For my first United Basic Economy flight, I chose the San Francisco to Salt Lake City route. United operates the route with Embraer and Bombardier aircraft to connect their Denver and San Francisco hubs (with stops in Aspen).
Booking United Basic Economy
I booked my tickets via Orbitz, which simply mentioned the cabin item restriction during the booking process. It’s visible but not exactly shouting out at you. Just a few minutes after I had made my booking, I got an email from United that outlined the Basic Economy fare conditions very clearly:
- Fares are non-refundable
- No seat selection
- No free carry-on (so no Rollaboard)
- No free checked bags
I wasn’t planning on taking more than my backpack anyways, so the low fare I booked was perfect.
Check-in with Basic Economy
I used my confirmation code on united.com to check in. During the check-in process, it outlines the ‘Basic Economy’ restrictions one more time. You can’t check in and not acknowledge it.
I also added my Lufthansa frequent flyer number (which came up as Star Alliance Gold) and my ‘known traveler number’ (from TSA Pre✓). Now the check-in workflow promptly threw me an error, as it seemed to lose track. I tried again and saw ‘Premier Access’ and ‘TSA Pre✓’ on my electronic boarding pass, together with a big, orange ‘Basic Economy’.
Despite being Star Alliance Gold, I wasn’t able to change seats online. I tried in the app as well but at that stage, all I could do was reprint my boarding pass.
Security with Basic Economy
Security at the airport is no different for Basic Economy passengers and the TSA Pre✓ lines at San Francisco Airport never gave me more than a 10-minute wait.
Lounge Access with Basic Economy
I went over to the American Express Centurion Lounge, which was open and filled to capacity on this Monday morning.
I also wanted to see if I could access the United Club Lounge and the boarding pass scanner at the lounge also gave me a green light without any issues.
Boarding with Basic Economy
My Star Alliance Gold status had put me in Boarding Group 2 (out of 6 groups with United). The gate agent mentioned that I could have brought along a free carry-on or checked bag with my Star Alliance Gold status. Typically, Star Alliance Gold gets you one extra piece of luggage and lounge access and typically one free check-in bag is included with United Economy. I asked if I could get both and the gate agent approved that.
The gate agent, however, never saw my boarding pass, although when scanned it makes no visible difference. Nevertheless, the boarding pass scanner can’t distinguish between regular United Economy and United Basic Economy. Also, once boarded, there is nobody preventing you from stuffing the overhead bins, since nobody checks your boarding pass.
In reality, the no carry-on bag policy is more of a threat than an enforcement. Yes, if the flight is full and you are dead last, you will likely have to pay at the gate to check your carry-on but on empty flights, if you check in online and traverse the airport with your online boarding pass, who will stop you from dropping a carry-on in one of the overhead bins? Nobody will!
My overall impression of United Basic Economy
United outlines the Basic Economy rules very well throughout the booking and within minutes of getting my Orbitz confirmation email, I could see that it has a 24-hour free cancellation on all bookings. During check-in, the rules are explained very well too, so expectations are set correctly.
My fare was likely so low because it was Basic Economy; it was much lower than anything else I had ever seen on this route.
During boarding, Basic Economy wasn’t enforced and I got an empty seat next to me on both legs, to and from Salt Lake City.
In sum, United got this one right; lower fares that better compete with Frontier and Spirit and rules that make sense. Best of all, you may end up with the same United Economy product that you would have gotten before.
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About the author: Torsten is a serial entrepreneur who started almost a dozen ventures on four continents. Torsten's love for travel has brought him to 130+ countries and travel with most of the world's airlines. You can reach Torsten at [email protected]
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