United Institutes New $9 Carry On Fee – For Customers Already Paying More to Avoid Basic Economy

Southwest doesn’t charge for seat assignments because they don’t offer advance seat assignments. First board, first pick of seats. You can board earlier if you check in online as close to 24 hours before your flight as possible, if you have elite status, or if you buy a full fare ticket. Or you can pay $15 per flight for ‘Early Bird’ check-in. Southwest earns 9 figures annually from passengers opting into this.

Boarding early ensures both you get a better seat and that there’s room onboard for your carry on, although since Southwest doesn’t charge for checked bags more people check and there’s less competition for bin space.

United and American don’t allow customers on the cheapest (basic economy) fares to bring a full-sized carry on bag onboard, unless they have elite status or the airline’s co-brand credit card. Seat assignments for these passengers come at a charge prior to check-in. Other passengers without status pay to be assigned to many seats.

But now United has figured out a way to make customers who aren’t buying basic economy fares pay to be able to bring a full-sized carry on bag on the plane.

They’re selling priority boarding from $9. That’s a fee to ensure there’s overhead bin space available when you get on the plane, which is the only reason you want to board early.

The fee will vary “depending on several factors, including the flight booked, the date, time of day, and day of week.”

It won’t be available on all flights or to Basic Economy customers and United assures “We do not anticipate any significant impact on the current boarding group size.”

Elite customers and those with United’s credit card get early boarding anyway. And to be sure United has long sold Priority Access ‘bundles’ — packages priced perhaps at $80.

Now that there’s a $9 choice just to board earlier, in order to take your carry on bag on the plane and not have to gate check it, that becomes the default position — non-elites, pay up when offered or United may require you to gate check your bag (at no charge).

On flights where some passengers have to gate check bags it won’t be those who pay extra to board early and queue up in group two. It will be those who don’t pay the $9.

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 »

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  1. I have to say, all this charging to take luggage, checked or unchecked is ridiculous. If you get an aisle seat, your head and neck and shoulders are endangered from all these large bags being slogged down the aisle…… by people trying to avoid a fee.
    In the old days, it was simple, and you checked your bag….or carried if you chose, but there was no financial incentive to haul your life’s possessions on board.
    The worst are the HUGE backpacks, with pillows, water bottles, shoes are other belongings swinging away to hit anyone nearby.
    Maybe the airlines should start a “going back to our roots” campaign, and stop all these baggage fees.

  2. How does selling priority boarding from $9 equate to instituting a new $9 carry on fee? Agree that this is complete clickbait.

  3. At what point is enough enough? Congress and the FAA are so damn lame ( both sides ) that nothing has been done.

    Aside from that United continues to seek it’s “bottom” just when you think they have this comes along. Why not raise the damn fare and be done with this crap? Just think you pay the advertised fare and when you get where your going that’s it ! No hidden charges no bathroom usage fee, or using too much oxygen during the flight.

    And “A” Gary is one of the least offenders of “click bait” on this site. There are far too many “see me’s ” on here . I once was on a flight to Paris and there was a blogger on there he was so disrupted to FC we all asked the FA to shut him down with the endless taking pictures and talking. UGH

  4. I have to agree with A and John. The title is very misleading and factually incorrect. They are not forcing you to pay a fee to bring onboard a carry-on irrespective of whether you like to gate check or not. I have had to gate check a bag many times even as an EXP on AA because I did not show up at the gate early enough to board.

  5. I’m not saying I like having my bag gate-checked. But claiming that this is an $9 carry-on fee implies that a non Basic Economy passenger must pay $9 in addition to the already-paid fare to bring a carry-on item. That is factually incorrect. A passenger could still bring a carry-on bag, not pay $9, and place it in the overhead bin or have it gate checked. The point is that when I go home in a few weeks, I won’t need to pay an additional $9 to bring along my roll-on as your title suggests. I’m actually a fan of your blog, except for the brief period when I didn’t realize that most people don’t read both you and OMAAT, but your arrogant, sassy response is rude, impolite, and does not befit a “thought leader in travel.”

