The Guide to United Basic Economy

Basic economy is the cheapest United fare, but you’ll miss out on some of the conveniences of regular economy.
Meg Lee
Elina Geller
Ariana Arghandewal
By Ariana Arghandewal,  Elina Geller and  Meg Lee 
Updated
Edited by Meg Lee

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Basic economy fares are the latest trend in the airline industry. This is the cheapest fare class available on many airlines — stripped of things like advanced seat selection, upgrade eligibility, itinerary changes and free checked bags.

While the savings can be significant, these fares can end up costing more than you expect if you value any of the above perks. Here's what to know about United Airlines basic economy to help you decide if the savings are worth it.

What is basic economy on United?

Basic economy is United’s least-expensive economy fare class. Unlike some of the other perks (i.e. free checked bag, seat selection) included on a regular economy ticket, basic economy offers nothing extra.

In addition, you'll board last and may not be able to bring a carry-on.

For all of its restrictions and limitations, these types of fares are easy on the wallet. A NerdWallet analysis of flights from Chicago-ORD to 10 destinations across the country found a basic economy ticket will typically save you $60 on your base fare.

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United economy vs. basic economy

Is United economy the same as basic economy? No, the flight experience varies across these two ticket types.

Although you’ll pay slightly more for a regular economy ticket, the benefits can outweigh the cost. Here are the key differences between United economy versus basic economy tickets:

Economy

Basic economy

Price

More expensive.

Cheaper.

Boarding

Group 3-5.

United elites, Star Alliance Gold members and United credit card holders can have a better boarding position.

Last group.

United elites, Star Alliance Gold members and United credit card holders can have a better boarding position.

Seat selection

Free.

Can purchase seat at booking. If not purchased, seat is assigned before boarding and cannot be changed.

Economy Plus seat

Can purchase. Free for elites.

Can purchase at check in only.

Elites don't get a free Economy Plus seat.

Personal item

Free.

Free.

Carry on bag fee

Free.

Free on international flights only.

On domestic flights, not allowed unless elite or have a United credit card.

Checked bag fee

Free on all international flights.

For all other flights, must pay unless elite member or have United credit card.

Free on trans-Pacific flights only.

For all other flights, must pay unless elite member or have United credit card.

Ticket changes

Not allowed outside 24-hour cancellation policy.

Refund

Depends on when you purchased the ticket and the fare class.

Not allowed outside 24-hour cancellation policy.

Mileage earning

Yes.

Yes.

Status earning

Earn PQP and PQF.

Earn PQP only.

As you can see, each part of the flying experience from booking to take off is worse if you’re flying in basic economy. Even if the money spent is on par with an economy ticket, you’d board last and would miss out on earning Premier Qualifying Flights that you need to reach elite status.

Only you can decide if purchasing a basic economy ticket is worth the perks you forego. However, if you just need to get from point A to B and don’t value any of the benefits included in a regular economy ticket, going with a basic economy fare can save some money.

Although United basic economy tickets have a lot of restrictions, there are some ways around them, including purchasing a la carte economy benefits.

How credit card benefits work in basic economy

Some of the restrictions around United basic economy fares are waived for those who carry one of the airline’s co-branded credit cards. That includes priority boarding and free checked bag allowances.

If you have one of these cards already, be sure to add your MileagePlus number to your United basic economy reservation to get the priority boarding benefit. To receive these perks, you must purchase your ticket with the qualifying credit card.

  • United℠ Explorer Card (annual fee: $0 intro for the first year, then $95): One free checked bag for the primary cardholder and one companion traveling on the same reservation. Priority boarding for primary cardholder and companions on the same reservation.

  • United Club℠ Infinite Card (annual fee: $525): Two free checked bags for the primary cardholder and one companion traveling on the same reservation. The primary cardholder and travel companions on the same reservation qualify for Premier Access benefits, which include priority boarding.

