Hacking United Basic Economy Like a Travel Expert

UPDATED 4/8/18. Note that United’s policies change frequently.

United isn’t the first airline to introduce a low price fare option with additional services available as add ons.

In Europe, Ryanair is notorious for their bare bones approach to the airplane travel experience. Though people complain about the inconvenience of having to pay to get your boarding pass printed at the airport (if you forgot to do so at home), most understand that this is the nature of how Ryanair operates. There are certain restrictions that come with getting such steep deals on intra-Euro flights, and one must accept these consequences in order to find value in the offering.

Besides inconveniences surrounding boarding passes, Ryanair also charges fees not only for checked baggage but carry on baggage exceeding the size of a small “personal item.” It’s actually quite interesting to see how people get around these restrictions, whether it involves wearing all their clothing at once or even employing the use of something like say… a jacket capable of discreetly storing all the items you’ll need for a short weekend getaway.

This airport “luggage” jacket is #goals

Bare bones airfare isn’t even a new concept in the US, with companies like Spirit and Frontier imitating a similar type of low ticket pricing with add-ons (according to need) model as their European counterpart, Ryanair. And the idea of adding a lower class of Economy options isn’t even unique to specific airlines, either. Airlines like Delta and American Airlines have each implemented their own versions of Basic Economy. That right, you can use basic economy fares to travel to cities with funny names from all across the globe.

But indubitably, the most annoying and restrictive rendition involving the execution of the “basic economy” concept is United’s latest foray into the space.

United’s unveiling of Basic Economy comes at a bit of a tumultuous moment for the airline. After all, United has been having a bit of a hard time lately when it comes to pleasing their most important stakeholders – their customers. There’s PR scandal (the infamous leggings scandal) after PR scandal (when Dr. David Dao got dragged out and bloodied up), after PR scandal (when Emily France couldn’t get off an overheating plane, which had dangerous implications for her baby).

While it’s hard to hold an entire company to the actions of a few people, it’s definitely fair to feel a little weird about patronizing a brand that can’t even be bothered to give a halfway decent apology regarding things like the aforementioned PR disasters.

But let’s not digress too much, here. Before showing you how to hack United Basic Economy, it’s probably a good idea to give you a more in-depth look at what it actually means to book a United Basic Economy fare.

The Rules of United Basic Economy

When you compare airfare prices by using a tool like Google Flights, it’s not obvious if you’re looking at a United Basic Economy fare versus a standard Economy fare.

united basic economy

The Google Flight results are labelled as “Economy Class”, which is a catch-all for any type of economy class on United.

You won’t know for sure that it’s a United Basic Economy fare until you click through to book the ticket.

united basic economy

You might accidentally book a United Basic Economy if you’re not paying enough attention. The “Basic Economy works for me” check box is in the same place you’d expect to see an agreement to a website’s Terms & Conditions, not consent to be treated like a second-class citizen amongst less cheap of people on a United Flight. Because of this, and if you’re more concerned with getting the date and time particulars of your flight right versus seat assignments and the implications of your boarding class, it’s very easy to miss.

united basic economy

That’s why United sends multiple emails reminding you and reinforcing what you won’t get by choosing to fly with them on Basic Economy. Here’s what specifically that involves:

united basic economy

Who should book United Basic Economy?

United Basic Economy is clearly not a great option for someone traveling with their family or a group of friends, unless it’s a short flight and these people don’t mind being separated. In this situation, it kind of depends on your own personal travel preferences, and how much your wants (vs needs) are worth to you in a format reflected by the price of your ticket.

For example, if my boyfriend and I are flying from Denver to San Francisco (a ~2.5 hour flight or so), I’d prefer to sit by him, but whatever. It’s less than 3 hours. We can definitely deal with the separation if this short period of time results in more money in our pockets to explore a city that is known for their high cost of living (and touring!). There is a value, however, I place in the ability to sit next to him and make him my pillow if it’s early and I want to catch some z’s. Similarly, a family with young children place their own value on the peace of mind that goes hand in hand with sitting together, and reassuring said children if they get scared during the flight.

The ideal person booking United Basic Economy fare seems to fit the following characteristics:

  • Frequent traveler who’s not fussy about boarding groups or seating arrangements
  • Someone going on a short/weekend trip who can stuff all the things they need into a bag that can fit under their seat (like a small duffel bag or backpack—or even a travel tote!)
    scotts cheap flights
  • Someone who’s broke/cheap AF and will do what it takes to make this boarding class work, because the ticket price is all they’re willing to spend

How to Hack United Basic Economy

Of course, this article isn’t about how to deal with United Basic Economy – it’s about how to game the system. I just gave you a basic profile of the ideal United Basic Economy traveler, but I’m about to undo that completely with this travel hack.

The key to gaming the whole system is simple, free, and available to anyone with decent credit. That’s right – I’m going to have you open a new credit card.

Before you freak out – did you know that opening a new credit card actually helps your score more than it hurts it? It has to do with the various factors that affect your credit. Here’s a basic rundown of credit score components and their associated impact compared to the whole:

  • Payment history: 35%
  • Credit card usage: 30%
  • Age of credit: 15%
  • Total accounts: 10%
  • Credit inquiries: 10%

Because of the different elements of your credit score, and how they proportionately contribute to the total, opening a new credit card affects a few different components. This essentially increases your total accounts (and credit card usage is reflected as a lower percentage) in a way that provides a more overall positive contribution to your credit score than the credit inquiry ding you’ll get from opening a new account. Besides, new credit inquiries have a more temporary effect than the act of increasing total available credit–assuming you maintain each account and it doesn’t close due to inactivity.

