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How to Make the Most of United’s Basic Economy

Aug. 29, 2019
Loyalty Programs, Travel, Travel Credit Cards, Vacations & Trip Planning
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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. Luckily, there are ways around United’s restrictive basic economy fare rules. Below is an overview of how you can make the best of United basic economy.

» Learn more: United Airlines MileagePlus program: The complete guide

What is United basic economy?

United basic economy is the no-frills, cheapest fare offered by the airline. Similar to other major airlines, United basic economy provides the same in-flight amenities as regular economy class. The difference is in the following restrictions imposed on basic economy fares:

  • No complimentary seat selection: United will assign your seat prior to boarding (or you may be able to pay extra to select one).
  • No upgrades: No paid or complimentary upgrades are allowed, regardless of elite status.
  • No family seating: Families and groups are not guaranteed seats together, unless they pay for seat selection in advance.
  • Fees for carry-on bags on domestic flights: No full-sized carry-on bags are allowed on domestic flights — only a personal item. Passengers who bring a full-sized carry-on bag on a domestic flight will be required to gate check it and pay a $25 handling fee.
  • No ticket changes: No changes or cancellations after 24 hours of booking.
  • Last to board: Basic economy passengers will board the plane last, unless they have elite status or a qualifying United credit card.
  • Elite qualification: MileagePlus members will earn 50% of the normal Premier Qualifying Miles (PQMs) and 0.5 Premier Qualifying Segments (PQSs).

While United basic economy has a lot of restrictions, there are some ways around them. Here are a few.

Using credit card benefits in United 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 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℠ Card (annual fee: $450): 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℠ Explorer Business Card (annual fee: $95): 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.

» Learn more: Benefits of United Airlines credit cards

United elite status 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 depend 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.

Military members in basic economy

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.

The bottom line

Basic economy fares on United are pretty 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.

Before booking United basic economy, be sure to take all of these factors into account and figure out how to make this fare work for you. One way to do this is with our calculator below, which will help determine the total cost of your ticket, and compare the tradeoffs of basic economy to main cabin based on whether you have elite status and/or airline credit cards.

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

All information about the Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express and the Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express has been collected independently by NerdWallet. The Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express and the Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express are no longer available through NerdWallet.

How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2019, including those best for:
Planning a trip? Check out these articles for more inspiration and advice:
Find the best travel credit card for you
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The information related to the United Club℠ Business Card has been collected by NerdWallet and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card.

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