Back in 2016, United Airlines introduced basic economy. In this post I wanted to go over the details of that — what restrictions are there when booking basic economy fares, and are these tickets worth it? In many ways, United has among the most punitive basic economy fares, though not all customers will be impacted by these restrictions equally. Separately, I’ve written about similar fares offered by Alaska, American, Delta, and JetBlue.
In this post:
What is basic economy?
Basic economy was introduced many years back as a way for major US airlines to better compete with ultra low cost carriers, like Allegiant, Frontier, Spirit, etc. At least that was the claim, with the idea being that basic economy comes at a lower cost, but with more restrictions.
Basic economy is ultimately a tool for airlines to better segment the market. Those looking for the cheapest fares might book United basic economy fares rather than a competitor, while the airline hopes that most consumers are willing to “buy up” to more expensive fares, which come with fewer restrictions.
Airline revenue management is quite an art, and it’s all about getting as much revenue as possible from each customer. Basic economy fares are a major part of that, and United is particularly punitive with its basic economy fares, especially for non-elite members.
Restrictions with United basic economy
If you’re shopping for a United flight and see a basic economy fare, should you consider booking it? Let me go over the major restrictions of these kinds of fares.
Before I do, let me mention the things that aren’t different about basic fares compared to regular economy fares. Specifically, basic economy passengers get the same perks once onboard, including things like complimentary non-alcoholic drinks and snacks. However, other than that, the differences are significant.
Now let’s talk about what is different with these fares…
Basic economy fares don’t allow a carry-on bag
The single biggest restriction of United basic economy fares is that you’re not allowed a full size carry-on bag when traveling on one of these fares. United is the only one of the major airlines to have this restriction, so that’s a major catch, as you can only travel with a personal item.
If you’re traveling on a basic economy fare with bags, you can either prepay to check a bag, or if you get caught at the gate with a full size carry-on, you’ll be on the hook for the standard checked bag fee, plus an additional $25 fee.
Now, there are a few exceptions of people traveling on basic economy fares who are eligible for a free carry-on bag. This includes:
- All United MileagePlus Premier members, including 1K, Platinum, Gold, and Silver members
- All Star Alliance Gold members
- The primary card members on a qualifying United MileagePlus credit card, assuming they purchased their ticket with the card
Basic economy fares offer limited elite credit
When it comes to earning miles and elite qualification on basic economy fares, United sort of takes a hybrid approach compared to competitors:
- You earn United MileagePlus miles as usual based on the cost of the ticket, at the rate of 5-11x miles per dollar spent, depending on your status
- You earn Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) at the standard rate of one PQP per dollar spent
- However, you don’t earn Premier Qualifying Flights (PQFs) on basic economy fares, which is another metric you need for elite status
So United isn’t the most punitive airline when it comes to earning elite status on basic economy fares, but there are still restrictions to be aware of.
Basic economy fares have seat assignment restrictions
United basic economy fares have major restrictions when it comes to assigning seats, regardless of whether or not you have elite status:
- On basic economy fares, you’ll automatically be assigned a seat at check-in (24 hours out), and you can’t change it for free, even if there are other open seats
- However, after booking you can pay to assign a regular (non-Economy Plus) seat; this applies even to elite members
- You can only purchase an upgrade to Economy Plus at the time of check-in, and even elite members would have to pay to assign an Economy Plus seat
Basic economy fares don’t allow first class upgrades
If you have United MileagePlus elite status, you’re not eligible for complimentary upgrades when traveling on basic economy fares. This includes upgrades to first class, as well as upgrades to Economy Plus. So this restricts one of the major benefits of having elite status.
Basic economy fares come with last group boarding
When traveling on basic economy fares, United passengers can only board with the last boarding group, which is group six. That’s probably not a huge deal since you don’t have a full size carry-on you need to fit in the overhead anyway.
However, there are some exceptions. If you have priority boarding with United, either on account of MileagePlus Premier status, Star Alliance Gold status, or by having a co-branded United card, then you can board with your regular boarding group, and aren’t subject to this restriction.
Basic economy fares provide limited ticket flexibility
Nowadays United no longer has change fees on most kinds of tickets, meaning that if you need to cancel a ticket, you’ll be issued a credit that you can apply toward a future reservation.
The one exception is on basic economy fares, which don’t have the same flexibility. However, they are a bit more flexible than in the past. You can apply credits from United basic economy fares toward a future ticket, but at a cost:
- For domestic basic economy tickets, you’ll pay a $99 fee for canceling a roundtrip itinerary, or a $49.50 fee for canceling a one-way itinerary
- For international basic economy tickets, you’ll pay a $199 fee for canceling a roundtrip itinerary, or a $99.50 fee for canceling a one-way itinerary
So it’s nice that these tickets at least offer some flexibility, which is more than these tickets had in the past.
Basic economy prevents online check-in
United basic economy passengers can’t generally check-in online. That’s because they have to go to the counter to show that they only have a personal item, which is super restrictive, and can potentially take quite some time.
The one exception is that basic economy allows online check-in when traveling on a transatlantic flight, or when you’ve paid to check a bag (then again, you still need to go to the counter then).
Are United basic economy fares worth it?
The answer is obviously “it depends.” There are lots of factors here, like how much cheaper a basic economy fare is, if you have elite status, how much you value flexibility, etc. I tend to think that United has among the strictest basic economy fares, regardless of whether you have elite status or not.
If you’re just an average United flyer who doesn’t have status or a co-branded credit card, you’re not going to get a free carry-on bag on a basic economy fare. Most people travel with more than just a backpack, so this is a major reason to avoid these kinds of fares. Never mind that you can’t check-in online, you can’t select seats in advance, and you have limited flexibility.
For elite members, the good news is that you get a carry-on bag and priority boarding. The bad news is that you’re not eligible for complimentary upgrades (to Economy Plus or first class), your flight doesn’t fully count toward elite status, and you have limited ticket flexibility. So unless you just find the most amazing deal ever, I don’t think basic economy is usually worth it.
Perhaps the sweet spot for basic economy is the occasional traveler who has a co-branded United credit card. They can still get a carry-on bag, but aren’t losing out on as many benefits as MileagePlus elite members.
So, how much extra does basic economy cost? The price can vary significantly, based on the length of flight, time of day, day of week, etc.
For example, taking a random San Francisco to Los Angeles flight, I see basic economy available for $64, which is $30 cheaper than the standard economy fare.
Taking a random Newark to Los Angeles flight, I see basic economy available for $149, which is $50 cheaper than the standard economy fare.
Taking a random Newark to London flight, I see basic economy available for $459, which is $180 cheaper than the standard economy fare.
United offers basic economy fares on a vast majority of its flights. United’s basic economy fares are among the most restrictive, regardless of whether or not you have elite status.
If you don’t have elite status, you don’t get a carry-on bag, can’t check-in online, you board with the last group, and you have limited flexibility. If you do have elite status, you only earn partial elite qualification, you can’t get upgraded, and you have limited ticket flexibility.
While a lot of people do book United basic economy, I tend to think that objectively the value just isn’t there for most. If you’re just the occasional flyer, these fares usually only make sense if you’re traveling very light, with just a personal item. Meanwhile as an elite member, you’re giving up most of the perks of elite status that you probably value.
What’s your take on the value proposition of United basic economy fares?