A Conversation With A Passenger Who Unknowingly Had A Basic Economy Ticket On United

by joeheg

On what ended up being our last flight on United, we were flying home from Chicago. I wrote about how when purchasing the ticket, I paid the ransom the extra $15 for the right to choose our seats and bring on a roll-aboard carry on bag. I booked an aisle seat and a window seat, leaving an open middle seat. I often do this, hoping that we’ll end up on a flight that’ll be partially empty and no one would willingly pick a middle seat. At worst, we always offer the person with the middle seat the aisle or window (they’re usually thrilled to be out of the middle seat anyway and we’ve never had anyone refuse).


As a reminder, this is how United describes a Basic Economy ticket (bold for emphasis):

  • Complimentary seat selection and upgrades are not available – When you choose a Basic Economy ticket, your complimentary seat will be automatically assigned prior to boarding, and you won’t be able to change your seat once it’s been assigned. Advance seat assignments may be available for purchase during booking and up until check-in opens. You will not be eligible to purchase Economy Plus seating or receive Economy Plus subscription benefits. MileagePlus members, including Premier members, cannot use complimentary, earned or mileage upgrades.
  • Please note that customers traveling in a group, including families, will not be able to sit together unless advance seat assignments are purchased and seats are available.
  • Full-sized carry-on bags are not permitted on select routes – On trans-Atlantic flights, your carry-on baggage allowance is the same as for standard Economy tickets. For all other Basic Economy tickets, you’re not allowed a full-sized carry-on bag unless you’re a MileagePlus Premier member or companion traveling on the same reservation, the primary cardmember of a qualifying MileagePlus credit card or a Star Alliance Gold member. Everyone else who brings a full-sized carry-on bag to the gate will be required to check their bag and pay the applicable checked bag fee plus a $25 gate handling charge.
  • One personal item is allowed – You are allowed one small personal item that fits under the seat in front of you, such as a shoulder bag, purse, laptop bag or other item that is 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches (22 cm x 25 cm x 43 cm) or less. Mobility aids and other assistive devices are also permitted. With Basic Economy, you’ll only be able to check in for your flight through united.com or the United app if you indicate that you’re checking a bag. To check your bag, you’ll go to a check-in counter or designated kiosk in the airport lobby. If you begin check-in and do not indicate that you’re checking a bag, you’ll need to finish checking in for your flight at the airport.
  • Flight changes and refunds are not allowed – Ticket changes are not allowed with Basic Economy, including advance and same-day changes. Refunds are not allowed except as stated in the United 24-hour flexible booking policy.
  • Certain MileagePlus and Premier member benefits are not available – If you’re a MileagePlus member, you will still earn award miles based on the fare and your MileagePlus status, as well as full Premier qualifying points, lifetime miles and credit toward the four-segment minimum. However, Basic Economy flights do not count as Premier qualifying flights. See more details below.
  • Last boarding group – With Basic Economy, you’ll also be in the last boarding group unless you’re a MileagePlus Premier member or companion traveling on the same reservation, the primary cardmember of a qualifying MileagePlus credit card or a Star Alliance Gold member.

The big change United has made since this story is the ability to buy seat assignments before check-in. I’m still SMH that United didn’t allow this from the beginning. However, it was always their plan that people wouldn’t actually book a Basic Economy ticket and would willingly pay the extra for a regular ticket.

Since I used my MileagePlus Explorer credit card to purchase the tickets, we were able to board with Group 2. When we boarded, we noticed that there was already a woman in her 60’s standing by the middle seat in our row. We also noticed that there was a young child, no older than 5, kneeling on the middle seat of the row in front of us and another young child by herself in the middle seat across the aisle.

When we got to our row, we asked if the woman would like to have the aisle seat, and we would take the window and middle. She gladly accepted and said that she hoped that she could now trade that seat for the aisle seat in the row in front of us so she could sit next to her granddaughter, who was the 4 or 5-year-old child in the middle seat of the row in front of us.

We had time while the plane was boarding, so I chatted with her for a bit. I asked if she had purchased basic economy tickets. She said that her daughter had bought the tickets and apparently purchased ones in basic economy. Note that her daughter was assigned a seat ten rows back, with her other child. I explained how we paid the extra money for economy tickets so we could pick our seats. She replied that she would have gladly paid extra because not only was her family spread throughout the plane, but she also had to pay to check her carry on bag because it was too large to fit under the seat in front of her.

