How to Get Around Basic Economy Restrictions on United

Make Basic Economy on United Airlines more convenient by reaching elite status or using a qualifying United Airlines credit card.
Last updated May 13, 2021 | By Sarah Li Cain
Flight attendants serving passengers on a plane

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United’s Basic Economy option is great for cost-conscious flyers, but the lower ticket cost means you’re subject to more restrictions around upgrades, baggage allowances, and seating. However, there are some ways you can get around these restrictions.

Read on to find out the specifics of Basic Economy on United Airlines and how you can make this no-frills fare class more comfortable when flying with different strategies and some of the best travel credit cards from United.

In this article

What is Basic Economy on United Airlines?

United's Basic Economy tickets provide a lower-priced fare compared to other Economy options, but you’ll receive many of the same amenities and services, such as inflight entertainment, food and beverages, and United WiFi.

However, you’ll likely experience limitations in other areas. Here are some details of Basic Economy’s rules and restrictions:

Personal items, carry-ons, and checked bags

Baggage rules for transatlantic flights are the same as standard Economy tickets — you’re allowed one full-sized carry-on bag, plus a personal item at no additional cost. However, for all other flight routes, you won’t be allowed to bring a full-sized carry-on bag.

You can bring a small personal item (no larger than 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches) that will fit under your seat — think a purse, laptop bag, or shoulder bag. Anything larger must be checked and is subject to a checked-bag fee (typically $30 for the first bag). You’ll be charged an additional baggage fee of $25 if you bring a larger piece of carry-on baggage to the gate and check it there.

Checked bags for Basic Economy flights are subject to the same policies as standard Economy tickets — except for transatlantic flights, where you have to pay for your first checked bag.

You can check in for your flight online or through the United Airlines app if you indicate you’re checking a bag and pay ahead. Otherwise, if you’re only taking a personal item, you must check in for your flight at the airport.

Seat assignments

When booking a flight, Basic Economy passengers will have their seats automatically assigned and won’t be able to change them afterward. However, you can purchase seat assignments for an extra fee and choose where you’d like to sit (let's face it, nobody wants the middle seat) — but you can’t purchase Economy Plus benefits or seats, plus you can’t use any United mileage upgrades.

In addition, those who are in a group with travel companions can’t sit together unless there are seats available and you purchase advance seat assignments. You’ll also be in the last boarding group, though there are some exceptions (more on that below).

Flight changes and cancellations

Once booked, you won’t be able to make any changes to your flight, including same-day or advanced changes. You also won’t be eligible for refunds unless they fall within the rules of United’s 24-hour flexible booking policy, which states that you may qualify for a refund if you cancel within 24 hours of your purchase, as long as your original departure flight is a week or longer in advance.

MileagePlus points and benefits

If you are a United MileagePlus member, you can still earn award miles for your Basic Economy ticket. Unfortunately, you’ll be restricted in how much you’ll earn — you’ll get only 50% Premier qualifying miles and 0.5 Premier qualifying segments toward MileagePlus Premier status, which gives you additional benefits. You also won’t receive additional benefits, such as mileage or paid seat upgrades.

How to make Basic Economy more convenient

Flying with Basic Economy can save you some cash, but it’s probably not going to provide you the best flying experience. The good news is that you can make flying with Basic Economy more comfortable.

Here are a few ways to get around some of the Basic Economy restrictions:

1. Become a MileagePlus Premier member

United MileagePlus Premier members can get one carry-on bag for free and priority boarding, according to membership tier.

Here are the four MileagePlus Premier tiers and what it takes to qualify:

  • Premier Silver: Reach 25,000 PQM (Premier qualifying miles) or 30 PQS (Premier qualifying segments), plus spend $3,000
  • Premier Gold: Reach 50,000 PQM or 60 PQS, plus spend $6,000
  • Premier Platinum: Reach 75,000 PQM or 90 PQS, plus spend $9,000
  • Premier 1K: 100,000 PQM or 120 PQS, plus spend $15,000

In addition, you need to fly at least four paid flights or flight segments operated by United within a calendar year.

2. Become a Star Alliance Gold member

Like MileagePlus Premier members, Star Alliance Gold members will also be able to bring on a carry-on bag and earn priority boarding. However, Star Alliance Gold members won’t be eligible for paid or mileage upgrades, just like MileagePlus members.