DISCLAIMER: I could tell you to be responsible about using credit cards, but I’m not your mom and you should already know that if you’re gonna eff around with credit card travel hacking. 

The specific card you’ll want to open to hack United Basic Economy is the Chase United MileagePlus Explorer credit card. This credit card is actually pretty amazing for the regular United traveler, as it’s free for the first year of use. Here are the kind of perks you can expect to receive:

Here are the kind of perks you can expect to receive:

  • 2 free (transferable) United Club passes – a value of $100+. It’s certainly a huge perk for travelers, as club access involves free food, high-speed internet, and bar service.
  • First bag checked for free (a value of up to $100 per round trip flight). This means you don’t even have to mess around with carry ons and you can bring liquids without measuring them out. Woohoo!
  • Priority boarding (group 2) so you can stroll in ahead of the plebs like a bad ass
  • 50,000 bonus miles when you spend $3000 in the first three months of account opening
united basic economy
Image Source: Chase

The caveat? The Chase United Mileage Plus credit card renews in your second year of use at a rate of $95/year. If you fly a lot and want to take advantage of that favorable checked bag policy (and the swanky United Club), this may actually still work out to be a good deal.

But I’m not one to pay for the use of a credit card.

So once you get to the end of that first year, call Chase’s customer service line and tell them you don’t want to pay the annual fee. In some rare cases, this may actually result in a waived fee (if you’re a particularly good customer). It doesn’t hurt to try at any rate!

In more common cases, you’ll be given the option to downgrade to the basic United MileagePlus credit card. I’m going to explain why this is a good idea to hack United Basic Economy, but it’s also a good idea in general if you test out any card with an annual fee. Most credit card companies will have a downgrade option, and you should accept it instead of closing the account to avoid the annual fee. Closing an account will hurt your credit score, as it again has to do with your total amount of available credit, as well as the average age of your credit. Double whammy!

However, it’s not really your credit score I’m worried about right now. It’s your ability to hack United Basic Economy. You see, even without the fancy United MileagePlus Explorer credit card, you actually still get a bunch of other perks you wouldn’t actually get when it comes to this new restrictive fare option.

When you book a United Basic Economy flight, you’re told that you can’t bring carry-on luggage (besides a small personal item) for free unless you have a “qualifying United MileagePlus credit card.” At first, I thought they were referring to the MileagePlus Explorer credit card with an annual fee, but it’s actually any MileagePlus credit card – including the free one.

united basic economy

UPDATE 4/2/18: This is no longer valid. After a super annoying recent interaction at the Denver International Airport, I was denied a free carry-on bag with my no-free MileagePlus card. You can still get your first bag checked for free with a qualifying MileagePlus credit card according to United’s most up-to-date list:

United basic economy

UPDATE 4/8/18: Is anything sacred? The Points Guy reports that Chase has started quietly removing other benefits from even the paid version of the MileagePlus card. Specifically, they’re discontinuing price protection and return protection benefits while reducing trip cancellation and interruption insurance as of June 1, 2018.

Besides reinstating your dignity in the ability to bring a carry-on bag to your next United flight, you’ll also be able to board with group 2 as a priority boarding class. Pair this with TSA Pre-Check access, and you’ve basically got efficient and affordable airport travel down to a science. You still won’t have the ability to pick your own seats–for that, you’ll have to pay up.

Hacking United Basic Economy Like a Travel Expert

Why spend more than necessary on your next United flight? Instead of seeing United Basic Economy as a punishment, turn the tables in your favor to get the best value without any additional spend.

Have you booked a United Basic Economy fare? How was the overall experience? Tweet your thoughts to @tanksgetaround, and we’ll share the best insights!

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united basic economy

2 replies on “ Hacking United Basic Economy Like a Travel Expert ”
  1. I just booked a United basic economy ticket. If we want to bring a carry on bag we are looking at a minimum of $50 (for one way with a checked bag/carry on) $25 for the gate fee and $25 for the bag on United. So to my understanding from your article – if I know open a United credit card I can check a bag for free? Even though I already booked the ticket? Just trying to understand this for when I go to the gate with a bag.

    1. Hey Brooke,

      Thanks for your comment/question. 🙂

      Here’s how it works out:

      – If you have the United MileagePlus credit card with an annual fee ($99/waived for the first year), then you get your first bag checked free for any flights booked with that card. That’s the technical way it works but my boyfriend was able to get a first bag checked free when booking a flight with his corporate card and using his MileagePlus member number. So you might want to call them for that one, especially if you’ve already booked the flight (ESPECIALLY if you didn’t provide a MileagePlus number with that booking).
      – If you have the United MileagePlus credit card without an annual fee (I had to call to downgrade mine after the first year was up with the aforementioned credit card), you’ll be able to carry on a bag for free if you book a United Basic Economy flight, where you’d otherwise have to pay for a carry on OR checked bag.

      I hope that answers your question!

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