I was obviously not talking to someone who reads a travel blog and keeps up on the different types of tickets sold by airlines. This was a family of leisure travelers who paid for five tickets to fly to Chicago from Orlando. For choosing United and not knowing about the restrictions of basic economy, they were split up (including all of the [too young to be seating alone] children in different middle seats around the plane), charged extra for all of their carry on baggage and had to beg fellow travelers to let them sit together as a family.


The passenger seated next to us, and her family, didn’t feel that the skies were very friendly on United this day

This story has a happy ending because other passengers on the plane were not totally heartless. The passenger in the aisle seat in the row in front of us moved back, and a passenger traded for the middle seat of the other side so grandma could sit next to the two children for the flight.

Might I add, not only would it be traumatic for a five-year-old to be sitting separated from his or her family for the entire flight, but I would imagine the two other passengers would feel somewhat uncomfortable with someone else’s unattended child sitting next to them for a whole trip. I don’t know who at United thinks this would ever be a good idea. It should not be left up to the good nature and common sense of the other passengers to figure out seating arrangements for families with young children.

I’m sure some people will say the family could have just bought seat assignments and they could have avoided this problem. I could see that if you were talking about an airline that markets itself as no-frills, like Spirit or Frontier, which United does not. This was a family of five, and to purchase economy tickets would cost around $150 extra round trip. Not an insignificant price difference.

I took a great deal of insight away from my conversation. This was an infrequent traveler, someone who a frequent flyer that gets upgraded to economy plus or first class might only give an occasional glance at as they walk to the back of the plane. The look of anxiety on her face and of the kids as we got to our row was impossible to ignore. You could only feel for them and it didn’t matter if this could have been avoided or not. They should have never been put in this situation in the first place. Even Southwest allows parents to board with young children earlier to make sure they have a chance to sit together.

Final Takeaway: United’s Basic Economy fares are still either knowingly or unknowingly making travel difficult for those who aren’t familiar with the system. United is showing no willingness to help cause if they did, this wouldn’t be their policy:

When you choose a Basic Economy ticket, your seat will be automatically assigned prior to boarding, and you won’t be able to change your seat once it’s been assigned.

In effect, that’s not true. It should say:

You won’t be able to change your seat once it’s been assigned and we’re leaving it up to your fellow passengers to not be a bunch of jerks and let’s hope they will let you sit next to the rest of your family because they don’t want to end up playing babysitter for the whole flight.

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary


Wanderdata February 22, 2020 - 6:24 pm

First, I enjoy your blog and unique perspective. United Basic Economy can be especially confusing because it is disparately applied. Here are a few Basic Economy experiences:

-I changed my flight for free to a day earlier. I just showed up to the airport and the ticket desk person happily changed it.

-I was seated with my group of three. Again, a United staffer happily made the seating change.

-Somehow my ticket did not associate with my United Explorer card, but they (happily) let me take a full-size carry-on for free.

-I was rudely refused to be seated with my group of three (on a different trip) by a United staffer at a United Club. He said curtly, “You knew what you were buying, and so you took that chance.”

-I have been seated in Economy Plus on a Basic Economy ticket.

-I have been seated in the only open row of three on the airplane using a Basic Economy ticket (obviously I’ve had middle seats as well).

United Basic Economy is implemented randomly enough (at least in my experience) where it would be understandable for someone to read all the fine print and still believe she would be seated with her family. However, it is more difficult to believe that someone could click through all the orange BASIC ECONOMY warnings and disclaimers to honestly believe she was getting a regular economy fare and would be entitled to be seated with her family. Obviously, and given the name of this blog, YMMV.

Given my random fortune described above, if I’m not traveling with checked bags, I really don’t mind United Basic Economy – I live at a United Hub, it gets me where I’m going, and it’s price-competitive with the LCC’s. Go ahead United, raise your bag price to $100 – keep giving me those cheap fares on your massive network.

joeheg February 22, 2020 - 7:56 pm

Thank you so much for this set of data points. As you say the confusion comes from the “rules” being inconsistently applied. If you’re traveling as a family and not as a single passenger, the uncertainty of not knowing if you’ll be able to sit together or not would force you to pay the extra money for seat assignments or even paying for economy tickets right out.

