When Does It Make Sense For A United Premier To Book A Basic Economy Ticket?

Filed Under: Advice, MileagePlus

I’m generally not a fan of the basic economy concept. I sort of get that the legacies wanted to create a way to segment the market such that they could simultaneously compete with the low cost carriers, and still offer the benefits of a mainline carrier.

And when Delta first introduced these fares, I think they mostly accomplished that. But then United decided to take the concept to the extreme with arguably the most punitive basic economy offering in the industry.

The biggest difference, at least from the frequent flyer perspective, between basic economy on United, American, and Delta is that United doesn’t allow you to earn or maintain status while flying on basic economy tickets. That’s because United basic economy fares don’t earn Premium Qualifying Miles or Premier Qualifying Dollars, even though they do earn award miles. By comparison, Delta counts 100% of the flown miles on a basic economy ticket toward status, while American counts 50% of the flown miles towards status. For anyone chasing status, that’s a huge issue and largely results in United Premiers avoiding these tickets (which I suppose, was the intent).

As a longtime United Premier 1K, I know I certainly aim to avoid them. But there are times when they do make sense, even for me. My recent trip from Denver to Chicago was a perfect example. So I thought it might be useful to go over the cases where I think it can be worthwhile to book basic economy even as a status-chasing United Premier flyer.

I’ve already re-qualified for next year

Elite status is important to me, and I receive tremendous value from having it (perhaps not as much as I once did, but that’s the subject of a different post).

I’ve been a United Premier 1k for about ten years running, and in many of those years I finished with between 100,001 and 105,000 miles, meaning that I needed every last one of them (or sometimes ended up doing a mileage run to get there). So saving a few bucks by flying on a basic economy ticket could really end up costing me more in the long run if I have to take an additional trip at the end of the year just to maintain status. Or good golly, what if I missed re-qualifying for 1K because I booked one trip in basic economy? 

But if I’ve already re-qualified for next year — or am booked to re-qualify — my thinking is a little different. That’s because the difference between earning say 105,000 PQMs and 107,000 PQMs is essentially nothing (or $12,500 vs. $13,000 PQD, if that’s how you like to think of it). United doesn’t do roll-over miles, where any extra PQM you earn one year count for the next, and you don’t get another reward until you hit 125,000 PQMs (2 additional Regional Premier Upgrades).

So if you are pretty sure that you’ll re-qualify anyway, but won’t fly enough to hit the next threshold at 125,000 or 150,000 (two more Global Premier Upgrades), then the loss of the incremental status miles from flying a basic economy ticket aren’t going to matter (note that you also won’t earn miles toward million miler status either, so there is that).

In my case, I was already booked to requalify for 1K, so missing out on status miles or status dollars wasn’t really going to be an issue.

I don’t think I’ll need to change my flight

I rarely pay to change or cancel tickets. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time I did so. But I still love the ability to make free, unlimited Same Day Confirmed (SDC) changes, which is a great benefit of being a United Premier 1K, Platinum, or Global Services member. I often use SDC to get home early if a meeting finishes sooner than expected. And sometimes I use it to book a slightly less convenient, yet significantly cheaper, flight figuring that there is a good chance I can switch later to the flight I actually want.

But since you can’t change a United basic economy ticket at all (either using SDC or with a fee), I obviously don’t book one if I think I’ll need the flexibility. In the case of my Denver to Chicago ticket, the flight time wasn’t ideal, but it was workable enough that I felt comfortable booking it given the cost savings.

And that leads me to the the crux of the matter.

The “buy-out” cost of basic economy is huge

If the cost of a regular economy ticket is way, way higher than basic economy, and the above two conditions are true, I figure I should at least consider basic economy.

I typically see that the difference between basic economy and regular economy is about $25 each way. Or put another way, you can buy yourself out of basic economy for an additional $25. I’ll almost always bite at that price point because the benefits, including being able to select an Economy Plus seat at booking, having a chance at an upgrade, and being able to use SDC to change my flight, are worth it to me. And that’s true even if I’ve already re-qualified for the year.

But sometimes the buy-out cost of basic economy is ridiculous.

In the case of my Denver to Chicago flight, I was booking about three days before departure and the buy-out cost was a whopping $300. That’s right, I could buy a basic economy ticket on United for $104, or a regular economy ticket for $404!

There’s no way that a chance at an upgrade is worth that much to me, nor is a guaranteed Economy Plus seat. Heck, the status miles probably aren’t worth that much either!

In short, I could not justify paying $404 for that flight. At that price, I’d start looking at low cost carriers, which leads to….

I’m considering flying Frontier or Spirit anyway

I’ve been flying Frontier and Spirit more and more for my domestic travel. I don’t prefer to fly them of course, but when the price is substantially cheaper, I will.

For my Denver to Chicago trip, there was no way I was spending $404, so in the absence of a basic economy option, I’d book a $74 Spirit ticket for the two-hour flight and be happy to have scored a cheap ticket on such short notice.

I wouldn’t get a proper carry-on, wouldn’t be able to change my flight, would have no chance at an upgrade, and wouldn’t earn any meaningful miles. But the ticket would be cheap, so I’d definitely do it.

But here’s the thing. If I’m going to book Spirit for $74, I might as well pony up $25 more (after the $5 rebate for being a member of the united.com club), to fly United. It doesn’t matter that it’s in basic economy because just a moment ago I was ready to fly Spirit anyway!

