United has undergone quite a few changes in recent years. From the infamous BumpGate incident of 2017 to implementing new fare structures, you may be wondering if you should even buy that low fare on United or not.
Tips for Traveling on United Airlines
In this step-by-step guide to flying United Airlines, I’ll go over how to book and what to expect onboard a United Airlines flight.
What to Know Before You Book with United Airlines
United is a member of the Star Alliance, which is the largest airline alliance in the world. Some of its main airline partners include Air Canada, Air New Zealand, ANA, Avianca, Lufthansa, and Swiss. Many international flights may be sold by United but operated by codeshare partners so make sure to read the flight details to know which airline is actually operating your flight. Certain policies vary depending on the operating airline.
As a legacy carrier with many partnerships, United is able to re-route passengers more efficiently than ultra-low-cost carriers such as Spirit or Frontier that may have limited schedules. If prices are similar, it may be worthwhile to book a United flight over an ultra-low-cost carrier for this reason.
However, when comparing United to other legacy carriers such as American and Delta for domestic travel and short-haul international flights, keep in mind that United’s Basic Economy fare is more restrictive than the others and is similar to the ultra-low-cost carrier model, which only includes one small personal item.
Basic Economy vs Standard Economy on United Airlines
For those looking for the absolute lowest price from A to B who are willing to adhere to the restrictions, United’s Basic Economy fare may be right up your alley. If you prefer a classic experience and don’t mind paying a little more, it may be best to pony up and pay for a standard United Economy fare.
United sells Basic Economy fares on routes within the US/Canada and on routes from the US/Canada to Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and Europe. If you purchase a Basic Economy ticket on any of these routes, you will not be able to choose a specific seat for free, you’ll be last to board the aircraft, and you will not be allowed to make any changes/upgrades or cancel your ticket after the 24-hour risk-free cancellation period. Advanced seat assignments can be purchased for a fee or assigned at random for free upon check-in. United’s standard Economy fare includes advanced seat assignments and allows ticket changes/upgrades for a fee.
The baggage policy differs for Basic Economy fares depending on the route. On transatlantic routes, Basic Economy fares include the same carry-on allowance of one full-size carry-on bag plus a personal item as a standard Economy fare. However, transatlantic Basic Economy tickets on United do not include any checked bags and there is a $60 fee for the first checked bag on flights across the Atlantic. Standard Economy fares still include one free checked bag on transatlantic flights.
For all other Basic Economy tickets on United that are flown within the western hemisphere, the checked baggage policy is the same for both Basic Economy and standard Economy. There is usually a fee for checked bags starting at $30 each way regardless of which fare you’ve purchased.
However, the carry-on policy differs between the two types of fares on domestic and short-haul international routes and it’s the biggest reason you may want to avoid Basic Economy on United. While standard Economy fares include a full-size carry-on bag plus a personal item, a Basic Economy fare will restrict you to only a small personal item up to 9 x 10 x 17 inches onboard that must fit under the seat in front of you. A full-size carry-on bag is not allowed. Any larger bags must be checked for a fee and if you bring a larger bag to the boarding gate, there is an additional $25 fee tacked on to any applicable checked bag fee.
Premier members, Star Alliance Gold members, and certain qualifying MileagePlus credit card holders will maintain boarding priority and still be allowed a full-size carry-on bag when traveling on Basic Economy tickets. Premier members will also retain complimentary checked baggage allowance based on their Premier status, but keep in mind that mileage earning will not be the same for Basic Economy tickets.
MileagePlus members will earn award miles based on the fare and status, but Basic Economy tickets will only earn 50% of premier qualifying miles and segments. These are only used to achieve status so if you’re a frequent flyer looking to get to the next status level, this could be a big hit towards reaching the requirements.
For domestic and short-haul international flights, Basic Economy can be a great deal on United if you are able to travel extremely light or plan on checking a bag and only bringing a small bag onboard. For transatlantic flights, it may be worthwhile to choose standard Economy if you need to check a bag, but if you’re able to travel with just a carry-on and don’t mind where you sit, the Basic Economy fare can be a bargain.
How to Book a Flight with United Airlines
United sells its tickets on all major third party booking sites and OTAs such as Expedia or Orbitz even do a decent job of pointing out United’s Basic Economy restrictions. But there is often a way to receive deep discounts on United flights by booking with lesser-known online travel agencies.
