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Everything to know about United basic economy

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Long security lines, surprise delays, cramped airplane bathrooms, ever-shrinking seats, bad food…In many ways, flying is a lot less glamorous than it used to be. Add basic economy to the mix, and the experience can be downright lousy. That’s particularly true if you fly United Airlines, whose basic-economy policies have the unfortunate distinction of being some of the strictest in the industry.

Whether you’re ready to return to the skies now or you’re cautiously planning a future trip, here’s what you need to know about United’s basic economy fare — so you can decide whether the potential cost savings are worth the trade-offs.

What is United basic economy?

United was the second of the “Big Three” U.S. airlines (after Delta and before American) to introduce basic economy, in part to better compete with ultra-low-cost carriers like Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant. Designed for what the airline calls “price-sensitive” customers, basic economy is United’s stripped-down, cheapest fare class. While basic-economy flyers sit in the same cabin and have access to most of the same in-flight amenities — including food and beverage service, Wi-Fi and entertainment — as standard United economy passengers, that’s where the similarities end.

As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. And in most cases, purchasing a United basic-economy ticket lets you board the aircraft with just one small personal item (such as a purse or laptop bag) in tow. Mobility aids, including collapsible wheelchairs and other assistive medical devices, are also permitted. Everything else, from sitting next to a travel companion to bringing a full-size carry-on bag, comes at a price — either what you’ll have to pay in fees, or what you’ll have to sacrifice in terms of convenience and comfort.

What can you expect with basic economy?

If you typically fly in another fare class, there are a few things you should know about basic economy before you book.

Checked-bag policy

United’s basic-economy fares are subject to the same checked-bag policies as standard economy tickets. Baggage fees vary by destination, but generally speaking, they start at $30 for your first bag, $40 for your second bag and $150 for each additional bag.

Not all United flyers have to shell out for bag fees, though, regardless of their fare class. Exceptions apply to active-duty U.S. military personnel and their dependents, MileagePlus Premier members, Star Alliance Gold members and people who hold certain co-branded United credit cards (one of which we rank among the best airline rewards credit cards available right now). If you fall into any of these groups, you can fly basic economy without worrying about getting nickel-and-dimed for checking a bag.

Carry-on policy

United’s carry-on policy for basic economy is one of the most significant downsides to flying in this fare class. In most cases, you’re allowed to bring only one small personal item that can fit under the seat in front of you. (That’s right, no overhead-bin access for you.) Anything larger than 9 x 10 x 17 inches will have to be checked (for a fee) at the ticket counter. And if you try to circumvent the rule and bring your full-size carry-on to the gate, you’ll be forced to pay a $25 gate-handling charge in addition to the checked-bag fee.

However, you can sidestep this rule and bring both a carry-on and personal item if:

Seat selection

Avoiding the dreaded middle seat is practically impossible when you fly basic economy — unless, of course, you’re willing to pay for an advance seat assignment, which “may be available for purchase during booking and up until check-in opens,” per the airline. Otherwise, your seat is automatically assigned at check-in, which you can’t do online ahead of time unless you’re checking a bag or taking a trans-Atlantic flight.

Frustratingly, even basic-economy flyers with MileagePlus elite status won’t have the option to upgrade to Economy Plus seating, use their Economy Plus subscription, or cash in any free, earned or mileage upgrades.

Boarding time

Don’t count on being one of the first people to get to their seats when you’re in basic economy. Only MileagePlus Premier members, Star Alliance Gold members and qualifying United card holders can escape the clutches of the very last boarding group.

Change and cancellation policies

Do you have a family emergency? Did you wake up sick the morning of your trip? Regardless of the reason, you’re out of luck if you need to modify your United itinerary. Neither advance nor same-day flight changes are available with basic economy, even for a fee.

And if you need to skip your flight altogether, you can forget about getting a refund unless you cancel within 24 hours of booking and your ticket was purchased at least one week prior to departure.

(Due to the coronavirus pandemic, certain exceptions to these policies apply. Visit the airline’s website to learn how you can change or cancel your United flight at no extra charge.)

Why consider basic economy fares?

Despite their limitations, basic-economy fares might make sense for you if:

Further, having the right United credit card (and using it to purchase your fare) can help alleviate some of the pain points of basic economy. For instance, the United Explorer Card, United Infinite Card, and  United Business Card all come with priority boarding and at least one free checked bag for the primary cardholder. They also let you utilize that precious overhead-bin space with a full-size carry-on bag — score! 

That said, MileagePlus members should note that while basic-economy tickets still earn United award miles — as well as Premier Qualifying Points and lifetime miles — they’re not eligible for Premier Qualifying Flights, and they earn just 50% Premier Qualifying Miles and 0.5 Premier Qualifying Segments toward elite status.

Is basic economy worth it?

Let’s be honest: Basic economy isn’t exactly the most luxurious way to fly. Depending on the circumstances, though, it can be an easy way to save a chunk of money, especially if you parlay those savings into future travel.

To decide whether basic economy is worth it, crunch the numbers before you book. If the ticket is $40 cheaper than a standard economy seat, but you’ll need to check a bag for $30, the $10 difference is negligible. But if you usually pack light and eschew paying baggage fees — or if you have elite status and the worst parts of basic economy don’t apply to you anyway — it might be a deal worth considering.

Featured image by NextNewMedia/Shutterstock.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)