Are you thinking about saving a little bit of money by flying Basic Economy on United Airlines?
If so, you’re probably curious about the differences between United Basic Economy and regular (or standard) economy.
In this article, we’ll take a deep dive at all of the big (and small) differences so that you know exactly what to expect before flying on Basic Economy.
I’ll also analyze the price differences and give you some insight into whether or not it’s worth it to fly United Basic Economy.
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Table of Contents
Booking United Airlines Basic Economy
Booking a United Airlines Basic Economy fare will be the same process as booking a ticket for standard economy.
If there is a United Airlines Basic Economy fare available, you’ll clearly see it when selecting your fare during booking.
Also, the differences between economy and Basic Economy will be made very clear to you as you go through the booking process.
Multiple windows will appear showing you the difference between the two so that you don’t make an uninformed decision.
But even with all of those prompts, there still are quite a few nuances that you want to be aware of and I’ll go into those below.
Full-sized carry-on bags
The biggest difference between economy and Basic Economy that most people are probably familiar with is the carry-on baggage policy.
Basic economy fares do not allow you to bring on a free carry-on bag on all routes.
However, some routes will allow you to bring a free carry-on item and those include:
- Trans-Pacific flights to and from the US
- Trans-Atlantic flights to and from the US (flights to Europe, Africa and the Middle East)
- Flights to and from Mexico and Central America, and South America.
Also, if you have a certain type of membership you might still be able to bring a carry-on even with the Basic Economy ticket.
These memberships include if you are a:
- MileagePlus Premier member or companion traveling on the same reservation
- Primary cardmember of a qualifying MileagePlus credit card or
- Star Alliance Gold member.
If you are not allowed a carry-on bag but bring one anyways you will be required to pay the applicable checked baggage fee. In addition to that, you will likely be charged a $25 gate handling fee.
Just like standard economy passengers, United Basic Economy passengers are still allowed to bring a personal item.
A personal item is basically a smaller carry-on which could be something like a small backpack, purse, laptop, etc.
The dimensions allowed for your personal item are: 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches (22 cm x 25 cm x 43 cm) or less. In my experience, if the object can easily fit under your seat it should not be a problem.
Mobility aids, assistive devices and medical devices including breast pumps are also permitted.
Economy passengers are allowed to select their seat at the time of booking. During that time, you’ll be shown a seat map of the plane and you can select any open seat or choose to pay more for an Economy Plus seat.
However, if you book a Basic Economy ticket, your seat will automatically be assigned prior to boarding (at check-in) and you cannot change it once you have been assigned to it.
In some cases when booking a Basic Economy ticket it will be possible to purchase advance seat assignments during booking and up until check-in opens.
This can be done after you input your personal information during booking and prices will differ based on your route and where in the cabin you are selecting a seat.
For a standard seat in economy, the price for seat selection may range from $10 to $20.
As you’ll see below, sometimes the price difference between economy and Basic Economy is not that great so selecting your seats could be more expensive than just booking economy.
Note: MileagePlus members, including MileagePlus Premier members, will not earn PQP or other accruals toward Premier status for purchasing a standard Economy seat assignment
If you want to purchase Economy Plus tickets, that will only be available at the time of check-in.
Elite benefits and upgrades
Also, MileagePlus Premier members won’t be eligible for complimentary Economy Plus seating. That’s actually a pretty major drawback because Economy Plus upgrades for elite members are extremely common to get.
Note: MileagePlus members, including Premier members, cannot use complimentary, earned or mileage upgrades, or Economy Plus subscription benefits.
Groups and families
When it comes to selecting your seats, a major factor to keep in mind is that customers traveling in groups (including families) will not be placed in seats together.
The only way to ensure that you’ll be seated by each other is if you book advanced seat assignments.
Seat assignments can be made for unaccompanied minors flying on United.
If you are dealing with an unaccompanied minor on a Basic Economy ticket, call the United Customer Contact Center after you finish your booking and pay the unaccompanied minor fee.
Passengers with disabilities
Passengers with disabilities can be accommodated when purchasing a Basic Economy ticket. You just need to make sure that you make a request at least 24 hours in advance of the scheduled flight.
United Airlines has a pretty straightforward boarding process. If you booked an economy ticket you’ll be boarding somewhere between groups 3 through 5, unless some special status applies.
However, if you have a Basic Economy ticket you will be the last to board the plane in group 5.
Normally, that would cause issues for finding overhead storage bin space for your carry-on bag. However, in this case you won’t have a carry-on bag so it is much less of an issue.
