The Basics of United’s Basic Economy

When I first heard that United was unveiling a Basic Economy product comparable to the experience of an ultra-low cost carrier (ULCC), I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect. On the one hand, I have flown on an ULCC – Spirit Airlines – and have not been overly impressed with anything except for the cost of my ticket. However, I am a big believer in making flying as accessible as possible, and while I do think that even the legacy carriers have decreased their airfares across the board, there are certain amenities that certain people simply don’t feel that they need on a short domestic flight: food, drink, etc.

What are the differences?

To the average traveler, the two main things that differentiate Basic Economy from United’s normal Economy product are:

  1. The traveler cannot bring a carry-on bag on board the aircraft. Personal items are allowed, however.
  2. You cannot choose your seat when you purchase your ticket. Seats are assigned at check-in.

Another component of Basic Economy – one that is perhaps less pertinent to people who don’t fly frequently – is that frequent flyers cannot earn elite qualifying miles (EQMs) with Basic Economy fares. They will earn redeemable “award miles” that can be used towards redeeming flights in the future, but these miles will not count towards the earning of elite status. (If you want to learn more about the difference between award miles and EQMs, check out this comprehensive explanation from The Points Guy).

United isn’t the first airline to go with a form of “assigning” seats. In fact, Southwest Airlines’ unique policy gives every traveler a boarding classification consisting of a letter (A-C) and number (1-60) based on when they check in, albeit Southwest elite members are assigned a better boarding position (usually A1-A15), hence allowing them a better chance at their preferential seat. Southwest claims that this makes boarding far more efficient, and as someone who has flown on Southwest I can’t disagree: both boardings were extremely quick. However, I personally like to know that I’m getting a window seat, so – for that reason – this wouldn’t be something that I would choose. With Southwest, you can get in a solid boarding position by checking in early: I got window seat 3F from position B6, which was in the second full boarding group. With United, however, you’re relying on the luck of the draw. Additionally, passengers sitting Basic Economy seats are relegated to the last boarding group. Not a huge deal, but some might not enjoy having to wait to board and – likely – disembark.

I can’t say that I’m super upset about less carry-ons, though. As someone who often sees people either struggling to fit their (too large) carry-on into the overhead compartment, I personally think that a lot of people try to push the limit with carry-ons. A personal item, however, is much more restrictive, and the consequences of not being able to fit said item under the seat are, I think, more likely to deter people from making poorly-advised decisions regarding how large their personal item is.

What don’t people like about ULCCs?

There are a number of reasons, but I’ll outline my own reason for avoiding ULCCs.

I’ve only flown twice on an ULCC, both times with Spirit. And while my sample size of ULCC experiences is admittedly small, my issue with ULCCs has been the sheer lack of reliability that I’ve experienced. Both times I’ve flown Spirit, the way out has been on time, but the way back has been delayed by at least an hour; in the second case (a return flight from BWI), it was 2 1/2 hours. And while Spirit did provide a $50 voucher for that delay, that was enough for me to decide that enough is enough. Delay me once, shame on me; delay me twice, shame on you.

Additionally, the difference in price between a ULCC and your average low-cost carrier (LCC) is usually negligible. In fact, jetBlue, which is my favorite domestic airline, is a low-cost carrier, and I’ve found its prices to be cheaper than or comparable to those of Spirit on many occasions. Why would I pay $10 less for vastly inferior comfort, service, and reliability?

Moreover, the top two U.S. airlines in terms of customer satisfaction ratings – jetBlue and Southwest – are both LCCs. Ultimately, LCCs have proven that there is no inherent need to sacrifice neither the hard product (materials/physical amenities/etc.) nor the soft product (service/food/drink/etc.) for savings. Given their inferior customer satisfaction scores, it appears that some U.S.-based ULCCs still haven’t comprehended that.

What’s the difference between Basic Economy and a ULCC?

Simply put, United’s hard product is significantly superior to that of Spirit and other ULCCs. While those airlines charge for basically everything except breathing and using the bathroom, United passengers will be able to enjoy in-flight entertainment (where available), Wi-Fi (for purchase), and a normal Economy seat (even if it’s in a less-than-desirable location),. Conversely, most Spirit planes have tiny tray tables, no Wi-Fi, and the seats make me feel like I’m in a sardine can. Of course, United’s economy isn’t comparable to a day at the spa, but it’s far more comfortable than anything comparable that you’ll find on a ULCC.

Is Basic Economy worth it?

Given my desire to know that I’m getting a window seat, I probably would not choose a Basic Economy seat, although I am an admittedly rare case. Besides, the routes which United flies out of my home airport are usually pretty affordable anyway – I’ve flown both BOS-ORD and BOS-EWR for less than $100 round trip – so the cost savings don’t justify the concession I’d have to make in terms of predictability.

However, for the average person who travels light and just wants to get on the plane, then I’d say it’s absolutely worth it: you’ll get a reasonably comfortable seat, a hard product that is far better than the ULCCs, and will even get complementary food and drinks. And, most importantly, you’ll get a very good deal.

