United basic economy tickets are now more flexible than ever

Apr 14, 2022

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United Airlines led the charge early in the pandemic to permanently eliminate change fees.

At the time, the Chicago-based carrier permanently dropped the pesky $200 (or more) surcharge for making modifications to an itinerary, including voluntary cancellations.

While the news triggered an industry-wide competitive response, all major airlines excluded one type of ticket from the new flexible policies: basic economy.

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These deep-discount fares were first introduced well before the pandemic to better compete with the ultra-low-cost carriers (or so the legacy airlines say). Since then, they’ve been rolled out more broadly and strip out many of the inclusions that you’d typically receive with a “standard” coach ticket, such as seat assignments and the ability to make changes.

United’s version of basic economy has historically been one of the most punitive in the industry. You can’t bring a full-size carry-on bag, nor can you make changes to your ticket.

But, there’s some better news for those buying the cheapest United tickets, as TPG is the first to report that the airline is introducing a new cancellation option for basic economy tickets.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Specifically, if you want to cancel a basic economy ticket, you can now do so for partial credit, assuming you cancel before departure. (Previously, they were “use it or lose it.”)

These cancellations won’t be “free,” however. United will levy a “basic economy cancellation charge” that varies based on your itinerary.

One-way Round-trip
Domestic $49.50 $99.00
International $99.50 $199.00

The value of your credit will be the ticket price you paid minus the fee, which will be displayed prominently on the cancellation page on United’s website or mobile app.

Note that the new partial credit cancellation option only kicks in at 24 hours after booking. All United tickets, including those in basic economy, can be canceled for a full refund within a day of purchase.

The move to make basic economy (a bit) more flexible builds on United’s other big change it first launched last year.

In February, the carrier debuted a new “Switch to Economy” offer that allows basic economy travelers to upgrade to a standard coach ticket any time after purchase. (This non-refundable ancillary fee ranges in price based on itinerary.)

Initially, this upgrade included the “standard” coach perks such as a complimentary seat assignment prior to check-in, Premier elite benefits, a full-size carry-on item and more. At the outset, however, this upgrade offer excluded the ability to make changes or cancellations.

Then, in June, the “Switch to Economy” buy-up added a new perk — the ability to make fee-free itinerary changes and cancellations — to its lineup of benefits. By upgrading to a standard coach ticket, basic economy would no longer be considered “use it or lose it.”

But now, the carrier’s partial credit option basic economy tickets gives you an alternative to buying the “Switch to Economy” package, assuming that all you want to do is cancel your ticket.

(Screenshot courtesy of United)

In a statement confirming the move, a United spokesperson shared that:

As part of an ongoing effort to offer more flexibility, United is making it easier for customers to change their Basic Economy tickets. As of April 13, customers can either pay to upgrade to a standard economy ticket, which will allow them to reschedule their flight and give all the benefits of a standard economy ticket, including premier benefits, free seat assignments, a free carry-on bag and more; or if a customer doesn’t want to rebook, they can cancel their trip and receive a residual credit for their basic economy ticket.

This means that United is now the only U.S. airline to offer both a buy-up and a credit option for basic economy tickets.

Of course, you’ll want to crunch the numbers to see which option makes more sense, but the added flexibility will undoubtedly be good news for those who need to cancel their basic economy tickets.

One possible downside of the move could be that you might not end up with much credit if you snagged a great deal on your flight.

But, you could wait to voluntarily cancel your ticket until just a few hours before departure to see if your flight ultimately gets delayed or canceled by United. If it does, then you’d be entitled to a full refund — without any additional fees.

Notably, United’s move to make basic economy more flexible follows a similar announcement from Delta late last year.

Delta’s basic economy fares are now cancelable for partial travel credit, with domestic flights or flights to the Caribbean, Central America or Mexico subject to a $99 cancellation fee those from the U.S. or Canada to any other international destination subject to a $199 cancellation fee.

At the time, Delta also rolled out a new redeposit fee for basic economy award tickets, though United doesn’t offer MileagePlus redemptions for basic economy (though it’s possible that’ll change in the future).

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy.

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