How I Saved Hundreds of Dollars and Avoided United Airlines’ Dreaded Basic Economy on a Last-Minute Flight

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My sister works in the foodservice industry and thus doesn’t usually get a lot of time off around the holidays.  When she does, it’s usually very last-minute, so it’s nice to have a variety of miles & points currencies to chose from when she needs to book a ticket.

Just before Christmas she discovered she’d have 3 days off over Holidays and decided she wanted to meet our family in Denver.  So, I started the way I always do when searching for a ticket – by comparing the cash cost to the number of miles (in this case United Airlines miles) I’d need for an award ticket.  This way I can determine whether it makes sense to pay cash, use flexible points (like AMEX Membership Rewards or Capital One Venture miles), or to book an award ticket directly through the airline’s website.

What I discovered during this particular search was interesting!  I realized that another less often mentioned perk of using travel rewards is that they can help you avoid basic economy tickets and the ridiculous limitations that come with them.

It’s Pretty Easy to Unknowingly Book a United Airlines Basic Economy Ticket, Which Will Leave You Paying a Fee at the Gate for Your Carry-On!

Using United Airlines Miles to Save Cash and Avoid Fees

To start, I hopped on to Google flights and found the cash price to fly my sister to Denver was $360 on United Airlines.  I also checked Chase’s travel portal and the AMEX travel portal, and found prices to be similar.

I always compare the cash price of a ticket to the number of miles or points I’d spend elsewhere, because certain cards make my travel rewards more valuable.

For example, holding the Chase Sapphire Reserve card makes my Chase Ultimate Rewards points worth 1.5 cents per point for travel booked through Chase’s travel portal.  In this scenario, a $360 ticket would cost 24,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points if I booked it through the portal.  And with The Business Platinum Card® from American Express, I get a 35% rebate on award tickets booked on my preferred airline (United Airlines) through the AMEX travel portal.  So, a ticket there would cost me 23,400 AMEX Membership Rewards points after the rebate.

Lastly, I went over to United’s site to see what they’d charge for an award ticket.  I found the same ticket for the standard 25,000 United Airlines miles that United charges for round-trip coach tickets within the US.

My first thought was “Hey, I’ll save the most miles & points by booking through the AMEX travel portal.”  But then something caught my eye!  I noticed the tiny “no carry-on” image on the Google flights search page and realized that the cheap ticket I was seeing there and through both the Chase and AMEX travel portals was actually a Basic Economy ticket.  No thanks!

You’ve Got to Be Very Careful When It Comes to Avoiding Basic Economy Fares

I knew my sister would be bringing a carry-on.  It’s Christmas – she’s going to need to haul some gifts home after all! 😉  So I headed back to United’s site to book directly with them for 25,000 United Airlines miles round-trip.

By booking this way not only did I save her $360 on her ticket, but I also saved her the inevitable $30+ she’d spend either checking her bag or having to pay the gate handling charge United Airlines charges for Basic Economy passengers who inadvertently bring carry-ons!

It was a good reminder for me, and I’ve booked a LOT of plane tickets over the years.

Neither the Chase or AMEX travel portal is great at calling out which tickets are basic economy tickets, so keep an eye out!   And remember that not only can miles & points save you money, but they can also save you loads of hassle, too!

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Meghan Hunter is an editor for Million Mile Secrets. She covers points, miles, credit cards, airlines, hotels and general travel. Her work has also appeared in The Points Guy.

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! :)

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