There is a very high chance you’ll be given a middle seat so be prepared for that.
Something to be aware of is that if you are a United Basic Economy passenger, you can still retain your priority boarding if you are a:
- MileagePlus Premier member or companion traveling on the same reservation
- The primary cardmember of a qualifying MileagePlus credit card or
- A Star Alliance Gold member.
For the most part, the checked baggage policies for United Basic Economy and regular economy are the same. However, things might be slightly different on international flights.
That is because for Basic Economy fares on trans-Atlantic flights, you’ll have to pay for your first checked bag.
Refunds and changes
There is no change fee for most United standard economy tickets. The only out-of-pocket expense you would have when changing a standard economy ticket would be if the fare is more expensive.
However, things are much different for United Basic Economy. In order to make a change you would have to add economy benefits (which I talk about below).
Basic Economy tickets are not eligible for changes, but are eligible for a full refund inside 24 hours of booking as long as you completed your purchase one week or more before the original scheduled departure flight.
Also, if you cancel a United Basic Economy ticket, you will not get a travel credit. Instead, you would have to add the economy benefits in order to receive a travel credit upon canceling.
Most likely that travel credit will be good for 12 months from the time of ticketing.
MileagePlus and Premier member benefits
If you’re wondering about earning miles and credit toward elite status things are almost the same between economy and Basic Economy.
MileagePlus members will earn award miles for Basic Economy tickets but they will be at 50% the rate as a standard economy ticket.
They will also earn Premier Qualifying Points (PQP) as well as lifetime miles and accrue toward the four-segment minimum.
But one major difference is that Basic Economy tickets are not eligible for Premier Qualifying Flights (PQFs).
If you’re wondering about checked baggage, elite members will still receive the complimentary checked baggage allowance they are entitled to.
The in-flight experience for a Basic Economy and economy passenger will be very similar.
Basic Economy passengers will still have access to purchase things like in-flight Wi-Fi, entertainment, food, drinks, etc.
And contrary to some rumors that surfaced at some point, Basic Economy passengers will not have to pay to use the lavatory.
Adding economy benefits (upgrading)
If you purchase a Basic Economy ticket but end up deciding that you don’t want to miss out on the standard economy benefits, you can still add them.
Prices may vary but you might be paying around $45. Keep in mind that every passenger on the itinerary must be upgraded with economy benefits — you cannot mix economy passengers with Basic Economy.
This can be done after the time of booking by visiting the Trip Details page on united.com, or Reservation Details in the United mobile app.
If you’re in the middle of the trip you can still add economy benefits to your return trip as long as the return trip has not started.
Obviously, the sooner you act the more seats you will have available to you, so acting quick can be very beneficial.
The Basic Economy upgrade benefits include being able to:
- Cancel or change your flight without paying a change fee
- Bring one full-size carry-on item on board
- Receive a complimentary seat assignment prior to check-in
- Purchase Economy Plus or premium cabin seats
- Enjoy select Premier status benefits associated with your Premier status: complimentary access to Economy Plus and preferred seating, Complimentary Premier Upgrades, and the option to upgrade using PlusPoints, as applicable
You may not be able to add economy benefits to all Basic Economy tickets but generally you should be able to when flying on select domestic U.S. flights and short-haul flights to Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America.
Note that you may not be able to add economy benefits if you purchased a bulk fare, award ticket, or a deeply discounted ticket.
Now that you know about all of the major differences and benefits between basic economy and economy, let’s take a look at the price differences for some of the most popular routes.
After analyzing 100 data points, we found that United Basic Economy was on average about 18% cheaper than economy.
The price difference could range from a small as $3 to over $60 so if you’re choosing between the two fares you don’t always want to assume that United Basic Economy is a far superior deal.
Here is all of the data that we found.