Loring February 24, 2020 - 11:33 am

United and other makors are now sragging the bottom with the discount airlines. I agree with everything you said.

Thomas February 22, 2020 - 7:19 pm

United always has a random assignment for seats, I find having to change seats again once checking in for the family. AA always assigns seats way before check in, and they have always been together.

Matt February 23, 2020 - 8:44 am

We had the same last week on Delta. Booked regular old tickets off the delta site, no indication of lots of restrictions. They put my 2yo, our foster child, and my 6yo in totally different rows all over the plane. Took complaining to delta Facebook both trips to get it sorted. Again, only in the small print, not some purposeful booking of basic economy, it was literally the only option offered.

Kat February 23, 2020 - 8:08 pm

I wonder at your description of what happened. Just yesterday I was pricing tickets on Delta. When I (accidentally) selected their no frills fare, it popped up at me, warning of all the rules, and asking if I really wanted that class of ticket. So if it didn’t warn you when you booked your tickets, now it explicitly does.

TravelRunner February 22, 2020 - 9:45 pm

if you boarded in Group 2, why was the woman already standing near your seats? That was a rhetorical question, of course, as she likely had the same credit card/status as you and thus may have been more knowledgeable than she let on. My friend recently boasted about similarly gaming the system, as she and her husband routinely purchase basic economy tickets, board in Group 2 because of their credit card status, then “guilt” other passengers into allowing them to exchange their assigned middle seats for the others’ aisle seats so they can sit near their two children. Always aisle seats. As you can guess, the exchanged seats (that is, their original assignments) are toward the back of the plane. A pretty simple but effective ploy that saves them money and still allows the group to sit together.

joeheg February 22, 2020 - 10:29 pm

Unless she had a disability and was eligible for pre-boarding or if her daughter had a child under 2 years old. I don’t know if either of those were true but they are reasonable explanations for why they would be on the plane before us in group 2.

Peter Pett February 23, 2020 - 2:55 am

Even Ryanair does not seat children away from at least one of their parents…

Karen from Florida February 23, 2020 - 6:21 am

My husband and I had window and aisle seats and had a seat between us. When we got to our seats, the one who was suppose to be in the middle seat was in the window seat. I asked if he had the letter “E” seat on his boarding pass (he did) and then he wanted my aisle seat to be closer to his wife who was in the other middle seat. I said I paid extra for the aisle seat and that he would have to move. Then he complained that his leg hurt and need the aisle seat. I guess his leg did not hurt in the window seat. My husband was about to cave in (with my seat) but I stood firm again and said I paid extra for that seat and that he would have to pay me for it or move. He eventually moved to his middle seat. Couples, don’t feel guilty for doing this (window/aisle) unless you plan to hold hands, feed each other, stare into each other’s eyes, or converse with each other throughout the flight.

M Casey February 23, 2020 - 7:59 am

Funnily enuf, booking those WA seats, leaves nothing but middle seats for a family of 5. When they approach the gate agents to help try to get them together. It is next to impossible without paging a dozen or so combos to see if they’d be willing to change seats. All this while trying to board, upgrade, and seat standby passengers in a :20 minute window. Most airlines board approximately :30 minutes before and are ready to close the door :10 minutes before departure. So if you are traveling in a party of 2, think about making it easier for those TO BEGIN WITH!

Bjorn February 23, 2020 - 11:33 pm

Sure I’ll do that just as soon as United gives me a discount for the middle seat. If two tickets are booked together, apply a fifty dollar discount at booking to have them next to each other. Middle seat are miserable.

Jay February 26, 2020 - 7:42 am

Technically if you are in the middle seat you have likely bought a Basic Economy fare which is already rock bottom discount. An airline takes a loss with a Basic Economy passenger. They try to offset that with other value adding services but if a passenger still does not avail then sorry for the airline but they take a hit to their bottom line

Karen from Florida February 27, 2020 - 5:58 am

If your family needs 5 seats together, book a flight and pay for 5 seats together. I shouldn’t have to suffer a middle seat because you didn’t pay and do your homework ahead of time.

