes with earning status with United. With a basic economy fare, you'll earn half the credits toward MileagePlus status as you do with a normal economy ticket: You earn Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) but not Premier Qualifying Flights (PQFs).

And you won't be eligible for complimentary upgrades, either.


What Does United Economy Include?

United Economy is your standard airline fare, and it's typically more expensive than the basic economy fare. Here’s a summary of what United Economy includes:

  • Includes a carry-on 22 inches by 14 inches by 9 inches
  • Choose your seat for free (though some preferred seats at the front of the cabin or with extra legroom will cost you more)
  • Boarding group 3-5
  • Change your tickets for free or cancel for a credit
  • Ability to upgrade to Economy Plus seats with extra legroom or First Class
  • Able to check-in on the website online or via the United app


What Does United Basic Economy Include?

Along with some noticeable restrictions, here’s a final quick summary of what United Basic Economy includes:

  • Only one personal item (sized 17 inches by 10 inches by 9 inches) allowed
  • Can’t upgrade to Economy Plus or First Class
  • Seats are automatically assigned at check-in, or you can pay extra for a seat assignment
  • Last boarding group
  • Flights can be canceled for a voucher minus a $99 fee on domestic roundtrips (or $199 for long-haul international)
  • Unable to check-in online or via the app unless you pay for checked luggage


Bottom Line

There's no doubt about it: United basic economy fares are a pain. And given how much money the airline makes on them, they're not going away anytime soon.

They're among the most restrictive fares you'll find in the skies. While almost every other airline allows you to bring a carry-on bag while flying basic economy, United does not. And that means you can't check in online, either.

On the plus side, seat selection fees are often more than reasonable if you don't want to get stuck in a middle seat. And carrying a United co-branded credit card can make a lot of the pain of basic economy fade away.


Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

23 Responses

  • Delta offers the ability to pay for a seat assignment on basic economy now too. Up to 24 hours before departure. Flew basic just yesterday PHX MSP and received an email two days before departure with the option to buy a seat assignment. Was only $20.

    • I just flew united basic economy and you are allowed to do online check in. It states you might have to wait to get assigned a seat at the airport but only one flight out of four didn’t give me a seat assignment till 2 hours before flight. Also they stated a very specific size bag that can go on and my backpack was bigger than stated but had no problem bringing it on.

  • I purchased basic economy ticked from Poland to Newark NJ with the United Explorer Card. I was wondering if theres any chance to get an upgrade at the boarding counter or just pay for the upgrade on the united.com website. Anybody had luck getting the upgrade at the boarding counter?

  • I purchased a United basic economy fare, not aware of carry-on restriction. I never heard of such a thing. Big rip off by United. I won’t be fooled into flying this airline again.

  • I have realized that buying UA basic economy fare charges for carryon. I got going to chicago tickets one way was AA with free carryon then coming back was UA and I have to pay for it! Learned it the hard way, did not save at all!

  • Just got taken in by the basic economy fare. Wish I had read your excellent post first! (Since when did one of the major non-economy airlines start charging for carry-on’s!?!). There’s a reason I never liked United — and now there are more reasons.

  • With basic fare ( we the poor ) can’t check in and can’t have a carry on lane. Why even bother sending emails, txt message etc to check in if it’s not possible? They found a way to make more money. Next thing you won’t be able to arrive early to airport unless you pay an extra fee.

    • You can check in online if you check a bag. He didn’t mention that at first. I don’t think Basic Economy is that bad honestly. I’m saving $100 for my flight AND I’m checking two bags. But it’s a lot of math and calculations if you have the time.

      • Would love to benefit from your math and calculations. I have the time and would love to be able to check a bag while flying basic economy.

  • Just a heads up, as much as I’ve discovered that United basic economy purchasers are definitely shamed from United by making it the most restrictive ticket you can buy(like n intentional way to hit you with fees after saving on your ticket while also making sure you feel poor and humiliated on the way)- not allowing seat choice, not any single carry on except 1 purse etc, last to board so everyone knows you got a cheap ticket, and not allowing families or groups to sit together- one correction to your article is that I was able to check in online ahead of time. If your checking luggage you can then check in online, but I believe without luggage you cannot. Not sure where people are traveling with no carry on or checked bags so most people will be able to check in online and avoid doing it in person at the airport.

  • I fly United basic economy often. Also charge the trip on the United card. Not really a problem for me. Get my free carry-on, priority boarding and am rarely assigned a middle seat. Always able to check in on the app 24 hours before the flight. And when I do I can change my seat for free on the app. But you have to be quick. Not to a great seat but can occasionally move to an aisle or window seat or up a few rows. still stuck in row 31 or above, but it works for me.

  • I booked a Basic Economy flight from Boston to Denver and then later paid for a seat choice. I am not sure now which class that puts me in. The question is am I allowed a carry on along with my personal item now?

  • We have the United Explorer card. According to the fine print, only the card holder and one companion can bring a carry on and check one piece of luggage for free. Everyone else on the reservation must stick to the 1 personal item and pay for checked bags.

  • HI,
    considering that if the UA flight is transcontinental, hand luggage is allowed in Basic economy, does anyone know/has experienced whether it is also possible to check in online?
    Thanks to whoever will respond

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