To reach Star Alliance Gold status, you'll need to reach the MileagePlus Premier 1K, Premier Platinum, and Premier Gold tier. You could also reach Gold Star status by reaching certain frequent-flyer statuses within the Star Alliance network. For specifics, check the Star Alliance website.

3. Get a United Airlines credit card

Using a United credit card to purchase a Basic Economy ticket may help you get around some restrictions, particularly with checked bags and boarding. Certain credit cards have different perks, and there are both business cards and personal cards available. So check the table below to compare features and choose the best airline credit card for you:

Card United Perks Annual Fee
United Explorer
  • One free carry-on bag for cardholder and their companion
  • First checked bag free for primary cardholder and traveling companion
  • Priority boarding
  • 25% cash back on United inflight purchases
  • Two free United Club passes each year
$95 (waived first year) 
United Club
  • One free carry-on bag for cardholder and their companion
  • Two free checked bags for primary cardholder and traveling companion
  • Priority boarding
  • United Club membership
  • Premier Access travel services
$450
United Business
  • One free carry-on bag for cardholder and their companion
  • One free checked bag for primary cardholder and traveling companion
  • Priority boarding
  • Two United Club passes each year
$99 (waived first year) 
United Club Business
  • One free carry-on bag for cardholder and their companion
  • Priority boarding
  • Two free checked bags for primary cardholder and traveling companion
  • United Club membership
  • Premier Access travel services
$450

FAQs

What is the difference between Basic Economy and Economy on United Airlines?

When flying United, you’ll receive the same in-flight service whether you choose a Basic Economy or a regular Economy fare. The difference, however, is that Basic Economy travelers will be subject to certain restrictions. These include no group seating, no advanced seat selection (without a fee), only one personal item can be brought onboard, and no full-size carry-ons are allowed. Basic Economy travelers are also the last group to board, cannot make flight changes or get refunds (outside of United’s 24-hour flexible booking policy), and do not earn Premier qualifying points on their flight(s).

How can I tell if my United ticket is Basic Economy?

United Basic Economy tickets will be notated upon booking, and are marked as the “most restrictive” fare. Most often, these tickets are fare class N. If you are opting for a mobile check-in, you’ll also find that your Basic Economy boarding pass is orange, versus the typical blue.

Can United Basic Economy check in online?

If you are checking a bag with a United Basic Economy fare, you’ll be able to check in online at United.com or through the United mobile app only if you are planning to check a bag. If you are not checking a bag, you’ll need to complete your check-in in-person at the airport kiosks or with an agent at the airport counter.

Can United Basic Economy tickets be upgraded?

Yes, customers traveling on a United Basic Economy ticket can upgrade to Economy Plus — which includes extra legroom and a seat close to the front of the cabin — but you can only do this at check-in.


Bottom line

Although United Airlines Basic Economy fares are more restrictive than other fare classes, there are ways to get around some of the rules. If you have elite status or book a flight using a co-branded United Airlines credit card, you can get perks like carry-on bags and priority boarding.

Keep in mind that some Basic Economy rules will still apply, even if you qualify for one of the workarounds above. For example, you likely won’t be eligible for complimentary upgrades or be able to easily make changes to your reservation once it’s booked.

Best Rewards for United

Intro Offer

40,000 miles

Annual Fee

$95

Rewards Rate

up to 2X miles

Benefits and Drawbacks

Benefits

  • 40,000 mile sign-up bonus
  • 2X miles on United purchases, dining, and hotel stays
  • Free first checked bag
  • 2 United Club Passes annually

Drawbacks

  • Has annual fee after year one
  • Best usage limited to United flyers
Card Details
  • Earn 40,000 bonus miles after spending $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months
  • 2X miles on dining, hotel stays, and United purchases and 1X miles on everything else

Author Details

Sarah Li Cain Sarah Li Cain is an experienced content marketing writer specializing in FinTech, credit, loans, personal finance, alternative investments, real estate, banking, international business and travel. Her work has appeared in Fortune 500 companies, publications and startups such as Transferwise, Wordpress, Pearson Teachability and KeyBank.