You May Now be Better Off Flying Spirit or Frontier Rather than United Airlines – Low Class

That’s not a headline you want to read as a United frequent flyer, but sadly it may be true. The folks with the “Friendly Skies” snapped their fingers today blessing us all with Basic Economy.


What is Basic Economy?

You thought economy class was as “low” as it can get, silly you! Delta, United and American have lowered the bar of economy to ‘basic economy’. With basic economy, the big three airlines restrict or remove things like carry-on baggage, seat reservations, elite credit earning, and boarding positions. (Though Delta is the most generous of the three)

Delta and American only operate basic economy class on select routes. American says they only “offer” this class on routes where Frontier or Spirit Airlines also fly. What United did today is roll out basic economy on ALL their routes in the lower 48. This is huge!


What’s the big deal?

The big deal is that basic economy flights are rarely cheaper than their regular economy counterpart used to be. I’ve tracked the exact flight with United regular economy, and now that same flight and price will get you a seat in United Basic Economy.

They’ve stripped your seat access, boarding position, elite status earning, and luggage allowance only to sell it for $20 more as “regular economy”.


United basic economy “N” class


As you can see, your elite status earning, such as PQM’s, is zero. If you fly 100 United Basic Economy flights in a single year, you won’t earn a single PQM, PQS, or PDQ. That means no elite status for you! You will earn base award miles, but since they’ve switched to a revenue earning system it won’t be much.

This one-way Basic Economy flight for $230 will earn you 1,000 award miles to redeem for free travel. A one-way United flight less than 700 flight miles requires 10,000 award miles. That means you’d have to spend $2,300 on Basic Economy tickets for a free flight! How is that for a loyalty program? Spend $2,300 and get a free one-way from San Francisco to Seattle.

Business Passengers

This is going to really hit United business flyers the hardest. Many large companies use agencies to book travel for employees, can you guess what main factor they look at when selecting flights? Price. Now that every United flight has their lowest advertised price as “Basic Economy”, many business travelers will have these flights booked on their behalf.

Two huge problems arise from this:

  1. These business travelers will not earn any elite status on “N” class basic economy flights
  2. You cannot change or select your seat under ANY circumstance, United will assign you a seat at boarding, likely an unclaimed middle seat


Can you imagine how badly this will suck for corporate travelers who get stuck on a United Basic Economy ‘N’ class flight? No seat selection or seat upgrades PLUS zero credit for earning elite status. What’s worse, your existing United elite status won’t improve your N class seat assignment.


How to avoid Basic Economy?

In United’s defense, which feels icky, they do make it very clear at booking the benefits you are giving up. I recommend using Google’s Matrix ITA to search United flights while excluding the Basic Economy N class. (Thanks to The Flight Deal for the tip)


Click “Advanced Controls” to enter the syntax which will exclude United’s ‘N’ class


Once you’ve clicked “Advanced Controls”, enter the routing code ‘ua+’ and the extension code ‘/f ~bc=n’ (without the ‘ symbols). This will ensure that United Basic Economy flights will not be displayed. What will display are all other United economy class flights, which do include a free seat reservation, rolling carry-on allowance, and elite status earning.

Spirit and Frontier?

These two bundles of joy already offer basic economy at discounted rates, they call it a “ticket”. Sprint and Frontier have a business model of, “only pay for what you need”. You don’t get a free seat reservation and your carry-on allowance is limited to a single handbag or backpack, sound familiar?

When comparing a flight on Spirit/Frontier to United Basic Economy, remember that the two are rather similar in their offering. If Spirit and Frontier can get you there​ nonstop or their pricing is lower, I sadly recommend flying them. I never thought I’d say that. Thanks, United.


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