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Figuring out the boarding process is not always the easiest task because there are so many different types of boarding groups (and sub-groups).
In this article, I will break down all of the United Airlines boarding groups and explain to you exactly how the boarding process works including how to avoid getting stuck in the dreaded Group 4 or Group 5 boarding groups. I will also show you what to expect in terms of things like leg room with the different types of aircraft you might be flying in.
How many boarding groups does United have?
United Airlines has a total of five boarding groups:
- Pre-boarding (Top tier elites, Military, Disabilities, etc.)
- Group 1 (Business class in first class, upper elite levels)
- Group 2 (Lower elite levels, United credit card holders)
- Group 3 (Economy passengers)
- Group 4 (Economy passengers)
- Group 5 (Economy passengers)
How does United Airlines boarding work?
The boarding process for United Airlines is very similar to most other airlines. First is checking in to the airport. Generally, you want to arrive about an hour before your flight if you’re not checking in bags and 90 minutes if you are checking bags.
If you are an experienced traveler or are familiar with the airport and wait times of course you can arrive even sooner than that, especially if you have TSA Pre-Check and/or CLEAR.
After you get through security you will need to wait until the plane begins the boarding process. You can find the estimated boarding time on your boarding pass. Just note that this time is the subject to change depending on the status of delays. In addition, it’s always possible that your gate could change as well so always keep your eye on the monitors.
For a lot of flights, you can utilize the United Airlines app and set up push notifications for when boarding begins. Of course, it would still be wise to keep an eye on the time yourself just in case you don’t receive the push notification.
The planes usually start to board about 35 to 50 minutes prior to departure depending on the size of the aircraft. For example, a 737 may begin to board 35 minutes before departure but a 757 will be closer to 50 minutes.
I like to arrive at the gate about 15 minutes prior to the estimated boarding time. However, if you are flying on a large aircraft and you want to get close to the front of the line you might have to arrive even sooner than 15 minutes before.
Once you arrive at the gate to board you should see signs telling you where you need to lineup. Groups one and two will be able to line up but United may ask for groups three through five to have a seat until those groups are called at a later time.
Group 1 will board through the blue lane and Group 2 will board through the green lane (as you can see in the photo below). The remaining Groups 3-5 will then board through the green lane when called, and Groups 1 and 2 can continue to board through the blue lane.
If you are in Group 1 or 2 and show up late, you can always enter through the blue lane and bypass the line of other passengers.
What order does United board its planes?
I will go into detail about each boarding group below but once again here is a summary of the order of United boarding groups.
- Pre-boarding (Top tier elites, Military, Disabilities, etc.)
- Group 1 (Business class and first class, mid elite levels)
- Group 2 (Lower elite levels, United credit card holders)
- Groups 3 – 5 (Economy passengers)
There are special rules regarding traveling as an unaccompanied minor and you can read more about those here.
Customers with disabilities
If you have a visible disability (such as being in a wheel chair, on crutches, etc.), you will be able to board without questions. But if your visibility is not as apparent, you should speak to a gate agent about getting priority boarding. (Typically, the gate agent should make an announcement about boarding with a disability.) Related: Guide to Visiting Airports & Flying with Vision Impairments.
Active members of the military
United Airlines does not require active members of the military to be in their military uniform. Related: check out all of the benefits military members can take advantage of when flying.
United Global Services members
United Global Services is the top elite status for United Airlines. It is somewhat mysterious in that you have to get invited to join this status. The requirements have a lot to do with the amount of money that you spend and the types of airfare that you book. You can read more about United Global Services and the requirements for it here.
Families traveling with children age 2 and younger
If you are traveling with children two years or younger, you can also get priority boarding.
Premier 1K members
Premier 1K Is the second highest elite membership level. This elite level is not a invite only status and can be earned by meeting the following requirements.
Group 1 caters to the mid-level elite members and also to anybody flying first class, business class, or Polaris.
Premier Platinum members
Platinum is the elite level just under 1K.
Premier Gold members
Premier Gold is the level just under Platinum.
Star Alliance Gold members
Star Alliance Silver status is the higher level of Star Alliance status and you will receive this if you are a United Premier Gold member. This status is useful because it comes with lounge perks.
Customers seated in premium cabins: United Polaris, United First and United Business
If you are flying in the front of the plane then you will be able to board with Group One. If you are flying on a large aircraft like the Dreamliner the line in Group 1 can get quite long so you may want to arrive extra early to the gate if you want to be the first to board. To find out more about the United first class experience click here.
Group Two is for the lower-elite members and also for certain customers who have co-branded cards or who have purchased priority boarding perks. This line can be pretty long sometimes, too.
Premier Silver members
United Premier Silver is the lowest level of the status with United Airlines. This status can easily be achieved and you can even get it with Marriott status. Click here to read more about United Silver status.
