How to survive Basic Economy on United Airlines

Dec 25, 2019

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So, you’re preparing for a trip and notice you’ve booked a basic economy fare on United Airlines. You may have a lot of questions about what this fare allows and how your experience may be different from any previous trips you’ve taken with United. This guide aims to answer all of your questions.

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In This Post

What is United basic economy?

United has two types of economy fares: economy and basic economy. Basic economy provides a lower-priced fare but may place restrictions on seat assignment, boarding, carry-on baggage, upgrades, changes, refunds, elite earning and elite benefits. This guide will answer common questions about these restrictions and the basic economy experience on United, but be sure to also check out Benji Stawski‘s review of United’s basic economy.

Related: Comparing basic economy fares across U.S. airlines

Note that some basic economy restrictions are waived for Star Alliance elites and cardholders of United cobranded credit cards, two of which currently offer increased bonuses. If you fall into either of these groups, see the specific section related to your group to see which restrictions are waived for you.

The United Explorer Card comes with a limited-time bonus of up to 65,000 miles (ends Jan. 22, 2020):

  • 40,000 miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening
  • 25,000 miles after you spend $10,000 total on purchases in the first six months of account opening

And the United Explorer Business Card comes with up to 100,000 miles:

  • 50,000 miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening
  • 50,000 miles after you spend $25,000 total on purchases in the first six months of account opening

Related: 4 reasons someone in your family needs a United credit card

Can I check a bag?

Yes. Baggage fees vary based on itinerary; you can calculate the fees for your flight here. If you don’t have elite status with United or carry one of their credit cards, here are some examples of baggage fees:

  • Within the U.S. and Canada: $30 for the first bag, $40 for the second bag, $150 for each additional bag
  • Between the U.S. and Europe: $60 for the first bag, $100 for the second bag, $200 for each additional bag
  • Between the U.S. and Mexico: $30 for the first bag, $55 for the second bag, $180 for each additional bag

Related: How to avoid checked baggage fees on major domestic airlines

Can I bring a carry-on?

Sometimes. For domestic flights, only one personal item such as a shoulder bag, purse, laptop bag or other item that is no larger than 9 x 10 x 17 inches is allowed. This item must go under the seat. Any additional items must be checked at ticket counters; if you take them to the gate you’ll pay a $25 gate service fee per item plus the applicable checked bag fee.

On trans-Atlantic flights operated by United and United Express, your carry-on baggage allowance is the same as for standard economy tickets. This means you can bring a carry on item that is no larger than 9 x 14 x 22 inches as well as a personal item that is no larger than 9 x 10 x 17 inches.

And, Premier members of the MileagePlus program, Star Alliance Gold members and the primary cardmember of a qualifying MileagePlus credit card, like the United Explorer Business Card, may bring a carry-on and a personal item on board.

Related: How to tell if your backpack counts as a personal or carry-on item

Can I select a seat?

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)
If you don’t pay to select a seat, you may end up in an middle seat. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Yes, but it’ll cost you. Advance seat assignments may be available for purchase during booking and until check-in opens. Selecting a seat is oftentimes reasonably priced, but if you don’t opt to purchase a seat assignment, a seat will be automatically assigned prior to boarding, for free. You may not purchase Economy Plus seating.

United’s website states that travelers on the same reservation — including families with young children — may not be able to sit together unless advance seat assignments are purchased:

With Basic Economy, if you do not purchase advance seat assignments, we’re not able to guarantee that your family will be able to sit together. If it’s important for your family to sit together, please consider purchasing advance seat assignments, if available, or selecting another fare.

Related: Flying United? Don’t switch seats once you’re on board

Why can’t I check-in online?

You’ll only be able to check in for your flight online if you’re checking a bag or traveling on a trans-Atlantic flight. If you’re not checking a bag or traveling on a trans-Atlantic flight, you’ll need to finish checking in at the airport to prove that you don’t have more than one personal item.

Related: Yet another reason not to book United basic economy

When can I board?

