United Airlines: Basic Economy vs. Economy vs. Economy Plus

Each economy fare level offers different perks along with standard economy seating.

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Nerdy takeaways
  • United restricts full-sized carry-ons for its basic economy tickets.

  • Basic economy tickets are ineligible for refunds and don't include seat selection.

  • Economy Plus features standard economy seats with extra legroom.

  • Standard economy includes seat selection and a free carry-on.

  • All three economy classes charge for checked bags on domestic flights.

United Airlines is one of the largest airlines in the U.S., with a route network spanning the world. As a result, it offers several levels of service to customers, ranging from basic economy all the way up to first class. But what’s the difference between United Airlines basic economy versus economy versus Economy Plus?

Let’s take a look at the varying features of United economy brands, including seats, fare restrictions and checked baggage limits.

The basic differences

United Airlines has seven different classes of service:

  1. United Polaris.

  2. United First (domestic).

  3. United Business (transcontinental domestic, Latin America and the Caribbean).

  4. United Premium Plus (premium economy).

  5. United Economy Plus.

  6. United economy.

  7. United basic economy.

Even though the last three of these classes are similar in name, there are plenty of differences between United’s basic economy and economy, as well as between United’s economy and Economy Plus.

🤓Nerdy Tip

United’s premium economy product is titled Premium Plus, but it is also entirely separate from the airline's Economy Plus offering. Premium Plus is provided on long-haul international routes and features reclining seats similar to domestic first class products. Economy Plus, meanwhile, involves standard economy seats with additional legroom.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the differences between United's three economy-level airfare offerings.

Basic economy

Economy

Economy Plus

Checked bags (domestic)

Starting at $35 (prepaid) for your first bag.

Starting at $35 (prepaid) for your first bag.

Starting at $35 (prepaid) for your first bag.

Overhead carry-on bag

Free on transatlantic and transpacific flights; otherwise not allowed.

Free.

Free.

Seat assignments

Seats are assigned to you.

You can choose your seats for free.

You can choose your seats for free, located in the front section of economy.

Qualifies for elite benefits (including upgrades)

Earns Premier Qualifying Points, but flights do not count as Premier Qualifying Flights. No upgrades.

Yes.

Yes.

Flight changes allowed

No.

Yes.

Yes.

Earns MileagePlus miles

Yes.

Yes.

Yes.

Boarding group (out of 5 groups)

Last (Group 5).

Groups 3 through 5.

Groups 3 through 5.

Seat

Standard economy seat.

Standard economy seat.

Economy seat with extra legroom.

Changes and cancellations

Along with other major U.S. airlines, United has permanently done away with change fees for most domestic tickets and international flights starting in the U.S., including economy and Economy Plus tickets. While these tickets are generally still non-refundable, you will be able to save the fare you’ve paid as a flight credit valid for future use.

Basic economy tickets, meanwhile, remain both nonrefundable and non-changeable. If your travel plans change, you won’t be able to recoup the costs of your flight.

Baggage

Unlike other major carriers that offer free carry-on baggage regardless of fare class, United does not allow carry-on bags that need to be stored overhead for basic economy fares, unless you’re on a transpacific or transatlantic flight. Both economy and Economy Plus passengers receive this benefit free of charge, but all three fare types will need to pay for checked baggage when flying domestically.

Basic economy ticket holders will be restricted to a single personal item (like a purse or small backpack) that fits under the seat in front of them. If the personal item doesn't meet the posted standards, it'll need to be checked, which means an additional baggage fee. Economy and Economy Plus flyers will be able to take a personal item and carry-on bag on the flight without any extra fees.

Later, we’ll talk more about options for free checked bags, including United elite status and United co-branded credit cards.

Is United’s basic economy worth it?

The low price of a basic economy fare is tempting, but the ticket price alone doesn't tell the whole story.

Use the calculator below to calculate the cost of your ticket with add-ons to determine whether the difference in price between basic economy and economy on United is worth it for you.

Keep in mind that upgrading to Economy Plus will only net you more legroom, guaranteed in-seat power access and a seat closer to the front of the plane; it will not get you an additional baggage allowance.

What else you need to know

Points and miles nerds would be wise to use these tips on their next United economy class flight.

You can use credit card benefits to travel in basic economy

United Airlines offers personal and small business credit card options. All of the cards, with the exception of its no-fee credit card, offer at least one free checked bag for the cardholder and a companion.

In addition, most cardholders can expect free upgraded boarding and, depending on the card, access to the United Club lounge twice or more per year. This is true even if you’re booked in basic economy.

United’s credit cards are subject to Chase’s 5/24 rule, which restricts how many credit cards you can open in any 24-month period. And although you can hold multiple United cards at once, most of these benefits won’t stack. For example, you'll only ever get one free checked bag on your flight, even if you have two separate United credit cards.

Perks await when you fly economy with elite status

Those who hold United Premier elite status, regardless of level, become automatically eligible for upgrades to Economy Plus (or the next highest cabin if the plane doesn't have Economy Plus seats) when they book in economy class or higher. Basic economy tickets do not qualify. Upgrades are confirmed in order of priority based on your elite status tier.

Even better, those with Premier Platinum or Premier 1K status (the two highest levels) will be able to select Economy Plus seats at booking for themselves and up to eight companions free of charge. Premier Gold and Premier Silver members (the lower-level tiers) can select these seats for free for themselves and one companion; Gold members can make their selection during booking, while Silver members have to wait until check-in.

Premier Platinum members and above will also receive an annual allowance of PlusPoints, which can be used to upgrade domestic or international flights. United elite members who also hold a co-branded United credit card will be eligible for complimentary premier upgrades on award tickets. Meanwhile, United elites without a United credit card will not receive a complimentary upgrade on award tickets.

In addition to upgrades, elite members are entitled to early boarding, regardless of ticket type; your boarding group will depend on your elite status level. United also offers a free drink and snack to Premier 1K members traveling in economy.

Finally, those with Premier Silver or higher status will receive at least one free checked bag on all United flights, even when flying basic economy.

The bottom line

United has seven different fare classes, three of which include some version of regular economy seating. Of these, Economy Plus provides the most luxuries, with extra legroom and a generally better seat location.

Standard economy allows carry-on bags and complimentary seat selection, while basic economy, as the cheapest of the bunch, carries the most restrictions. Those seated in basic economy can expect limited baggage allowances, assigned seats and end-of-line boarding, although some of these can be offset by the perks of elite status or a United co-branded credit card.

Photo courtesy of United Airlines.


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