Is United’s Basic Economy Check-in Restriction a Deceptive Business Practice?

Basic Economy fares are not new lower priced tickets. They’re the same lowest fares as before, just with new restrictions. Airlines are making travel on these fares more difficult hoping to get customers to spend more money to avoid them. Put another way, they’re a complicated price increase.

Earlier I wrote that Basic Economy fares on United turn out to be even worse than the airline told us. We know that Basic Economy customers board last and aren’t permitted to bring a carry on bag onto the plane, just a personal item that fits under the seat. And Basic Economy doesn’t let you select a seat assignment when you book your tickets.

United has even taken away the ability for customers booking basic economy fares to check in online if they aren’t checking a bag.

This means Basic Economy customers have to turn up at the airport earlier than regular customers (since you have to be at the airport and checked in before the check-in cutoff time usually 30 minutes before departure but if you check in online you just need to be at the gate 15 minutes before departure).

Not only is this a restriction that United hasn’t told customers about during the booking process or elsewhere, as @RyanRadia points out it directly contradicts what United says on its own website about online check-in.

According to, if you’re traveling on four or fewer flights with your first one on United using an electronic ticket and with 8 or fewer passengers on your itinerary — and you don’t have any special service requests — then you can check in online. Period.

United is taking something away from customers, it seems, without even telling customers up front they’re doing so.

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, 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 »

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  1. Extortion, pure and simple, Not even a deceptive practice…just extortion. Ironically they will waste more money and employee time policing this racket scheme than it’ll likely bring in revenue. Or at the very least much of the extra revenue will be wasted paying for it’s enforcement….but the geniuses at UA don’t think that far ahead.

  2. Despite all of these, people still fly united. So maybe their (deceptive) way works better in society.

  3. Shady…shady…shady…then again, the whole notion of “Basic Economy” is the fraudulent and long ago outlawed concept of a 3rd Class last used by European railroads in the mid-1800’s that included a class of service so awful that the there were NO seats at all (something the airlines would probably do if they could!!!) and the rail cars had no roofs or full-length side walls to protect against inclement weather, excessive heat or bitter cold.

    This shady, shameful and intentionally bad 3rd class of service is essentially the same 19th century approach being resurrected by an over-concentrated, oligopolistic airline industry today by slick marketing that “rebrands” 3rd, or MISERY, class as “Basic Economy.”

    In the end, it’s the same old pig with new lipstick…

  4. This post, and the comments pertaining to it are pure hyperbole. It’s a free market. UA can offer as much or as little as it wants to and passengers are free to take it or leave it. All they say is they’ll get you from A to B in an allocated seat and with a small bag included. Where do they say that you can check in online? You may not like it and, if lots of others share your view, it may go away, but it’s real and it’s not deceptive.

  5. Seems like a rather minor failure to update the verbiage on the website to match their current practices.

  6. Don’t you just love the OLCI restriction of four flights segments or fewer (or “less” with United’s poor grammar) – a totally unnecessary carry over from the days of removable coupons in paper tickets.

  7. These airlines are so far from world class that they don’t even make it into the top 30 and nationally VIrgin, Alaska and Jetblue beat them hands down just by being nicer. Along the plunge to the bottom we’ve seen such egregious outrages that the rest of the world would wonder what happened to US sanity it it weren’t for Trump answering the question so perfectly. Here you have the exact business parallel to the plea from one of Bush’s supporters “Why can’t stupid people have a President too?” Have you noticed all the trolls defending their right to have an airline as crappy as they are? Do they have a backup plan to beat and drag people onto the planes?

  8. I have the UA credit card and bought a basic economy ticket with it, so I get 1 free checked bag.
    So if I chose to check a bag, I can check in online ?
    Guess I will check in some throw away bag.

  9. Anyone who claims this is Free market, and deal with it, is too blind to see that Airlines are monopolies in many sub-markets. In some places, you simply have no choice, or have no usable choice, and a competitor can’t simply step in and offer a better product. If that were the case UA would be out of business by now and we’d all be flying SW or Jetblue.

  10. Online check in saves money for the company as well as providing a convenience for the customer. Seems that UA is shooting itself in the foot.

  11. My understanding is that United offers Basic Economy fares to compete with the likes of Spirit. I have no problem with that and I can choose to purchase such a ticket or not. Yet, United should be upfront as to what is allowed and what is not, and should live up to the verbage in its own terms and conditions.

