I Flew United’s ‘Basic Economy’ and Discovered a Huge Problem with the Ticket
June 22, 2017
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  • Less than a month after the highly publicized incident of a United Airlines passenger being dragged off an overbooked flight, I needed to purchase a return airline ticket from Austin, Texas, to the New York City area.

    On a tight travel budget, I was on the hunt for the most affordable ticket with the shortest travel time. Since getting to and from Austin can typically involve layovers on non-direct flights from New York City, I was enticed by the nonstop flights scheduled from Newark International Airport, in New Jersey, an airport that happens to be one of United’s main hubs. 

    After searching my go-to airlines — Southwest, on which I flew out to Austin from Newark, and American — I begrudgingly went to the website of United, an airline I hadn’t flown since 2014.

    I found a reasonable nonstop direct flight for $188. I thought I had just won the lottery — until the email confirmations for my purchase came.

    I didn’t realize it at the time, but the price I found was for a basic-economy ticket — a new tier of ticketing United began rolling out in early 2017. Something like the prompt below appeared as I checked out, but in a rush to get my ticket, I foolishly didn’t pay attention. At this point in my purchase, I had a chance to upgrade to economy for $20.

    After I purchased my ticket, United sent me three emails, which I thought was excessive, and, in all honesty, figured was a reaction to the incident in April when 69-year-old David Dao was forcibly removed from an overbooked flight. “They really want to be sure I know that I don’t have an assigned seat,” I thought.

    By the second email, I realized what I had done. My basic-economy ticket had several restrictions, including not being able to bring a carry-on suitcase. I would be forced to check the carry-on I always take with me on trips for $25, meaning I would pay $5 more than if I had upgraded to the economy ticket.

    By the third email, I felt as if United was rubbing salt in the wound. Basic-economy tickets aren’t covered by its “24-Hour Flexible Booking Policy” — I could either cancel the ticket in the next 24 hours and get a full refund or stick with my choice. At this point, I didn’t want to risk losing my seat if the flight was full.

    Like most airlines, 24 hours before my flight time, United sent a “check in now for your flight” email. I was glad I could at least check in and get my nonnegotiable seat assignment before checking my bag the next day.

    However, after clicking the “check in now” button from the email, I was directed to a page that said: “Server error occurred. Please try again.” I did this about 10 times before realizing something must be wrong with United’s website.

    When I got to the airport and into the line to get my old-fashioned paper boarding pass and check my bag, I talked to a United attendant about how I wasn’t able to check in via email. She confirmed that this was not a glitch, but done on purpose to ensure that I, a purchaser of a basic-economy ticket, came in person to check my bag and get a boarding pass before going through the security checkpoint.

    Another “perk” of flying basic economy is automatically being put in the last boarding group, No. 5. I waited as groups three and four, with their carry-ons, waited to board.

    Here’s everyone in boarding group No. 5. With no carry-on bags, we were definitely the easiest-going group. Luckily, my flight was on time, and I made it back to Newark safely. I would fly United again; however, I’ll wouldn’t buy basic economy, since, like most travelers, I carry a bag with me on trips. Instead of paying the $25 check-bag fee, I’ll upgrade to economy for $20.