United’s Adding Basic Economy to International Flights

Dec 10, 2018

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Prepare yourself for more changes with United basic economy — and no, this time it isn’t good newsAs suggested over the summer, beginning Dec. 11, United will be adding an expanded version of its basic economy product to select transatlantic flights.

Currently, the airline offers a special “first bag charge/no changes allowed” booking category, that’s still eligible for full mileage accrual, seat assignments and more. Come Tuesday, that’ll be replaced by basic economy. It’s a big downgrade.

First, a bit of good news — as with the airline’s domestic and regional product, MileagePlus members will earn the following when purchasing transatlantic basic economy fares:

  • Full Premier Qualifying Dollars
  • 50% Premier Qualifying Miles
  • 0.5 Premier Qualifying Segments
  • Lifetime miles (based on mileage flown)
  • Segments toward the four-segment minimum for elite status

There’s a lot they won’t get, though. With these new fares, complimentary seat assignments will not be available — meaning you’ll likely end up with a middle seat — it won’t be possible to make changes to an itinerary, including via United’s same-day change policy, and you’ll need to pay for the first checked bag, unless you’re a United elite or Star Alliance Gold member.

However, this transatlantic basic economy product does come with some advantages over its domestic counterpart — according to United:

  • Customers will be allowed one full-sized carry-on bag and one personal item on board, and will be able to check a bag for an additional fee
  • Customers will be able to check in online and via the United mobile app
  • Customers will not necessarily board in the last boarding group

So, in a way, we can look at this as “basic economy light,” since you do still get several key benefits.

While these fares aren’t available just yet, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them replace the current “first bag charge/no changes allowed” fare, which you’ll find on selected routes. In some cases, they really do save you a ton, with fares that are legitimately competitive, such as $305 round-trip from Newark (EWR) to Paris (CDG).

In other cases, it’s not such a great deal — but still far cheaper than regular coach.

We’ll have to wait for the full launch before we can fully evaluate these new fares, though I’m hopeful they’ll at very least match (and ideally undercut) the discounted “first bag charge/no changes allowed” option available today.

With this latest introduction, United is saying “We are committed to providing more options for our customers so that they can choose the experience that best fits their needs.” In reality, United and other airlines clearly want customers to believe that basic economy offers customers a lower cost option, when in reality these restricted fares are priced identically to the fares we’d seen for full economy before.

While we could always see lower fares in the morning, your best bet is to book the discounted European option available today — if you want to jump on basic economy tomorrow, you’ll be able to take advantage of the airline’s 24-hour flexible booking option and make that change for free.

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