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There’s no getting around it — for frequent flyers like you and me, basic economy is the pits. While the concept has worked well for low-cost carriers (and their customers) in Europe and Asia, this practice now enables legacy US airlines to deliver far less while charging the exact same fare they did before. But no carrier’s basic economy fare is nearly as prevalent, or restrictive, as United’s.

Recently, we’ve heard from numerous TPG readers, including some of United’s most loyal customers. One reader, who didn’t understand the limitations of a basic economy fare, shared her story just a few minutes ago, explaining:

I am a United Platinum Elite. I just accidentally booked United’s new Basic Economy and couldn’t pick a seat!!! Not only could I not pick a seat I was told you do not get any PQM or PQD, upgrades, changes or refunds or overhead storage or carry on and last to board. They had to cancel the entire reservation and made me rebook it. Geez!!! One positive note about the change is non-frequent flyers who use up the overhead bins and cause delays in shutting the cabin door hassling with gate checking their bags will no longer be allowed to board with their luggage unless they pay for it. However, it appears it even lessens the value of being a United Platinum.

The challenge with United’s implementation in particular is that the carrier is applying basic economy to nearly all coach fare classes. What that means is that even very expensive last-minute flights get the “basic economy” treatment. Take, for example, this round-trip from Newark to Pittsburgh I came across earlier this month:

You’re looking at $1,172 round-trip in basic economy — for a ~300-mile trip. For that price, you could purchase a serviceable vehicle and drive from Newark to Pittsburgh and back and still have cash to spare, or you can book a United flight that excludes a carry-on bag, seat selection and elite credit. That’s insane.

In case you haven’t noticed, United doesn’t actually want you to book basic economy — instead, this is seen as another upsell opportunity. And, to the airline’s credit, it should be pretty clear when you’re about to book a basic economy flight (as long as you purchase your flight directly through United).

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But that doesn’t forgive the fact that the basic economy fare class (“N”) is now being applied to pretty much every domestic coach fare. Take that same Newark-Pittsburgh nonstop. A flight later this week only has full-fare economy for sale, in the “B” fare class, which is typically fully changeable, refundable and eligible for instant elite upgrades. “B” fares are expensive, but at least they come along with some serious perks. But, regardless, you’ll still get stuck with basic economy if you aren’t careful:

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That’s not how things work at American, though, where basic economy is only available on discounted economy fares:

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Or at Delta:

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United basic economy is now “available” on nearly every domestic route, too, including connecting flights. It launched in February and has spread like wildfire ever since.

Fortunately, American has been applying this new fare class slowly — in what you might call a “controlled burn.” As of this writing, you’ll only find AA basic economy on these routes:

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Delta’s been selling basic economy since way back in 2012, so it’s widely available, including on international flights. But Delta’s fares aren’t nearly as restrictive as United’s — you still earn elite credit, get to bring a rolling carry-on bag, choose your seat at check-in and more.

I reached out to United to see if these new basic economy fares were rolled out erroneously, given that they’re even being applied to (otherwise) full-fare tickets. Unfortunately it sounds like this change is intentional, but the airline did share the below statement that you may or may not find tremendously reassuring:

  • The price of a Basic Economy fare varies greatly depending on the market and the itinerary – dependent on advance purchase (close-in purchases may be higher), length of stay and inventory availability.
  • If a Basic Economy fare and/or the restrictions are not right for the customer – we offer additional fare products to choose from to better fit your travel needs.
  • Customers have a choice to purchase a lower fare with some additional restrictions. The amenities currently offered with standard economy stay the same with Basic Economy. Travelers will be able to enjoy the same dining options, Wi-Fi and inflight entertainment as our other customers in economy.
  • When searching for fares, customers will continue to find everyday attractive fares in many markets.

Bottom Line

United’s basic economy fares are incredibly consumer-unfriendly. The fact that they’re so restrictive and are being applied to even the most expensive economy fares is infuriating, and while they’re avoidable, United’s essentially taken the same fares that used to come along with the usual perks and applied the “N” fare class to them, meaning you’ll now have to pay extra (between $15 and $25 each way) for the exact same thing. There’s no question that international basic economy fares are coming soon, which could mean 14 hours in a super-tight 777-300ER middle seat — with no carry-on bag or elite mileage earning to boot. The good news is that award redemptions haven’t been touched, making your miles more valuable than before, especially when it comes to domestic economy travel.

Considering I almost always book economy flights (unless I’m redeeming miles), I’m incredibly disappointed in United. I’m just about to hit 1,000,000 miles flown with the airline, which will earn me some pretty sweet perks — lifetime Gold status and the ability to share my current status with a companion — so I’m going to continue booking United flights this year. But once I hit the million-mile mark, I’m seriously considering throwing in the towel, unless UA changes its tune when it comes to basic economy.

For more on basic economy, see this comparison between AA, Delta, United and the low-cost carriers that have been credited with developing this trend in the first place.

Know before you go.

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