United just debuted a new basic economy upgrade offer

Feb 4, 2021

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In recent years, most major U.S. carriers have started offering basic economy fares.

These tickets strip out many of the traditional inclusions in coach tickets, like advance seat assignments and carry-on bags, for a lower price than regular economy.

United’s basic economy offering is the most punitive of the “Big 3” — you’re not allowed to bring a full-sized carry-on when flying domestically, nor can you complete online check-in.

Fortunately, United just unveiled a new way to avoid the aforementioned restrictions, as confirmed by a carrier spokesperson. With the airline’s new “Switch to United Economy” offering, flyers booked in basic economy will have the opportunity to purchase an upgrade to a regular coach ticket.

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Switching to standard coach will allow you to:

  • Bring a full-sized carry-on item.
  • Receive a complimentary seat assignment prior to check-in, with the ability to further upgrade to an extra-legroom seat or first-class recliner.
  • Enjoy Premier elite benefits, like free extra-legroom seats and upgrades.
  • Earn Premier Qualifying Flight (PQF) credit.

Note that you won’t earn Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) on the non-refundable upgrade service charge.

The option to upgrade to coach is limited to domestic tickets and short-haul international flights to Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America.

If you’re interested in upgrading, you’ll find the option when managing your flight on the United website or mobile app.

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

So, is it a good deal?

(Screenshot courtesy of United)

United wanted $45 to upgrade to coach for an upcoming Fort Lauderdale (FLL) to Denver (DEN) flight. The flight was selling for $49 in basic economy and $89 in regular coach, meaning that I’d be overpaying by $5 if I purchased the cheaper ticket and then upgraded.

(Screenshot courtesy of United)

The spread was much larger on a Wednesday flight in mid-February from FLL to Newark (EWR). United was selling basic economy for $49 and regular coach for $59. The basic economy upgrade fee was $45 per person — $35 more than the fare difference between the two fare types.

(Screenshot courtesy of United)

Though the offers will differ based on the ticket details, my experience shows that it’s likely much better to outright purchase an economy ticket than upgrade to one.

If the upgrade fee is higher than the fare difference between basic economy and regular coach, your best bet — for now — is to call United and reissue the ticket in coach. All United tickets booked through March 31, 2021, qualify for free changes, including those booked in basic economy.

More: What you need to know about United basic economy

As such, you should be able to call United reservations (1-800-864-8331) and have an agent process an upgrade for the cost of the fare difference, as opposed to paying the new upgrade service fee.

For some people, the convenience of buying up to standard coach within the reservation might be enough to warrant the upcharge.

Others, like myself, will be sure to crunch the numbers before pulling the trigger. Either way, it’s great to see a new option for upgrading from United basic economy.

Hopefully, this is just the first of many innovations coming to United’s most budget offering. Late last year, American Airlines began offering basic economy flyers the ability to upgrade their seat, make same-day changes and enjoy elite-status benefits with no added cost.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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