United Airlines will soon roll out “Basic Economy” fares in select markets that carry important restrictions. Here’s everything you need to know about these new United fares.
What is the Difference Between United Economy and United Basic Economy?
Let’s focus on the restrictions of Basic Economy.
No advance seat assignments. Seating is assigned at check-in and United will explicitly warn you that if traveling in a group, you have no guarantee of sitting next to each other, or even near each other. Advance seat assignments are not even available for purchase.
Carry-on restricted to one personal item only — no hand baggage permitted in overhead bins. United MileagePlus credit card holders and United Premier members will be exempt from this rule. If you bring an extra carry-on bag, you will have to pay to check it at the gate.
No ticket changes. All tickets can be cancelled within 24 hours of booking, but beyond that cool-off period, changes are cancellations are not allowed. Change of plans? You hope for a schedule change or forfeit the entire value of your ticket.
No elite qualifying miles. If you’re trying to gain or re-qualify for status, avoid these fares.
No lifetime flights miles. Trying to earn Million Miler status? Avoid these fares.
How About Upgrades?
No EconomyPlus or upgrading. Even a top-tier Global Services member who purchases an Economy Basic fare would technically not be eligible for EconomyPlus. Upgrades will not be sold to Economy Basic travelers and miles cannot be used to upgrade.
Last Boarding Group. Even if two carry-on bags were permitted, by the time Group 5 boards, the overhead bin space is likely be gone anyway. Like the carry-on limit, this rule does not apply to MileagePlus elite members or United-branded credit card holders.
Cannot combine with partner carriers. Say you are going to Canada and want to fly United’s Basic Economy in one direction and Air Canada in the other. Not possible unless you book as two separate one ways. United also will not check your bag through if you are on an Economy Basic ticket connecting to another Star Alliance or even United flight on a separate itienrary.
What Comes With United Basic Economy?
Once onboard, service levels between United Economy and Basic Economy will be identical. Light snacks and non-alcoholic beverages will still be free. Wi-Fi and IFE will be available for purchase. Award miles will still be earned and club access permitted (for qualified members or one-time pass holders) on Basic Economy tickets.
Will United Basic Economy Be Sold in All Markets?
No. We don’t know yet whether United will offer these fares only in markets where it faces stiff ultra-low-cost competition from the likes of Spirit and Frontier or in a broader market. United has made clear that Basic Economy will not be offered on every United flight.
Will These Restrictions Really Be Enforced?
Flight Attendants are very excited about the new Basic Economy fare structure because it will presumably reduce the number of carry-on bags brought on planes. This has been a perennial problem that inevitably requires several bags in the final boarding group to be gate-checked. Gate agents, on the other hand, are not as excited. They will be forced to enforce this new policy and my prediction is that the carry-on enforcement will be hit or miss.
Already, gate agents are supposed to carefully check each carry-on bag brought onboard to ensure it fits into a sizer bin located at each gate. Few do. Gate agents are also supposed to limit passengers to one carry-on bag and one personal item. Instead, I routinely see people schlepping the “kitchen sink” onboard. With intense pressure to get flights out on time, I think we will see many instances in which gate agents will not enforce this rule.
I also wonder whether United really can keep these Basic Fares out of EconomyPlus without “upgrading” regular United Economy passengers (creating an even bigger hassle at the gate). Here’s how it usually works — people book tickets and choose seat assignments in the regular economy class cabin. The cabin fills up and no further seat assignments are available unless you pay to upgrade to EconomyPlus. But many of the tight-fisted passengers who hold off on a seat assignment end up getting EconomyPlus for free — because they are the only seats left in the economy cabin. United is going to somehow have to block additional seats in the regular economy cabin that match or approximate the number of Basic Economy fares sold if it wants to ensure that these “cheap” passengers don’t wind up with prize unclaimed seats at the last minute when seat assignments are given.
The sad thing about these fares is that they will just replace the cheapest fare bucket available now: it’s not like we will see even cheaper fares than are available now. Thus, this represents a cutback. I find it odd that United will not award lifetime flight miles for these tickets. But I do appreciate that these new Basic Economy fares will have the chance to finally solve the carry-on problem. If the era of crammed overhead bins is over on United, these changes will be a net-positive.