Loophole in United’s Basic Economy Lets You Bring on Two Carry On Items

United’s Basic Economy fares — along with American’s — are the most complicated fare increase in airline history.

Basic Economy fares are all about providing less value at the same price, in hopes that customers will pay more. At the same time United’s press releases pretend that the fares are somehow about offering customers travel for less (they’re not).

By imposing new conditions on the lowest fares offered — no seat assignments at booking, last to board, last to be re-accommodated if something goes wrong with the flight, no upgrades, no full-sized carry on bags — they’re forcing customers to wade through more information and pay more to get the same thing as before.

One piece of United’s Basic Economy strategy is even to force customers not checking bags to check in with an agent rather than online. Basic economy, it seems, doesn’t pay for use of the mobile app.

However these restrictions carry some risks for United. If a customer flying on a Basic Economy fare is forced to check something that’s then damaged, the whole thing could boomerang. We all know what happened when musician Dave Carroll checked his guitar on a United flight.

The unparagoned Brian Sumers shares this internal detail from United:

At least elite frequent flyers and co-brand credit card holders get their priority boarding. And since the restriction that you can only have a personal item and not a full-sized carry on bag is enforced by boarding group, these customers get to bring on a carry on bag as well.

But if you’re not a United elite or a co-brand credit card holder, and you want to bring on more than a personal item (or just don’t want to pay to check a bag), consider making the case for a small instrument your suitcase. Stuff it full of clothes and electronics. Because you can bring that on, even if United won’t allow your rollaboard.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. Well, presumably your allowed to bring an instrument, not an instrument case idea as a suitcase. No doubt United will start asking people to open their instrument cases when boarding as part of group W. They might even require a few bars to played to prove that you haven’t stuffed your viola full of socks and underwear.

  2. I usually carry my Thompson submachine gun in a violin case. Would that be okay?

  3. I’ve used tricks like this before on multiple airlines that wouldn’t let me bring my skateboard on board. I noticed that they would allow me to bring a tennis bag in addition to my small carry-on, so I disassembled my skateboard and put it into a tennis bag and was good to go!

  4. Basic economy is infuriating!! Now I have to pay $50 for what I used to get free

  5. I booked this by mistake and am now stuck. I will never fly united again. United can kiss my bum. they just did it to come up first in flight searches.

  6. Accidentally booked this fare on Expedia and ‘am dreading the flight. I’ve always been a pretty loyal United customer but I feel cheated. Now I don’t know for sure if I’ll make it back home at the end of my trip. And, now I have to check a bag in to the American flight on the first leg, when I could have had a carry on, just because I can’t have a carry on with United. So, an extra $50. That, and if there’s overbooking, I might not make it home. How considerate of United Airlines.

  7. I booked this for my son, and it stated, “NO Carry ons!” NOTHING. Only something like a purse or “shoulder bag,” that fits under the seat in front of you. I will never fly United again.

  8. Try going on as handicapped, need extra time.. The airlines job is not to determine one way or the other, so you get on 1st and there is plenty of room onboard for your bag.. I do it all the time . Works great.

  9. I have been a United 1K customer for the past several years, including now. This year I migrated over to Delta (now I am Diamond) where they treat elites much better. Airlines need to understand that frequent flyers choose an airline for service and amenities, not price (like most, my company pays for my tickets). Please work for it United, and earn your customers back… you used to be my favorite airline.

  10. I ran into this problem. I’d been flying with the same carry-on bag every week for a month and one agent decided to give me a hard time and it cost me $60. Seems like the message is if you’re poor you need to take up less space. United sucks

  11. I primarily fly Chicago to the west coast; wish Delta operated non-stops in this market so I could use their Basic Economy and bring a carry on.
    I’m a musician and do sometimes travel with my violin (actual instrument, not a case stuffed with clothes). If I wait until boarding group 5, there’s no more overhead space for my instrument, regardless of my fare class. This was the case before the basic economy rollout as well. So this doesn’t really help.

  12. Don’t do this. I’m a musician and let me lose my right to carry my 20K climate sensitive bassoon with me because you weren’t willing to pay 25$ for a carry on. The right to carry and instrument is important for many freelance musicians, it’s part of our JOB. Don’t toy with the system to save a little bit of money, or you’ll ruin it for the rest of us.

  13. Maybe ruining it for the “rest of us” needs to happen… that way there are more voices crying out.

Comments are closed.