United makes basic economy slightly less restrictive
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Each of the three major U.S. airlines offers a basic economy fare. With this pricing strategy, the mainline carriers have more closely matched the fares of low-cost carriers like Frontier and Spirit by stripping out many of the inclusions you’d typically get with a regular economy ticket.
United's offering is the most restrictive of any U.S. airline. Of the many restrictions, seat assignments aren't included in your purchase. Historically, they could be purchased anytime before check-in or you'd get one assigned for free during check-in. But this policy has always excluded extra-legroom Economy Plus seating.
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Well, the carrier has made a (small) positive update. Beginning Wednesday, Aug. 26, basic economy customers will be able to purchase an Economy Plus seat at check-in, an airline spokesperson confirmed to TPG. This means that those who'd like a little extra legroom can pay for the privilege 24 hours before their flight.
While United Premier elites can typically assign Economy Plus seating for free, those who purchase basic economy fares can't partake in that benefit. Sadly, that's not changing with today's policy update. (Likewise, Economy Plus subscriptions can't be applied to basic economy bookings.)
As before, customers can purchase regular coach and preferred seats anytime after booking. Economy Plus seats can't be purchased until check-in though. If you choose not to purchase a seat, you'll be auto-assigned one during the check-in process.
While this is definitely good news for those who'd like to purchase a little more space, note that once travel demand picks up again (and elites take to the air), there will likely be very few extra legroom seats left when check-in opens. Most times, it's typically just a few scattered middle seats available. But if you can score an aisle or window, it could definitely make sense to upgrade.
Related: How to use credit cards to defeat Basic Economy
Unfortunately, United's basic economy fares still have a bunch of other restrictions. You can't take a full-sized carry-on bag, or even pay for the privilege, unless they have United elite status, are Star Alliance Gold members, are United MileagePlus cardholders or are flying on a transatlantic route.
Additionally, you can't typically make ticket changes at any price, and you’ll earn reduced credit toward elite status and award miles. However, due to the coronavirus, United has a change-fee waiver that includes basic economy tickets. For tickets issued between March 3 and Aug. 31, 2020, there are no change fees.
Related: Comparing basic economy fares across U.S. airlines
To avoid some of the basic economy restrictions, you’ll want to make sure that you have a co-branded United card. United Explorer Card members receive a free checked bag and priority boarding, while those with the United Infinite Club Card receive a second free checked bag, priority check-in, security and baggage handling.
Your other alternative is to fly with American Airlines or Delta. Both of those carriers allow you to bring a full-sized carry-on bag on a basic economy ticket.
Either way, if you choose to fly on a United basic economy fare, at least you'll now have the option to purchase an Economy Plus seat at check-in.