Bob Chirsh February 23, 2020 - 8:55 am

There is plenty of disclosure when you purchase a basic economy ticket or equivalent on any of the airlines. Whatever happened to sleeping in the bed you made for oneself. The corporation is not always the bad guy folks. I’ve considered booking such tickets before and realized they weren’t for me after reading the very bold warnings throughout the booking process regarding restrictions.

Sindee February 23, 2020 - 8:15 pm

Unfortunately I have a memory, a memory of when flying never caused divisiveness, when everyone enjoyed flying, when I was excited to fly and found it fun. I remember wine tastings, people singing, lots of room, laughter, looking forward to a good meal, nicely dressed people, smiling stewardesses, educational moments by lead stewardesses as they explained what we were seeing, airplane lapels, captains who showed the cockpit to little ones and free luggage.

The past is often refered to as something we should leave behind. I wish I could. I hate airlines today. It is a cattle ship in the air. I used to fly far too much. Now I rarely fly. I hate what it has become. And I hate that so many today do not know how wonderful it once was.

Brian February 23, 2020 - 9:02 am

United knows the birthdate of the passengers when the booking is made; they could easily implement software logic that either: granted free regular economy to families with young children; granted at least free seat selection to families with young children; or disallowed basic economy purchase by families with young children.

None of these is a perfect solution, but all would solve the problem of a five-year-old being seated alone.

Amber February 23, 2020 - 9:57 am

I agree with Brian. Knowing all ages of the children, it shouldn’t even be possible for the system to book children under age 13/14 away from, at least, one adult in the party. This is a liability issue! With the reported stories of adult women being assaulted on various airlines, the door is wide open for children to be abused by strangers. It apalls me that airlines even have the gall to charge your family to sit together, after paying for a seat! Especially when I’ve read on various threads about families still being separated, even after paying for seat assignments! The airline fine print even states that paying still doesn’t guarantee your seat! This is utterly unacceptable.

Jay February 23, 2020 - 10:27 am

When purchasing basic economy tickets, the United site pretty clearly states in bold what you are getting versus economy. If they choose to ignore that, thats at their own risk.

You shouldn’t assume you can guilt other passengers so that you can save a few bucks. After all, they may have paid extra so that they could pick a seat of their choice.

Matt February 23, 2020 - 11:18 am

You can’t book a basic economy ticket without the terms and conditions being displayed and you have to accept them. There are “red flags” throughout the booking ptocess. It’s very clear what you are getting. It’s impossible to not know the restrictions!

There’s no excuse for being unaware. There’s no excuse for expecting others to switch seats to accommodate. You want to sit near your companions, you pay. You NEED to sit near them? YOU PAY.

This article and all articles like it are bad takes. You get what you pay for. The airlines are doing nothing wrong and all of the issues arise when people feel they are entitled to something they didn’t pay for.

TravelRunner February 23, 2020 - 1:45 pm

Amen, Matt. And using the Southwest “cattle call” as an example of a better way to board is completely illogical of the OP.

Jing February 23, 2020 - 1:20 pm

I just came back from a trip on Hawaiian as a family of five including children. I booked main cabin basic knowing that I was taking a chance. The seats were automatically assigned to the very back of the plane, but the seats were together. I am glad with the results, and I think this is a reasonable compromise for both the passengers and the airline. Kudos to Hawaiian!

RationalApproach February 23, 2020 - 3:34 pm

An easier summary of United’s position:
“We don’t give a flying flip about anyone who hasn’t flown with us for at least three round trips in the last twelve months.” Do they even advertise any more?

William Salopek February 23, 2020 - 5:12 pm

Anyone traveling with a child below, say, 14 years old, should not be allowed to buy basic economy. Case closed.

Anonymous February 23, 2020 - 8:26 pm

As a United Gate Agent myself, all the family had to do was ask the gate agent prior to boarding to be seated together. If the child is 14 years of age or younger, every attempt will be made by the gate agent to ensure that the young ones are sitting with family. Even basic economy.

Kate N February 24, 2020 - 8:59 am

That is funny. I just flew with my family on Saturday. Even though I’m Premier Platinum and booked my family on a regular economy ticket ( not basic economy). United split us all up and I could not sit with my young child with ADHD. I asked at check in for help and they said there was nothing they could do. I asked the gate agent for help, and they refused. I then plead with the flight attendant for help as we boarded and was belittled and told that I would have to resolve it myself. Since just about everyone around us was traveling together, no one would switch. I finally paid the lady next to me to change places with my son! He even had a window seat in economy plus. So she got an upgrade. I’m so disgusted with United right now. I didn’t want special treatment, I just wanted to be able to manage my children.

