Basic economy fares have reshaped travel, as airlines charge travelers more for what they once got for free. And United Airlines is among the worst offenders.
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 it’s not all bad news. There are ways you can ease the pain of United basic economy – and there’s a silver lining when it comes time to pick a seat.
What You Get with Basic Economy
There’s no way to spin this one: United has the most restrictive basic economy fares out there. While Delta and American allow you to bring a carry-on bag when flying basic economy, United does not.
- 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.
- Advance Seat Assignment: 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 half the Premier Qualifying Miles and Premier Qualifying Segments as a standard economy fare.
- Upgrades: Not eligible for complimentary upgrades.
- Ticket Changes and Cancellation: Not allowed, except for within 24 hours of booking.
Get a Carry-On or Free Checked Bag and Priority Boarding with United Credit Cards
The United Explorer Credit Card from Chase can be a powerful weapon to beat these basic economy fares.
This card gets you a free checked bag on every United flight – along with a bag for one companion booked on the same reservation. It will also override the basic economy restrictions for carry-on bags to let you bring one on board. The one hitch with this benefit is that, unlike other airline co-branded cards, you have to pay for your flight with your United card to get the checked bags.
But that’s worth it, as checked bags cost $30 each way for domestic flights within the U.S. The card’s annual fee of $95 doesn’t kick in until the second year. Even at that price, it could pay for itself after checking bags on just two round-trip flights a year. And the ability to pack in a carry-on bag is a huge perk.
Boarding dead-last with a normal basic economy fare can be a drag, as it often means you won’t have room to stow your carry on. But holding the United Explorer card changes that.
By paying for your reservation with this card, you’ll board in the second group rather than in the fifth and final group, as basic economy passengers typically do.
The United Explorer Credit Card is currently offering a welcome bonus of 40,000 United miles after spending $2,000 in the first three months of membership. And the perks don’t stop at beating basic economy, as this card also includes a $100 credit that covers an application for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck.
Click Here to get more details on the United Explorer Card.
How to Pick a Seat
It’s not all bad news.
By the books, you don’t get to pick your seat when flying basic economy. And no one wants to be separated from their travel companion – or jammed between two strangers in the middle seat.
But United offers the most generous ability to pick a seat for a reasonable fee even when you’re flying basic economy. From the time you purchase your flight until the check-in window opens 24 hours before departure, you can pay for a seat assignment.
The fees for a seat will vary by flight, but they typically start at about $9 for a middle seat, $10 for a window seat, and $12 for an aisle seat. If your basic economy fare isn’t a nonstop flight, beware that you’ll have to pay separately for each segment of the trip.
But these rates – and the ability to pay for your pick from the moment you book your flight – put Delta and American fares to shame. You can pay less than $20 to ensure you’re sitting next to a child or companion flying United even with basic economy fares.
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.
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.
There’s no doubt about it: United basic economy fares are restrictive. But with the right tools and knowledge, you can make them less painful.