So for the additional $25 it would cost to fly United basic economy instead of Spirit, I’d likely get

  • An Economy Plus seat assigned at check-in (not guaranteed, but possible)
  • A free drink and snack box for being a Premier 1K (worth about $10)
  • About 1,000 award miles (worth maybe $15)
  • The protection that only a mainline carrier can offer in the case of IRROPS
  • A proper carry-on (since I’m a Premier flyer)

By my valuation, the snack, drink, and award miles are clearly worth the incremental cost alone.

Summarizing my basic economy strategy

To summarize, I think it can make sense for United Premiers to book basic economy tickets when

  • They have already met, or have a plan to meet, their status goal for the year
  • They don’t need flexibility
  • The cost difference between regular and basic economy is significant

Or perhaps it’s even simpler. If you are seriously considering flying Spirit or Frontier, and United basic economy is just about as cheap, then go ahead and book it. It’s okay, really. I know that probably sounds obvious, but it took me a while to wrap my head around.

Bottom line

I know it sounds crazy, but I do think there are circumstances where it makes sense for even top-tier elites to book basic economy tickets.

In my case, it really boils down to whether I’m ready and willing to fly Spirit or Frontier anyway. For me, I find that’s usually true if the savings are substantial, my travel plans are firm, and I’ve already met — or have a plan to meet — my status goals for the year. Then it comes down to whether United is offering a basic economy fare that is competitive with these low-cost carriers.

Because in the end, if I’m going to fly basic economy, I’d rather do it on an airline with status, than one without.

Do any other frequent flyers sometimes buy basic economy tickets? What’s your rationale?

  1. I’ve never seen that type of fare difference on AA or Delta. So no moral quandaries for me …

  2. I don’t have elite status but I just bought BE for me and my 2 year old daughter. Seating is 2×2 on a CRJ and I don’t care where we sit as long as we’re together.

  3. I use Delta BE all the time. If you check in at 24 hours (like Southwest), you can usually see your assigned seat, and more importantly, can change it (still in Economy, but hey…) Only once have I been unable to do so. Since I have their credit card, I still get Zone 1 boarding, so my backpack overhead is no issue. So, BE for me is a good way to travel and same some money….

  4. You can also credit basic economy fares to other programs. UA basic economy seems to be elite qualifying in all *A FFPs other than MileagePlus.

  5. @Nathan

    I’m assuming you’ve never tried to book a close-in ticket with American? I routinely see sub-$100 BE fares with $400+ buy-ups to Main Cabin.

  6. Now @Travis if you booked NK at the airport will $45 difference be enough to give up your 1k benefits? I know I would. Assume you have the club card, that should fill you up enough before and after the flight. I’ll take that 45+28 from PP to have a nice steak at DEN.

    I never really needed the IRROPS protections for work as I can work remotely (assume you are the same). Clients most of the time understand and share the same frustration for IRROPS. For vacation on the other hand, every hour counts and I would love the protections.

    UA needs to up their game fast. The Kirby & CO still hasn’t performed.

  7. I have asked United about their Basic Economy fares. Here’s the response:

    Dear Prof. Schober:

    Please forgive our delayed response.
    Our Basic Economy fares for our Trans/Atlantic routes allows PQM, PQD, PQS and Lifetime miles earnings.

    Permitted or included:
    Advance seat assignments
    Economy Plus seat assignments
    Carry-on bag
    PQM, PQD, PQS and Lifetime miles earnings
    Packages and Premier Access

    Thank you again for contacting United Airlines.
    United Airlines

  8. Eskimo — I think you are asking the most additional I’ll pay to fly United basic economy instead of Spirit or Frontier. I’m not sure exactly to be honest. Maybe I’ll do a post on that.

  9. Kay-Uwe — Maybe I’m missing something, but if basic economy includes all that, what’s the difference between basic and regular economy? At any rate, I hope you are right.

  10. As a Lifetime 1K on UA, I never have to worry about re-qualifying but I still shun BE. I have learned over the years how to shrink my overall travel expense to a ridiculously low level while maintaining a near 100% premium experience. Travel is a passion and I do not feel compelled to squeeze the last nickel out of each trip. When BE is a viable cost option (which it rarely is) it’s usually because there is a “Spirit” lurking in the wings of that city-pair.

    For the extreme case, rather than booking BE, I have found a way to make the Spirit experience workable and in fact, enjoyable: Snag a “Big Front Seat” at time of purchase which is similar to most domestic F/C on legacy carriers, self cater, check in on line, ship your bag home via UPS/Fedex Ground and enjoy the ride.

    Note: On Spirit, if you don’t ship, watch your bag’s size and weight very closely or risk getting “dinged” at the airport for $100.00 per offending bag (I have seen grown men cry at Spirit counters). It only takes an inch or a pound and UPS is cheaper than Spirit’s bag fees.

  11. @Travis: I was confused too. I wanted to make sure to get my 4 segments for PP qualification this year. That’s why I am contacted United. On a second email they confirmed that all normal benefits apply also on domestic connecting flights. So the difference is: no upgrades.

  12. Great post, Travis! I fly ORD – DEN a lot and have been seeing similarly astonishing price differences between N (basic) fares and “regular” economy. I totally agree – it’s increasingly difficult to justify avoiding these fares…

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