It’s the holiday season! If you’re like me, you love traveling even during the busiest of times. This means you may have also traveled so much that you make mistakes when it comes to booking flights. I reached that point last month when I accidentally booked the wrong dates for a destination wedding I was going to attend, catching this mistake just 2 weeks before the event. Since I booked with United, there was a hefty change fee of $200 to switch the travel dates. Beating myself up and wishing I had stuck with Southwest #NoChangeFees #NoBagFees, I quickly decided to reschedule that United flight for a later trip to the same location in January (for another wedding-related event) and search for a low-cost airline that could hopefully redeem my mistake monetarily.
Refusing to fly with Spirit after hearing all sorts of criticism and not wanting to have any layovers whatsoever, I reverted to using Kayak to find good deals and luckily scored! My search led me to a United fare that looked far too good to be true at a roundtrip cost of $176 vs. searching on airline site’s like Delta, American, and Southwest to see standard economy fares at around $450. The high price point was expected considering the timing (one week prior to takeoff) but I was really hoping to score a cheap deal. Upon further inspection of the United flight, I noticed a symbol of a bag crossed out on the search form and realized that this was the most basic of all basic flight options.
What is Basic Economy? The fare type we know as Basic Economy is not a new concept. It’s been used by traditional airlines like United, Delta, and American to compete with the “no frills” airlines like Spirit, Allegiant, and Frontier to the benefit of price-conscious travelers. It’s also been a model that European airlines like easyJet and Ryanair have used for a while to attract the same crowd domestically and internationally. In United’s own words basic economy is:
“Created for our customers who may be more price-sensitive, these lower-priced fares provide most of the same in-flight services and amenities that are available with standard economy – such as food and beverages, Wi-Fi and in-flight entertainment – but with some important restrictions that you’ll want to be sure to review carefully before booking.”
In other words, they are discounted fares with a lot of fine print. Those “important restrictions” are pretty important and should 10000% be considered before booking. Do you plan on potentially changing your flight in the future? Do you plan to bring luggage or just a carry-on for the trip? Do you need to be seated next to anyone or in a specific seat due to preference or disability? Do you prefer fine wine and charcuterie to mini pretzels and Coke (a girl can dream…)?
Here’s a look at those restrictions I alluded to:
Yeesh, that’s a lot of fine print! Despite all of these red universal nos, I deemed my circumstance worth it – purchasing the flight short notice plus trying to get a cheap deal plus not traveling with much luggage. I proceeded to book the reservation and noted my experience.
Booking: I booked the fare directly on United.com instead of on Kayak to get all of the details behind the deal. United does a good job of bombarding you with warning signs before you complete your reservation making darn well sure that you know what you’re about to do (and hoping that you’ll run scared and buy a more expensive ticket). Once you’ve purchased, they send a series of emails reminding you of the restrictions.
Checking-In: I received emails about online check-in that allowed me to pay for my carry-on suitcase ($25 each way). Although it was a smaller than usual carry-on suitcase, they would not allow me to bring this onboard because it was larger than the dimensions of what could fit under the seat in front of me. I’m sure many people have tried to sneak their carry-on to the plane but getting caught will cost you. There is an extra $25 “carrying fee” charge on top of the $25 baggage fee if they find you at the gate with more bags than you should have. Better to play it safe from the start.
If you don’t have anything to check-in, note that the online check-in process will not be successful because they ultimately want you to formally check-in in person at the airport.
Boarding: If you’re like most people and enjoy hovering at the gate before boarding, let me assure you that with Basic Economy, you don’t have to! You’ll conveniently be boarding in Group 5 or dead last. This is another “perk” of the fare and ensures that you get what you paid for and I’m sure a way that flight attendants can more easily monitor your carry-on luggage when entering the plane. Interestingly, there was space in the overhead bin above my seat. A lady in front of me asked if she could store her backpack above and the flight attendant told her she’d have to pay. Ouch.
Unless you have a disability, require additional service, or have a MileagePlus credit card, you do not have the ability to upgrade to priority boarding or any benefits that can typically be paid for to enhance the boarding experience.
Flying: The flying experience was pretty similar to flying economy. There were TVs at each seat (depending on the aircraft model), snacks and drinks handed out by attendants, and just as much room as any other economy seat.
Given my circumstances, the two biggest cons I faced were not being able to earn miles on the flights and not being able to use TSA pre-check. I fly with the Star Alliance internationally and use any United domestic points to help me rack up that status (at some point in my life I’ll make it to Premier). The TSA pre-check use was a mystery to me since I am granted it through Global Entry and pre-paid for the benefit outside of any specific airline. The bummer is that the status is subject to airline terms so in this case, United’s restrictions overrode my ability to use it. Keep this in mind if you like to stroll to the airport late knowing you’ll breeze right through the security line.
As always when it comes to booking flights, you should do your choice comparison math to ensure that the price/benefits are worth booking one flight over another. There is talk that the basic economy fares are not as cheap as you may think and are actually a strategy to increase the price of standard economy fares across the industry, which could leave you kicking and screaming your way back to Spirit or a higher fare. This all really depends on timing, your route, and your flying preferences. You could end up scoring big in the end, even if that means against the current industry standard!
Overall, I rate the experience a not bad on the scale of I’m never flying again to I want to live on this plane for the rest of my life. Purchasing a low-cost fare or basic economy ticket is really a matter of knowing what fits your flying needs in terms of budget, baggage, seating, boarding, and earning awards. It was the perfect purchase for my circumstance and quick turnaround and I’d probably purchase it again if in the same situation in the future. My best advice though? Fly an airline that you trust and know has good perks and benefits in it’s DNA.
Have you flown with United on a basic economy fare? Did you enjoy your experience?
Where should I go next? Perhaps Peru.
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