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 restrictions for basic economy flyers, so it pays to be hypervigilant 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 You Get with United Basic Economy
There’s no way to spin this one: United has the most restrictive basic economy fares out there.
- Baggage: Get a personal item for free; pay $30 each way for a checked bag (or $60 each way to Europe). No carry-ons allowed unless flying to Europe.
- Seat Selection: Available for a fee, starting at $10. Otherwise, seats are automatically assigned.
- Boarding: Final boarding group.
- Earning United MileagePlus Miles: Yes.
- Earning Status: You’ll earn Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) but not Premier Qualifying Flights (PQFs)
- Upgrades: Not eligible for complimentary upgrades with United status.
- Ticket Changes and Cancellation: Not allowed, except for within 24 hours of booking
United’s Basic Economy is 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, you won’t get a carry-on bag. That alone is proof that United is merely looking to force flyers to pay up for a main cabin economy fare – generally another $60 to $70 or more on a round-trip ticket.
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.
A few things about United basic economy fares are worth highlighting even further.
No Carry-Ons Allowed
Let’s start with the bad news: No carry-ons.
Unless you’re flying across the Atlantic Ocean, all you get is a small personal item like a backpack when flying United basic economy. 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 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.
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 $5 to $8 a seat. Generally, seats toward the back of the plane are the cheapest. And a middle seat will 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
There is currently no basic economy offering on United flights originating out of the U.S. heading to the following locations:
- South America
Any economy ticket you book on these routes will be a main cabin fare including advanced seat assignment, carry-on bag, ticket changes, and subject to upgrades for elite status members (depending on the destination).
How to Beat United Basic Economy
There are no two ways about it: Flying United Basic Economy 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 anyone else booked on your reservation.
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.
Click Here to get more details on the United Explorer Card.
Avoid a Dreaded Middle Seat
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.
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 seatmap 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.
The price will vary by 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 during the pandemic – paying up for main cabin is probably worth it.
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 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.