    Even Spirit lets you check in online and print a boarding pass.

    I still miss Continental…

  12. If this is correct then it may be to get you to show up at the ticket counter so they can weigh or size your carry-on bag to charge extra, something that would slow the gate down considerably. At Tegel airport I was told to slip past the Germanwings ticket counter without catching the attention of the guy on the end who was there to catch and size bags for surcharge, because if you got to the gate they didn’t bother. Sure enough I waited til he was busy and slipped by and they didn’t even check bag limits at the gate. Saved me $50 euros

  13. Putting aside the disclosure issue (which most airlines fail on some level) allowing online checkin would defeat the objective of providing BE customers with the worst seats because elites often switch seats at online checkin (either to upgrade or move to better E+ seats). So BE customers would likely find open aisle and window seats (even E+ if they are elites) and snatch them before other customers checkin. So UA has taken the drastic step of banning online checkin for these customers.

    The problem of course is that airport checkin time can be highly variable. I had to wait 10m in Polaris/GS customer line to get a boarding pass for an SFO-ORD flight because UA wanted to check my visa for a subsequent codeshare flight. If I wasn’t Polaris I might have been forced to wait 30m and missed my flight (as it was I ended up in Group 4).

    Keep in mind the objective is to convince customers to pay a fare surcharge to avoid the painful experience of BE. This is certainly a good way to do that – but also provides huge incentive for customers to flock to WN which provides a much better product.

  14. @Ron that’s simply not true, they offer these fare restrictions across their entire domestic network (Hawaii flights coming) not merely those routes where they compete with Spirit or Frontier.

  15. I am appalled that I cannot get the boarding pass without paying for a checked bag. UN-American. I just bought a very small under-the -seat bag. But no boarding pass UNLESS YOU CHECK A BAG!! UNREAL!

  16. @Elizabeth,

    Try and fly airlines that treat their customers better:

    Alaska Airlines, Delta, JetBlue & Southwest

    And AVOID those that have crooked CEOs who:

    1.) steal $24,000 (a felony) of sand from a public beach, as the CEO of United did to replace the sand dunes that washed away on the ocean facing side of his multi-million dollar beachfront vacation home, but because he’s rich and powerful, got off by paying the aforementioned $24k fine, whereas if you or I commited a felony crime, as grand theft is, chances are we’d be thrown in jail, or at least face a period of probation and community service, and then have that felony conviction on our record for the rest of our lives (or for at least a set period of time) that would likely prevent us from getting most jobs, and certainly the one he has.

    Heck, I wonder how many other employees have been fired from United for stealing much less than this CEO did – but ah, I digress…

    2.) have CEOs like American’s Dougie P (and his minions) who outfit their aircraft with seats and bathrooms that they themselves not only cannot fit into and use the way they expect their fare, and hence, salary paying customers to use – but who know the airplanes they buy are so awful, that even nine months after the first new airplane featuring the child sized seats and loos arrived from the factory (an asset whose list price is more than $100 million per plane, with 100 or more on order), said CEO has yet to fly the crappy planes he bought becuase he knows they’re THAT awful.

    I know, in an era of desperately few airlines offering consumers real choices, it’s increasingly harder to differentiate among the sorry lot of intentionally degraded airlines who march in near lockstep seeking ever more clever ways to deceive flyers and to better screw them, so for the most part it’s more a matter of “choosing” the least worst airline (versus airlines that view competition as seeking to earn flyers’ allegiance by being a best in class, award winning four or five star Skytrax rated airline – NO USA airline is above three stars 🙁 yeah, the supposedly richest and ‘greatest country’ in human history can’t seem to have anything better than third rate airlines run by crooks and hypocrites, go figure!), but there still are marginally better airlines than United and American.

    And just as the seemingly marginal one inch of row pitch, seat width, loo width and sink width inside the child sized loos and child sized seats can be the difference between a horrible flight, or being able to answer nature’s call with a sense of peace and dignity, so too, is that marginal difference between the worst of the worst of our all shamefully bad airlines, and the marginally better “least worst” of our currently all bad airlines likely going to be all the difference in the world between a horrible travel experience where the “Screw You” factor is going to be clear and unmistakable every step of the way (as it is on American and United), or not quite as much on nearly everyone else except perhaps Southwest, an airline, btw where the CEO is often seen flying aboard his airline’s all coach/economy class Boeing 737s!

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