United Airlines rolled out Basic Economy fares this year, a lower-price option to entice budget conscious travelers (check out The Points Guy comparing the new basic fares across the major airlines). While I normally fly Delta or Jet Blue, I jumped at a last-minute Basic Economy fare to travel home for Memorial Day weekend. Basic Economy on United offered a $300 savings on an otherwise $600+ last minute ticket. A significant savings, to be sure, but how would travel via Basic Economy compare to an otherwise normal Economy ticket? Here are my thoughts:
- Cheap(er) for last minute - A $300 fare difference between Basic Economy and regular Economy for a trip booked only two days in advance is a substantial savings.
- Forces you to pack light - Only one personal item is allowed for carry-on, so forget packing your rolling suitcase. If you can get by on whatever fits in a small backpack or are willing to pay the extra $25 to check a bag, this ticket is for you.
- Cannot check-in ahead of time - I can't remember the last time I had an actual paper ticket, but Basic Economy on United forces you to check-in at the counter. Why? The agents need to assess whether you are really following the "personal item only" rule. When I attempted to check in at the United Counter self-serve kiosk at Newark Airport, I received a blaring screen telling me to find an agent to complete my check-in. When I did, she seemed confused at first, which forced me to explain the nature of my ticket. It really should not be this hard nor require the use of an actual paper ticket for check-in. Thankfully, I flew at an off-time at the airport which meant no lines for either the counter or security. But if you are flying during a busy time, the requisite stop at the ticket counter will be a nightmare.
- No seat selection - If you are an adamant aisle or window person, be prepared to take whatever seat is offered to you. There is no flexibility with this.
What I liked:
- Thorough follow up on nature of ticket - United sent one email soon after I purchased outlining the conditions of Basic Economy, which also gave me the option to cancel. Another followed 24 hours later. So you really should know what to expect with this ticket ahead of time.
- Made last-minute travel possible because of the $300 savings.
What they can do to improve:
- Improve mobile website - This comes from the digital marketer in me, but United's mobile website is several years outdated. I booked my ticket on my iPhone, but the process felt too cumbersome and clunky. If I was not so committed to buying the ticket, I might have abandoned the effort entirely. There really is no excuse for such a big company not to invest in a more streamlined mobile experience.
- Check in process - They need to streamline the check-in to alleviate potential bottle-necks at the counters. At least make check-in via the self-serve kiosks possible without the need to track down an actual agent.
- Find a way to not make you feel like a third-class citizen - I get that it is called "Basic Economy" for a reason, but when you have so many restrictions and are literally forced to be the last person to board the plane you cannot help but feel a little under-appreciated. Perhaps it is the branding of it all - instead of the "taking away" at the heart of Basic Economy, you should make buyers feel like they are getting the same great service from United and can pay a bit more for "extras" such as carry-on bags and quicker boarding. Sometimes the optics of the situation make all the difference. Any airline that can capture the business of the budget-minded traveler while also making them feel valued is a goldmine waiting to to happen (hint hint major airlines....).
2018 Update: United has made changes to the seat selection policy for seat assignments. Basic Economy fares now have the option to purchase advanced seat options for a fee. If you choose not to purchase a seat, one will be assigned to you at check-in.