United Credit Card Can Get You Past Carry-On Restrictions

The airline's 'Basic Economy' fares limit passengers to one small bag. But cardholders are exempt.
Gregory KarpMay 17, 2021

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United Airlines' no-frills "Basic Economy" fares prohibit passengers who buy them from bringing aboard anything but a small carry-on on domestic flights. But having a United credit card can be your ticket past the restriction.

Basic Economy fares, which the airline began offering in 2017, limit domestic passengers to carrying on a single "personal item" that can fit under the seat in front of them. United defines a personal item as a shoulder bag, backpack, laptop bag or other small item that measures no larger than 9 inches by 10 inches by 17 inches.

Any other baggage will have to be checked — for a fee. That includes standard roll-aboard bags and duffels.

Nerdy tip: As of May 2021, United was charging $35 to check a passenger's first bag at the airport and $45 for a second bag. (Prepaying for checked bags online drops those prices to $30 and $40, respectively.) Basic Economy passengers who bring an ineligible bag to the gate will have to pay the fee plus a $25 gate handling charge. 

The exceptions

However, certain Basic Economy passengers are exempt from the baggage restrictions and can still bring full-size carry-ons and use the overhead bins:

  • Holders of United credit cards who pay for the flight with the card.

  • United MileagePlus Premier members and Star Alliance Gold members.

  • Travelers on trans-Atlantic flights to and from the U.S., Mexico and Central America, as well as those flying to and from El Salvador, Panama and South America.

Free checked bags

Some United cardholders also have the option of checking their first bag for free.

The United℠ Explorer Card, for example, has an annual fee of $0 intro for the first year, then $95. The first checked bag is free for the cardholder and a companion traveling on the same reservation — so a couple who each check a bag could make up for the card’s annual fee in a single round trip by saving $120 to $140 in fees.

The higher-priced New United Quest℠ Card and United Club℠ Infinite Card give cardholders and a companion their first and second checked-bags free. But the $0-annual-fee United Gateway℠ Card does not offer a checked-bag benefit.

While several general-purpose travel credit cards offer higher reward rates and more flexible redemption options, airline-branded cards are the only ones to provide free checked bags.

The luggage limit isn't the only restriction that United Basic Economy fliers have to contend with. No-frills passengers also board the plane last, unless they have an airline credit card or elite-flier status. And they're given whatever seats are left over after higher-fare passengers are assigned seats. That means families and groups on the same Basic Economy itinerary won’t necessarily sit together.

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