Star Alliance Silver members
Star Alliance Silver status is the lowest level of Star Alliance status and you will receive this if you are a United Premier Silver member.
Customers who have purchased Premier Access or Priority Boarding
Even if you don’t have you elite status and you are not flying business class or first class you can still get priority boarding by purchasing it or by purchasing Premier Access. Priority boarding prices start at $15 and whether or not it’s worth it just depends on how much you value getting on board earlier.
If you choose to purchase Premier Access, in addition to Priority Boarding, you’ll also enjoy the convenience of dedicated airport check-in lines and exclusive security lanes, where available. Read more about purchasing Premier Access.
United Explorer, Club, Presidential Plus and Awards Cardmembers
If you or a United cobranded cardholder for the Explorer card, United Club Card, or Presidential Plus card you can also get priority boarding.
I am a big fan of the Explorer card because it offers some great benefits like free checked baggage (even on international flights), priority boarding, increased award inventory, and you also get two free day passes to United club lounges each year. And on top of that the Explorer card often comes with a great welcome bonus.
Groups 3, 4, and 5
Groups 3 through five don’t line up until the others have begin boarding and it consists of pretty much everybody in economy class. The secret to getting a Group 3 vs Group 4 or Group 5 boarding group is to pick the right type of seat.
Economy passengers who choose a window seat should get group 3, passengers who pick a middle seat should get group 4, and passengers who choose an aisle seat will get group 5 (along with basic economy passengers). This order is optimized for order so that passengers don’t have to trample over each other.
Economy plus is the slightly more expensive version of the economy that allows you to have more leg room. The prices for upgrading to economy plus will vary depending on the location of the seat and the route. If you have United elite status you will often get bumped up from economy to economy plus. (This is the case even with the lowest level of status.)
Traditional economy tickets will be the second to last to board.
If you purchased a basic economy ticket you will be the last to board. Basic economy tickets are the cheapest type of tickets and they do not come with privileges such as bringing on a free carry on or being able to select a seat. These are not very ideal for families traveling who would like to stick together on the plane but if you are just trying to find the cheapest way to get from point A to point B this could be a good option.
There is an exception to note here. Premier members, Chase Cardmembers of qualifying cards and Star Alliance Gold members, will still receive their priority boarding.
Bringing on a carry-on
If you are in the first few groups, you shouldn’t have any issues bringing on a carry-on to the aircraft but if you are boarding at the end, such as in Group 4 or Group 5 it’s possible that you might not have enough room for your carry-on in the over head bins. In that case, you’ll need to gate check your bag. (Read here for more about what type of luggage you can bring on to the plane).
Choosing a seat on United Airlines
The seats are assigned on United airlines. So unlike the Southwest boarding process, you’ll have a seat dedicated to you. You can choose your seat whenever you purchase your ticket or at the time of check-in.
United seating details (seating chart)
Below is what you can expect in terms of leg room and seats with different United aicraft.
Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner
- Business: 6’6″ pitch; 20.6″ width
- Economy Plus: 35″ pitch; 17.3″ width
- Economy: 30″ pitch; 16.3″ to 17.3″
Boeing 777-200 (777)
- Business: 6’4″ to 6’6″ pitch; 18.8″ to 22″ width
- Economy Plus: 34″ pitch; 18.1″ width
- Economy: 31″ pitch; 17.2″ to 18.1″ width
Boeing 777-300ER (77W)
- Business/Polaris: 6’6″ pitch; 18.8″ to 22″ width
- United Premium Plus: 38″ pitch; 18.5″ width
- Economy Plus: 34″ pitch; 17.05″ width
- Economy: 31″ pitch; 17.05″ width
- Business: 38″ pitch;
- Economy Plus: 34″ to 38″ pitch;
- Economy: 30″ pitch;
Boeing 737-800 (738)
- Business: 37″ pitch; 20.5″ width
- Economy Plus: 34″ pitch; 16.3″ to 17.3″ width
- Economy: 30″ pitch; 16.3″ to 17.3″ width
Airbus 320 (320)
- Business: 39″ pitch; 19″ width
- Economy Plus: 35″ pitch; 17″ width
- Economy: 30″ pitch; 17″ width
There are several other different types of aircraft and also different versions of those planes. So if you want to check out a complete list of all of those click here.
It’s very easy to get priority boarding with United so that you board within the first two groups. In fact, it’s so easy that many times you’ll find that these longs are very long. If you’re not able to get a boarding position in the first two groups, consider choosing a window seat so that you can board the plane in Group 3 and stay away from the basic economy tickets that will have you boarding last.
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H-Town based Attorney turned credit card rewards expert. Founder of UponArriving.com.