Updated June 22, 2020.
So you want to travel on the cheap. Don’t we all! It’s no secret that airline’s are shrinking seats and increasing fares, but for the truly cheap and adventurous, the major U.S.-based airlines have started offering “basic” fares. I was actually really excited when I heard this for the first time. I thought, “Great! More people will be able to travel!”
But then the fares came out… and they are usually not such a great deal! The “Basic Economy” fares were sometimes only just a few dollars less or even the same as regular Economy! And Basic Economy passengers can only bring a personal item that fits under the seat, not a regular-sized carry-on for the overhead bin. And gate-checking your carry-on is no longer free for Basic Economy passengers either! It really didn’t seem like a good deal at all.
However, I did actually find a worthwhile Basic Economy fare for a recent quick trip to Charleston, South Carolina. The fare was a significant $60 less than regular Economy, and since it’s Charleston in springtime and not a cold destination, I could totally fit a two-day wardrobe in my personal item-sized bag! So I decided to give it a whirl and report back here so you can make the best decision when faced with the choice between Economy and Basic Economy. Here’s the nitty-gritty:
A regular Economy fare from Washington-Dulles (IAD) to Charleston (CHS) was $197, while Basic Economy was $137. For an hour and a half flight, that’s pretty good! For a 5- or 6-hour trans-continental flight, that’s not as great, but for my purposes, this is a good deal.
United really does want to make sure you know what you’re getting into, so don’t be too annoyed with how many times you have to confirm that you are knowingly purchasing a more restricted, Basic Economy ticket. Here is the list of differences between Basic Economy and Economy:
Because of the luggage restrictions, my Packing Strategies really came in handy! I packed my trusty college backpack full of the absolute essentials, and I e-mailed my accommodation to ask specifically which toiletries they provide—the less I have to take, the more space I save in my “personal item!”
The Boarding Process
Basic Economy passengers board last, in Boarding Group 5—sorry, y’all! Take a seat at the gate and wait until the crowds die down before you get up and start hovering around the boarding lanes. It will mean less stress for everyone, including you!
Also, your boarding pass will be orange instead of the usual blue and white theme United has going on. They REALLY want to make sure you know you purchased a restricted fare!
The Seat and Service
You don’t get to pick your seat, but you can count on it being in the middle and at the back of the plane! Service was the same for everyone on this short, 1.5-hour flight, so I got my beverage just like anyone else. No big deal.
Word to the Wise
When deciding whether or not Basic Economy is worth it for you, consider this quick list:
- Is the fare difference between Basic Economy and your preferred class of service less than the $25 checked bag fee?
- How long is your flight? Can you handle a small, middle seat in the back for that amount of time?
This is where it pays to have some kind of airline loyalty, my friends. Star Alliance Gold Members can still get this lower fare without the painful restrictions. Because I have Star Alliance Gold status, I got some unexpected perks:
- Still got to board with my regular boarding group. That means I boarded with Group 1, as usual with my 1K status, instead of Group 5 with the rest of Basic Economy. Woohoo!
- I got to bring on board a full-size carry-on and personal item, not just a personal item. Double woohoo! Take that, $25 baggage fee!
- I didn’t get to choose my own seat, but I was assigned a window seat per my preference in my Star Alliance profile, not a middle seat. I was also automatically seated in Economy Plus, not in the back. Hooray!
- I also accrued Premier Qualifying Miles (PQM) and Premier Qualifying Dollars (PQD) for next year’s status, as well as award miles to use for future flights. Not a perk you’ll get with a regular Basic Economy package!
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