Marcos February 24, 2020 - 2:31 am

Interesting to read….

Wonder why you didn’t trade seats to allow them to sit together?

Cheryl February 24, 2020 - 2:47 pm

The numerous reminders of Basic Economy restrictions during purchase is very well explained. Yet, the customer still expects special services or seats together without payment…the airline becomes the bad guy. Yet, it’s the customer’s responsibility to buy what they want. Where is their ownership in this issue?

Alan. February 24, 2020 - 7:43 pm

Awful airline generally but the rule of thumb regardless is for the tickets buyer to read the blurb as bf conditions if ticket sale. It’s really not that hard then decide if the ticket or the carrier is who they want spend cash with.

F Torres February 27, 2020 - 9:38 am

I’ve had to fly United business class in a couple of occasions to the far east because it was the only alternative left for a last minute trip. I cannot say that the experience was the best, in fact worse than other business class accommodations. I must say however, that most business class travel in North American airlines pales in comparison to other international airlines. It is shameful that the airlines continue to raise their prices and lower the service and quality for the premium class of service.

David February 27, 2020 - 11:15 am

While it’s nice when passengers are willing to move around to accommodate others who are split from their family members, I strongly object to your characterization of anyone not wanting to move as “heartless” or “jerks.”

People have paid good money, in advance, to choose the seats they wanted, and I would never characterize someone as heartless or a jerk for not wanting to give up the seat they chose and paid for, weeks or months in advance, in order to help someone who didn’t plan or pay. Frankly, you come off as a jerk for using that language.

Marlon Ermitano February 27, 2020 - 11:32 pm

All I could add is that we are living in the world of Airline Deregulation of the 1970’s. Airlines have to watch the bottom line for all the competition that all the consumers wanted for affordable pricing. And so we all get what we pay for……..cheap. Selling your sanity for a lousy 1 dollar saved.

Eric March 1, 2020 - 3:38 am

I think the basic economy tickets are a dis-service to the people who book regular economy tickets. When booking a flight, I check the seat maps and try and find an affordable flight with a plane that isn’t packed. Unfortunately, I think that the basic economy seats don’t show up on the seat map until 24hours prior to flying and then the whole seat map is usually full and changes are more difficult. Numerous times I have seen a lightly populated seat map, where my wife and I are the only two in our row, change to become a fully packed plane once we are 24hours from departure. has anyone else noticed this? It appears to me that the basic economy tickets are then populated at random to the seat map, and I end up on a packed flight I may not have booked to begin with. Thanks United/AA/Delta for making things even better when we purchase a regular economy ticket.

Gary March 1, 2020 - 9:55 pm

It’s very simple. Read the pop up screen when purchasing the ticket. If you’re traveling in a group and want to sit together, don’t purchase this fare type. Simple.

John Veenstra March 22, 2021 - 4:29 am

I just (mar 2021) had United Airlines change an paid-upgrade (legroom) aisle seat to a center seat. Twice – on the way to Phoenix and again on the way back to Chicago. The aisle seat was confirmed by email when the flight was booked in February. I found out when I was getting my boarding passes online the day before flight. UA customer service informed me they had the right to do this for unforeseen circumstances. The aisle seat they had taken (10C) was offered on the seat selector as available. When I tried to change back to it, they charged an upgrade fee.
This is clearly not a case of ‘unforeseen circumstances’ – it appears someone is deliberately swapping aisle seats for center seats even when an upgrade has been paid in order to offer the aisle seat for sale again. Very poor business practice – UA should be ashamed of gaming passengers in this manner.

markdesouza84@gmail.com August 9, 2022 - 12:57 pm

Thanks for the valuable info you have provided. One question: I have a MileagePlus Explorer card which gives me one free checked bag. If I purchased a basic economy ticket, would I still receive this free checked bag?

joeheg August 10, 2022 - 11:55 am

Checked bag rules for basic economy on United are the same as any other economy ticket. You should still get your free checked bag from the credit card.


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