  • United℠ Business Card (annual fee: $0 intro for the first year, then $99): One free checked bag for the cardholder and a companion traveling on the same reservation. Priority boarding applies to the primary cardholder and travel companions on the same reservation.

  • United Club℠ Business Card (annual fee: $450): Two free checked bags for the cardholder and a companion traveling on the same reservation. Primary cardholder and travel companions on the same reservation qualify for Premier Access benefits, which include priority boarding.

  • United Quest℠ Card (annual fee: $250): Two free checked bags for the cardholder and a companion traveling on the same reservation.

Elite status holders still get perks in basic economy

United MileagePlus Premier members receive similar benefits on basic economy fares. These include free checked bags for MileagePlus Premier members and their travel companions, as well as priority boarding. The number of free checked bags depends on your Premier status level:

  • Premier Silver: Priority boarding and one free checked bag.

  • Premier Gold: Priority boarding and two free checked bags.

  • Premier Platinum & Premier 1K: Priority boarding and three free checked bags.

What else you need to know

United Airlines military baggage basic economy allowance

United offers five free checked bags to active duty U.S. military personnel and their accompanying dependents when traveling on official business. The allowance is lowered to three checked bags for personal travel.

Military members also receive pre-boarding privileges while flying United. In other words, the negative aspects of basic economy fares are mostly offset for members of the military — the lack of advance seat assignments will probably be your biggest headache.

United bag fee calculator

Before booking United basic economy, use our calculator below, which will help determine the total cost of your ticket (including any bag fees), so you can compare the trade-offs of Basic Economy to the main cabin based on whether you have elite status and/or airline credit cards.

Note that this calculator applies to domestic flights only. International baggage rules are more complex.

How do I know if I have basic economy on United?

Before purchasing: Basic economy tickets are not offered on every route. If this ticket option is available on a particular flight, you'll see the option displayed on the flight search results page on united.com or under "Choose your travel experience" in the United app.

After purchasing: Check your fare class. What letter is basic economy on United? These tickets are usually classified as N.

🤓Nerdy Tip

Another way to know if you bought a basic economy ticket is if you're eligible to select a seat. If you can select a seat, you have an economy ticket or higher. This perk isn't available for the lowest ticketed passengers.

Does United basic economy include a carry-on?

Many frugal flyers often double as carry-on only travelers. So does United basic economy include a carry-on?

The short answer is that basic economy flyers on United cannot bring a carry-on bag on domestic flights unless they hold elite status or have a United credit card. This rule changes, however, on international flights, where basic economy flyers can bring a carry-on for free.

How much is a checked bag on United basic economy?

Unless you're elite or have a United credit card, basic economy class passengers can expect to pay $35 (or $30 if prepaid) for the first checked bag and $45 ($40 if prepaid) for the second checked bag on domestic flights. You can, also get a free checked bag in basic economy on Trans-Pacific flights.

These are the same United baggage fees that economy class passengers are subject to.

Can I upgrade from basic economy to economy on United?

Yes, it's possible to purchase a United upgrade from basic economy to economy for certain flights. Travel within the U.S. and short-haul flights to Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America cost a flat fee of $45 to "Switch to Economy."

Basic economy across U.S. airlines

In NerdWallet's annual analysis of the best airlines, we compared the basic economy experience across the major U.S. airlines currently offering a basic economy fare.

We looked at restrictions and allowances, including baggage, miles earning and trip modification policies. Here's how they stacked up:

United basic economy, recapped

Basic economy fares on United are restrictive if you’re someone who appreciates flexibility and peace of mind while traveling. But the most unpleasant aspects of this cheap fare can be eliminated with benefits reserved for United elites and those who hold the co-branded United credit cards.

If you anticipate traveling in basic economy frequently, picking up a United credit card might be worthwhile. If you’re traveling with a friend or family member who has United Premier elite status, it’s absolutely worth booking your flights together to piggyback on their baggage and priority boarding benefits.


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