 

Finding Cheap Flights is Easier Than You Think

This weekend, I traveled to Washington D.C. to visit a good friend from college, flying both BOS-DCA and DCA-BOS on American Airlines’ Airbus A319s. Both legs were rather uneventful as far as aviation milestones go, although I did get a pretty great view of the Friday evening sunset on the way down.

For my trip to Logan, I opened a ride sharing app and requested a ride. It must have been the quickest pickup I’ve ever had waiting for a ride: I saw the app confirm the driver, only to look up and see his van parked around 20 yards away. Apparently, he was driving down the street, received the request, saw me looking at my phone, and pulled over. It was a serendipitous and convenient encounter.

During the ride, my interest in finding cheap flights came up. I told him that I’ve flown four times for less than $100 round trip. Somewhere in there, he spoke of his desire to travel to his native Morocco with his family, but said that the flights were extremely expensive — a round trip from New York to Casablanca was well north of $1,300 for one adult.

“Well,” I said, “I was looking last week, and saw that flights to Casablanca from JFK are going for less than $1,000.”

“Really?” he asked.

“You bet,” I replied. “Let me check on my phone.” I had downloaded a third-party app that gave me access to the Google Flights interface, so I entered “JFK” and “CMN” and picked a pair of dates that I thought would be cheap: a pair of Wednesdays in December, well before Christmas. The result: a $790 direct flight on Royal Air Maroc.

When I told him of this price, he was pretty surprised. However, I knew in the back of my mind that an affordable flight from Boston — even if it wasn’t direct — would be even better than the option that I’d told him of.

“Let me see what I can get you from Boston,” I said. I plugged in BOS and CMN in, expecting to find something around the same price.

Lo and behold, it was even cheaper: a $681 round trip on TAP Portugal was available for a variety of dates in Fall 2016.

“That’s crazy!” he exclaimed when I told him of the price. After cautioning him that it would involve multi-hour layovers in Lisbon on both legs of the journey, to which he said was completely fine, I said that I’d be happy to pass along the itinerary to him if he’d provide his email, to which he eagerly obliged. In a matter of minutes, a pipe dream had become much closer to reality.

Knowledge is Power

Though this story might seem self-promotional or a “humble brag” of sorts, that’s not my intention at all. Rather, it’s to convey that flying can be much more affordable than many might think.

Despite naming my weekly blog series Hump Day Fare Hacks, I’m here to emphasize that what I do is not rocket science. Similarly, it is not anything that you cannot do. When I told a co-worker that I use Google Flights, which has an incredibly user-friendly interface and lists the schedules of pretty much every airline*, he jokingly asked me how I could be called an “expert at finding cheap flights” by fellow employees. (I’d like to stress that I did not give myself that title.) I replied that it’s not about using a tool that no one else has access to, but rather having unique knowledge such as:

  • Knowing what’s a good deal, rip-off, and normal price for a particular route.
  • Being aware of which airlines tend to run cheaper vs. more expensive in certain markets.
  • Keeping cognizant of price increases, fare classes, and other pertinent information.
What to Change

Many will go to an airline’s website, plug in the dates they want to travel on, and pick the first flight that they see. And while it might result in peace of mind because you’ve booked and paid for your trip earlier, reality is that you could save hundreds of dollars by scouring your options more comprehensively, checking a variety of dates, and looking at low-fare calendars. When I have a trip that I want to book, I usually experiment with a variety of dates, carriers, and trip lengths to see what will yield the best deal. And while I will usually pay extra for things like a window seat, I’ll usually take the 6 a.m. flight if it means that I’ll be saving $100 one way.

Certainly, flying has become much more affordable in the past decade. From increased competition and the emergence of low-cost carriers like jetBlue, to low fuel prices and increasingly efficient aircraft like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, there are a number of factors that have contributed to the falling prices of flights.

Regardless, it seems that many are still unaware of what a “normal price” for a flight on a certain route, not to mention a “good deal,” is — myself included. Before I started flying on a regular basis in 2014, I would have assumed that a BOS-PHL flight would go for $300+ round trip. In reality, there are a number of flights on that route for less than $200. If I myself have suffered from these misconceptions, I’m certain that there are many more out there just like me.

Bottom Line: Be an Educated Consumer

Much like buying a car, the best way to get a deal on a flight is to be an educated consumer. That means looking at a variety of travel websites, airlines, and repositories to see where the best deals are. Additionally — unless you’re on a strict schedule — it helps to experiment with a number of dates, flights, and seats. Considering that paying for a flight is, often times, a large financial investment, it’s surprising to see how many people who will simply book the first two dates that come to mind without realizing the savings they’re missing out on. There are a number of affordable, even cheap, flights out there if you know where to find them. Good news: it’s much easier than you think.

Note: * There are some carriers that don’t publish their fares on Google Flights, Southwest Airlines being one of them. That said, I’ve found some great deals on Southwest’s website, although such prices are usually exclusive to certain routes — email me if you want to know more about a particular city pairing.