Understanding United Airlines’ Confusing Seat Category Names

by joeheg

Airlines are constantly trying to differentiate themselves from the competition. One way they try to distinguish their offerings is by “branding” each service category with a name specific to the airline.

While most airlines are happy to call the lowest class of service “Basic Economy,” once you get to anything above that, airline marketing departments get creative. The differing names lead to confusion when you’re looking at tickets and trying to compare prices. What makes it worse is when even the airline uses terms that don’t mean the same thing for all flights.

United Airlines is one of the worst offenders, as one of our readers discovered when looking for tickets to Germany.

Here’s the chart from United showing the different seat classes:

a white table with black text

  • United Polaris – In December 2016, United Polaris business class service replaced United BusinessFirst and United Global First service. United is finally done converting the seats on all its planes and is already planning updates to the seats installed at the beginning of the project.
  • United First – This is the first-class product on flights within the US and Canada. This will be a seat in a first-class leather recliner.
  • United Business – Available on United flights between the US and Latin America or the Caribbean. Very similar to domestic First.
  • Premium Transcontinental Service – Available on flights between New York/Newark and LAX or SFO.
  • Premium Plus – Your seats are closer to the front of the plane, giving you more legroom, elbow room and room to recline. Each seat has its own power outlet and USB charger. You’ll also get free drinks (including alcohol), hot meals, snacks and desserts. Top it off with two free standard checked bags, Premier Access boarding and discounted United Club passes.
  • Economy Plus – Extra legroom seats in the front of the Economy cabin (Here’s our review of Economy Plus)
  • Economy – Regular seat on the plane including seat selection and carry-on bag
  • Basic Economy – Bare bones ticket. Don’t purchase unless you know all the restrictions this ticket has.

Here are the pricing options when looking for a flight from Newark to Frankfurt on a 787-10:

a screenshot of a graph

There are three types of Economy tickets, from the most restrictive basic economy to fully refundable tickets.

Premium Economy is actually United Premium Plus. While it’s listed on United’s website as part of the economy cabin, it’s different from an economy seat. You also see that the Business Class seat is listed as United Polaris Business.

So is Premium Plus like the extra legroom seats you’ll find on a domestic United flight?

Nope, it’s an entirely different class of service that falls between Polaris business class and Economy. You’ll have a seat that reclines and includes a leg rest. The seats are also wider, having a 2-3-2 configuration compared to the more cramped seating arrangements. It’s similar to a United domestic first-class seat. You also get free drinks, a hot meal and two free checked bags.

It’s what most international airlines call Premium Economy. US airlines had to invent a new name because they’ve been charging extra for “Premium” seats which are only economy seats with a few extra inches of legroom.

So where’s the Economy Plus fare, the economy seat with extra legroom?

You need to select Economy class and then you’ll get the option to “upgrade” your seat.

Admittedly, United can better explain the type of seat you’re buying during the booking process. Even the headers on the categories don’t match the names they use for the different products.

Here’s a quick cheat sheet for United’s long-haul international flights.

  • United Polaris – You’ll have a Lie-Flat business class pod seat. Includes Polaris Lounge access.
  • United Premium Plus – Large Recliner seat with meal & drink service. Similar to or slightly better than domestic first class.
  • United Economy Plus – Usual economy seat offering extra legroom.
  • United Economy – It’s economy class.
  • United Basic Economy – Same seat, more restrictions, less flexibility.

I hope this makes it easier to search for United seats!

*** Thanks to Chris L. for being the catalyst for this post!

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary


Coral King September 16, 2022 - 6:06 am

I booked a Business Class flight on United SFO to HNL in a Polaris seat for November 17. Now they changed the aircraft to a narrow body and they show me in First Class in a plain recliner seat like you describe as Premium Plus. Was this a switch-a-roo with no rebate?

derek October 9, 2023 - 2:22 am

Not too confusing.
Not like hotels whose rooms are Spectacular grade, Super duper grade, Boom wow grade.
This comment is subject to moderation and delay in posting.

Someday, there will be more airline enhancements. Maybe basic economy will be called first class. Everything else will have a more grand name.


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