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To help you cope with flying in Basic Economy, we are publishing a mini-series of guides to the lowest fare class on all three US legacy airlines. We have already published the guide to American Airlines and Delta, and this episode concludes the series.

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 than any previous trips you’ve taken with United — this guide aims to answer all of your questions.

In This Post

What’s United Basic Economy?

United has three types of economy fares: Economy Plus, Economy and Basic Economy, though they will add a new fare soon with the addition of Premium Plus. Basic Economy provides a lower-priced fare but places 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 TPG’s review of United’s Basic Economy.

Note that some Basic Economy restrictions are waived for Star Alliance elites and cardholders of United co-branded credit cards. So, if you fall into either of these groups, see the specific section related to your group to see which restrictions are waived for you.

Can I check a bag?

Yes. Baggage fees vary based on itinerary; 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 US and Canada: $30 for the first bag, $40 for the second bag, $150 for each additional bag
  • Between the US and Europe: $60 for the first bag, $100 for the second bag, $200 for each additional bag
  • Between the US and Mexico: $30 for the first bag, $55 for the second bag, $180 for each additional bag

Can I bring a carry-on?

No, 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.

The exception here is for Premier members of the MileagePlus program, the primary cardmember of a qualifying MileagePlus credit card or a Star Alliance™ Gold member.

Can I select a seat?

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 reasonably priced; on a transcontinental route between Newark (EWR) and Los Angeles (LAX), seat prices range from $10 to $20. If you don’t opt to purchase a seat assignment, a seat will be automatically assigned prior to boarding, for free. After this seat is assigned, you won’t be able to change it.

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

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. If you’re not checking a bag, you’ll need to finish checking in at the airport to prove that you don’t have more than one personal item.

When can I board?

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

Can I change my flight?

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

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.

Do I still earn miles?

Yes, you’ll earn award miles based on the fare and your MileagePlus status. However, you won’t earn towards elite status. This means you won’t earn Premier qualifying dollars (PQD), Premier qualifying miles (PQM), Premier qualifying segments (PQS), lifetime miles or toward the four-segment minimum required for elite status.

Does having a co-branded credit card help?

Yes, but only if you used a co-branded United credit card to purchase your ticket, are the primary cardholder of this card at the time of check-in and provided your United MileagePlus number when you purchased 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.

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:

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:
    • Premier Silver and Star Alliance™ Gold: One bag at 50 pounds
    • Premier Gold: Two bags at 70 pounds each
    • Premier Platinum and Premier 1K: Three bags at 70 pounds each
  • Your normal boarding group for you and your travel companions traveling on the same reservation:
    • Pre-boarding: United Global Services and Premier 1K members
    • Group 1: Premier Platinum, Premier Gold and Star Alliance™ Gold members
    • Group 2: Premier Silver and Star Alliance™ Silver members

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

  • Complimentary Economy Plus seating
  • Paid upgrades
  • Mileage upgrades
  • Complimentary Premier Upgrades
  • Regional Premier Upgrades
  • Global Premier Upgrades

Bottom Line

United Airlines Basic Economy fares are more restrictive and punitive than any of the other US carriers. From having to see an agent at the airport to check-in when not checking a bag to not getting a carry-on bag to the worst seats being automatically assigned to basic economy passengers at check-in — United’s Basic Economy is the worst.

The United Basic Economy experience can be made better with elite status or an eligible co-branded United Airlines credit card. Unfortunately, the eligible credit card must be used to book the flight. However, if you’re planning on flying United Basic Economy again, you may want to consider getting the United Explorer Card or the United Explorer Business Card and using it to book these subsequent flights.

Both cards have no annual fee the first year and provide a carry-on bag and priority boarding in Group 2 for you and each of your travel companions traveling on the same reservation. Plus, you and one travel companion traveling on the same reservation get your first checked bag free. With no annual fee the first year and a $95 annual fee in subsequent years, this card easily justifies itself if you use it to book a few United Basic Economy fares each year.

Featured image by Zach Honig / The Points Guy

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