|Chicago, IL (ORD)|
|Phoenix, AZ (PHX)||$185||$199|
|Seattle, WA (SEA)||$232||$249|
|Washingon, D.C. (DCA)||$69||$94|
|Las Vegas, NV (LAS)||$192||$195|
|Dallas/Fort Worth, TX (DFW)||$79||$89|
|Baltimore, MD (BWI)||$89||$109|
|Atlanta, GA (ATL)||$163||$173|
|Akron, OH (CAK)||$116||$194|
|Cedar Rapids, IA (CID)||$141||$169|
|Charleston, WV (CRW)||$184||$209|
|Denver, CO (DEN)|
|Phoenix, AZ (PHX)||$64||$84|
|Allentown, PA (ABE)||$156||$181|
|Brownsville, TX (BRO)||$123||$168|
|Butte, MT (BTM)||$79||$89|
|Cheyenne, WY (CYS)||$56||$61|
|Dodge City, KS (DDC)||$96||$107|
|Fresno, CA (FAT)||$127||$167|
|Harlingen, TX (HRL)||$123||$168|
|Hobbs, NM (HOB)||$173||$193|
|Joplin, MO (JLN)||$122||$127|
|Houston, TX (IAH)|
|San Antonio, TX (SAT)||$79||$104|
|San Diego, CA (SAN)||$149||$174|
|Austin, TX (AUS)||$59||$84|
|Jacksonville, FL (JAX)||$129||$154|
|Columbus, OH (CMH)||$139||$164|
|Indianapolis, IN (IND)||$129||$154|
|Lincoln, NE (LNK)||$224||$249|
|Louisville, KY (SDF)||$192||$231|
|Madison, WI (MSN)||$158||$183|
|Manchester, NH (MHT)||$177||$227|
|Los Angeles, CA (LAX)|
|San Diego, CA (SAN)||$89||$114|
|Dallas/Fort Worth, TX (DFW)||$182||$193|
|Austin, TX (AUS)||$70||$99|
|Jacksonville, FL (JAX)||$256||$267|
|Mason City, IA (MCW)||$165||$220|
|McAllen, TX (MFE)||$168||$193|
|Miami, FL (MIA)||$229||$233|
|Milwaukee, WI (MKE)||$308||$329|
|Mobile, AL (MOB)||$250||$267|
|New York, NY (LGA)||$199||$218|
|New York, NY (EWR)|
|Phoenix, AZ (PHX)||$137||$168|
|Philadelphia, PA (PHL)||$174||$199|
|San Antonio, TX (SAT)||$108||$133|
|San Diego, CA (SAN)||$158||$198|
|Dallas/Fort Worth, TX (DFW)||$99||$134|
|Austin, TX (AUS)||$94||$119|
|Jacksonville, FL (JAX)||$49||$74|
|Columbus, OH (CMH)||$89||$114|
|Indianapolis, IN (IND)||$119||$144|
|Charlotte, NC (CLT)||$119||$144|
When United Basic Economy is not worth it
There are a few instances when United Basic Economy will probably not be worth it.
- You want to bring a carry-on item
- You want to sit together with a family or group
- You think you might need flexibility to make a change or cancel
- You need to earn Premier Qualifying Flights (PQFs)
As you can tell from above, the price difference between economy and United Basic Economy is not always that much but the price to add economy benefits can be much higher than that difference.
For example, imagine purchasing United Basic Economy because it is $20 cheaper but then having to shell out $45 to make a change or cancellation.
So at the end of the day you may end up spending more money trying to save if you later end up realizing you need the economy benefits.
United Basic Economy FAQ
United Airlines states that “Basic Economy fares are available on select routes” so you might not be able to find these on every route.
On domestic flights you are not offered a free carry-on but on many international routes you will be allowed a free carry-on bag.
No, you cannot change a Basic Economy fare. Instead, you will have to add economy benefits in order to make a change to your flight. This essentially works out to be a “change fee.”
Yes, you can earn Premier Qualifying Points (PQP) as well as lifetime miles and accrue toward the four-segment minimum. But Basic Economy tickets are not eligible for Premier Qualifying Flights (PQFs).
You can take a personal item with you but full-sized carry-on bags are not allowed on many routes. When flying internationally, you may be allowed a carry-on bag so be sure to check the terms of your booking.
The standard checked bag fees will apply. However, if you have to check a carry-on bag you will have to pay an additional $25.
Upgrading can be done after the time of booking by visiting the Trip Details page on united.com or Reservation Details in the United mobile app. You may not be able to add economy benefits to all Basic Economy tickets.
The price will differ based on the route and where in the cabin you are selecting a seat. Prices can be as cheap as $10 but can increase to $20+.
We analyzed 100 data points and found that United Basic Economy is approximately 18% cheaper on average.
United Basic Economy is a way to save money on airfare no doubt. If you don’t have a need for a carry-on and don’t care where you sit on the plane, it could make sense for you to purchase a Basic Economy fare.
The problem is that if an unexpected situation arises and you need to make a change or cancellation, you may end up spending more money than you initially would have had you simply booked an economy ticket.
Also, while you can retain some elite benefits like priority boarding and free checked baggage, you lose out on things like upgrades to economy plus.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC.