Finance I flew United's 'basic economy' and discovered a huge problem with the ticket

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On a tight travel budget, I was on the hunt for the most affordable ticket with the shortest travel time.

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(REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski)

  • United Airlines began rolling out its basic-economy ticket — which has a number of limitations such as a no-carry-on-bag policy — in early 2017.
  • In May 2017 I purchased a one-way ticket on United's basic-economy tier.
  • During the purchasing and travel process I learned an important lesson about paying attention to pricing and budgeting when it comes to airfare.

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 New York City.

As I was 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 involve layovers on nondirect flights from New York, I was enticed by the nonstop flights scheduled from Newark International Airport, in nearby New Jersey, an airport that happens to be one of United's big 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 on United's basic-economy ticket tier. I thought I had just won the lottery — until the email confirmations for my purchase came.

While United's policy and pricing around which flights offer basic-economy tickets has since been adjusted — making sure you know what you're purchasing and considering all aspects of your travel is an important step when purchasing airline tickets.

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.

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. play

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.

(Screenshot/United)


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 2017 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.

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 2017 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. play

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 2017 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.

(Screenshot United Airlines Email)


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 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. play

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.

(Screenshot United Email)


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.

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. play

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.

(Screenshot)

Read more about United's "24-Hour Flexible Booking Policy"



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.

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. play

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.

(Screenshot United Email)


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.

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. play

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.

(United Website/Screenshot)


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.

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. play

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.

(Sarah Jacobs)


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.

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. play

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.

(Sebastianosecondi/Shutterstock)


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.

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. play

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.

(Sarah Jacobs)


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.

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. play

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.

(Sarah Jacobs)


I would fly United again; however, I 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.

I would fly United again; however, I 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. play

I would fly United again; however, I 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.

(Philip Pilosian/Shutterstock)


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