For international flights, you’ll often see United and other Star Alliance partner flights available for lower fares on some obscure third-party websites such as Cheapfaremart, Faredepot, JustFly, among many others. These can sometimes be hundreds of dollars less than what you’ll find on United.com or other sites so it’s always best to shop around and compare multiple sites before booking. And don’t forget to sign up for fare alerts to find out when prices drop.
Some of the obscure third-party sites may not do a very good job of indicating when a fare is Basic Economy and there may also be higher than normal change fees associated with these sites. Since Basic Economy doesn’t allow changes anyway, this shouldn’t be much of a factor when booking the lowest fare.
Keep in mind that many of the inventory on these smaller sites is lagging and prices may not be updated as quickly as they are on the larger sites. It may take longer to receive confirmation of your flight, so if the price difference is minimal and you want to make sure you get a super low fare ticketed, its best to go with a well-established online travel agency or book directly with United.
When booking on United’s site, utilize the handy calendar shop for a monthly calendar showing the lowest fares for travelers with flexible dates. You can choose a trip length up to 180 days making this one of the best flexible date search tools of any airline.
Booking is very straight forward on United.com. After choosing dates, you’ll be given the option to choose between Basic Economy, Economy, Economy (flexible), and Premium cabins. If you choose Basic Economy, a pop-up will appear and you’ll have to click a checkbox agreeing to the restrictions.
On the seat map page, if you’re purchasing Basic Economy and don’t want to pay extra to choose a seat, simply click the “continue to payment” button and seats will be assigned at random upon check-in for free. Once on the payment screen, you’ll be offered insurance, which is usually never worth it. I would decline and proceed to enter your payment information.
One unique option that United offers on its site is the option to choose “pay in person”. Obviously, this isn’t a preferred method of payment, but if you’d like to hold your fare for 24 hours absolutely free, you can choose “other forms of payment” and then “pay in person” from the drop-down. This will give you a confirmation number and hold your reservation until midnight the following day. You can still purchase the ticket online and then have an additional 24 hours after purchasing to cancel your ticket for free if it falls under the 24-hour risk-free cancellation policy.
Check-In and Boarding a United Airlines Flight
Online check-in opens 24 hours prior to departure on United.com or through the United app. Domestic passengers must be checked-in at least 30 minutes prior to departure without checked bags or 45 minutes prior to departure with checked bags. International passengers must be checked-in at least 60 minutes prior to departure. Certain airports may require earlier minimum check-in times so be sure to check the list here.
If you are traveling domestically or on short-haul international routes with a Basic Economy ticket, you’ll only be able to complete online check-in if you indicate that you are checking a bag. Basic Economy passengers planning to travel with just a personal item on these routes have to complete check-in at the airport. This is so the airline staff can verify that your personal item fits the size requirements.
This is yet another inconvenience for Basic Economy passengers as you’ll have to allocate more time and wait in line to check-in at the airport. There are mixed reports of how strict United agents are on the size of your personal item. Chances are you’ll be ok as long as the bag doesn’t look overly large, but if you are asked to fit a bag in the sizer either at the check-in desk or boarding gate, be prepared to pay up if it doesn’t fit.
United has pre-boarding for unaccompanied minors, customers with disabilities, active military, families with small children, and top Premier status members. This is followed by five boarding groups with premium cabin and elite status members boarding first and Basic Economy passengers boarding last. For a complete breakdown of United’s boarding groups, click here.
One of United’s new policies implemented since the infamous “bumpgate” incident is that customers that are seated on the plane will never be required to give up their seat involuntarily unless they pose a safety or security risk. This seems like a no brainer and even though such cases were extremely rare in the past, it means you can rest assured that once you board the plane, you won’t be forced to deplane.
The United Airlines Inflight Experience
Once airborne on United, you can expect the standard legacy carrier service with free light snacks, non-alcoholic drinks, and entertainment options on most flights. For domestic and short-haul international flights, you can purchase snack boxes or light meals onboard. Complimentary meals are served on long-haul international flights. Recently, United introduced free live TV on all of its Boeing 737s equipped with seatback entertainment.
The seat pitch varies depending on the aircraft, but you can expect an average seat pitch of 30-31 inches in economy on most of United’s aircraft. If you opt to pay for an Economy Plus seat, you’ll get some extra room to stretch your legs with 34-37 inches of pitch. Premium cabins range from a standard Business Class seat, which includes spacious seating and premium meal service on all flights to United’s Polaris Class with lie-flat seats and exclusive service available on some of the most popular business markets in the world.
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