You’ll board last when traveling on a basic economy fare, unless you have a credit card or elite status that allows you to board sooner. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

You’ll board in the last boarding group, unless you have elite status or select credit cards. More on that in a bit.

Related: United Airlines updates its boarding process, creates new signage

Can I change my flight?

No, changes aren’t allowed with basic economy. This includes advance and same-day changes.

Related: The best ways to avoid airline change and cancellation fees on paid flights

Can I get a refund if I cancel my flight?

No, refunds are not allowed except as stated in the United 24-hour flexible booking policy.

Related: How to refund a nonrefundable airline ticket

Do I still earn miles?

Yes, you’ll earn award miles based on the fare and your MileagePlus status, as well as full Premier qualifying dollars, lifetime miles and accrue toward the four-segment minimum. However, you’ll only earn 50% Premier qualifying miles and 0.5 Premier qualifying segments.

For flights departing in 2020, members will earn full Premier qualifying points for basic economy tickets, inclusive of fare and surcharge if applicable, but will earn no Premier qualifying flights.

Related: United Airlines makes big changes to how we earn elite status, upgrades

Does having a cobranded credit card help?

(Photo by Eric Helgas/The Points Guy)
Having a cobranded United card can provide benefits. (Photo by Eric Helgas/The Points Guy)

Yes, but only if you use a cobranded United credit card to purchase your ticket, are the primary cardholder of this card at the time of check-in and provide your United MileagePlus number when you purchase the flight.

If you manage to satisfy all these requirements, you’ll defeat basic economy by getting the following benefits even when flying on a basic economy fare:

  • One carry-on bag no larger than 9 x 14 x 22 inches for you and each of your travel companions traveling on the same reservation
  • Priority boarding for you and your travel companions traveling on the same reservation
  • First checked bag free for you and one travel companion traveling on the same reservation when you book your tickets using your United Explorer Card or United Explorer Business Card
  • First and second checked bags free for you and one travel companion traveling on the same reservation when you book your tickets using your United Club Card or United Club Business Card

The information for the United Club Card and United Club Business Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

If you’re looking for a card that provides these benefits, consider making sure you’re the primary cardholder on one of the following cards before you purchase your next United basic economy fare:

Related: The 9 best credit cards for flying United

Does having elite status help?

Yes. When flying on a basic economy fare, Premier members and Star Alliance elites get the following benefits:

  • One carry-on bag no larger than 9 x 14 x 22 inches for you and each of your travel companions traveling on the same reservation
  • Your normal checked baggage allowance
  • Your normal boarding group for you and your travel companions traveling on the same reservation

However, elite status holders will not receive any of the the following when flying on a basic economy fare:

  • Complimentary Economy Plus seating
  • Complimentary upgrades
  • Paid upgrades
  • Mileage upgrades
  • Upgrades using Plus Points

Related: Last-minute strategies for United Premier elite status

Bottom line

United Airlines basic economy fares are more restrictive and punitive than any of the other U.S. carriers. However, the United basic economy experience can be made better with elite status or an eligible cobranded United Airlines credit card when the card is used to book the flight.

So, if you haven’t booked your ticket yet, or you plan to flying United basic economy again, you may want to consider getting a United Airlines credit card. Doing so now is particularly compelling due to the increased bonuses currently available:

  • The United Explorer Card, which comes with a limited-time offer of up to 65,000 miles after meeting tiered minimum spending requirements (ends Jan. 22, 2020), with the $95 annual fee waived the first year
  • The United Explorer Business Card comes with up to 100,000 miles after meeting tiered minimum spending requirements, $95 annual fee

Both cards provide a carry-on bag and priority boarding in Group 2 for you and each of your companions traveling on the same reservation. Plus, you and one travel companion traveling on the same reservation get your first checked bag free. These cards easily justify themselves if you use them to book United basic economy fares just a few times each year.

You can also check out our guides to basic economy on Delta Air Lines and American Airlines.

If you’re new to The Points Guy, check out our points and miles guide for beginners.

Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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