  6. What a pointless, clickbait ‘article”

    So United is selling something that they already were selling? Wow that’s some ground breaking reporting there, Gary.

    More “thought leadership” at work.

  7. Gary, what’s explained clearly in the post is how you mislead people. No one is forcing anyone to pay $9. You should choose your words (institute) more carefully. Very irresponsible of you

  8. Maybe I’m the only one who enjoys gate-checking. This is not a new bag related fee in my opinion. Though it does remind me of an episode of Come Fly with Me where they have paid priority boarding and the agent sells it to everybody on the flight.

  9. He didn’t even come up with the clickbait on his own. Gary the “thought leader” has a title that’s almost a copy of what Pizza in Motion wrote earlier today.

  10. Problem with gate checking or just checking bags in general is that it destroys your luggage if you’re flying more than a couple times a year, and especially if you have to fly regularly for work. It’s fine for the leisure traveler but you’re going to be replacing your bags every couple years if you have to fly more than one round trip monthly.

    Gary’s writing style and perspective is one of the best in the travel blogging area. It’s a bit sensationalist but is actually written in the perspective of the passenger and not the foolish libertarians who love the freedom of corporations to restrict our freedom and abuse us. The only blog that’s better than Gary is Skift which actually has unbiased in depth journalism, but Gary is much more relevant to the layman.

  11. Really disappointing article. Gary, I like your blog, but it is BS headlines like this (priority boarding fee becomes a “fee for a carry on bag” that really make me look to other places for frequent flyer news.

  12. To an advanced traveler it’s a carry-on bag fee. To the novice traveler it is what UA says it is, a priority boarding upgrade.

  13. @Ray,

    I gate check regularly when I fly in Y and have not noticed any additional wear and tear than is generally associated with imbeciles cramming their oversized bags into the overhead bins because lazy gate agents don’t enforce sizing rules. And the wait on the jetbridge isn’t really that much longer on the odd times I’m flying in back anyway. Most times my bag is waiting for me once I’ve deplaned. My only issue with (gate) checking is that I don’t trust baggage handlers with anything. As such, I never pack anything but clothes in a roll-aboard.

    And, yeah, I’d have to agree this was a pretty misleading article. Correlation does not equal causation. Will some people use this to get overhead space? For sure? And yeah, it is tacky of United to claim as such in their advert. But ultimately, you’re paying to get aboard first, independent of overhead space. Kinda clickbait-y.

  14. I agree with A, John, UncleSam, and others that this post title is misleading to the point of being inaccurate. I’m a 1K on United, and one positive of “basic economy” for those of us who do *not* buy such fares is that boarding on domestic flights has become a little faster and it’s less common for the overhead bins to fill up. It used to be that they would make announcements before every full flight that people in later boarding groups would need to gate check their bags. This year I can’t remember any domestic flight on United in which anyone was forced to gate check. If some portion of customers choose basic economy, then you shouldn’t have as many full overhead bins.

    Incidentally, based on his numerous posts on this topic, Gary seems to have a lot more problems finding overhead bin space on American than I do on United. I only had to gate check a bag once in the last three years and they gave me 10,000 miles compensation when I expressed my displeasure to the flight attendant. United flight attendants are trained to reserve the overhead bins in first class for first class passengers so even late boarding passengers in first class are essentially guaranteed overhead space — even back when they had to gate check bags for people in later boarding groups, they would let you keep your bag if you were seated in first (the one time I had to gate check was before basic economy existed, and I was one of the last to board in coach).

    So I think the premise of this post — that late-boarding customers will have to gate check bags — is simply wrong, precisely because basic economy has reduced the number of carry ons. While Gary doesn’t like to board early, some passengers who don’t have lounge access might prefer to pay $9 to minimize their time in the gate area. Many prefer to get settled without having to climb over too many other people. That’s what they’re getting. They’ll have no problem with their carry on if they don’t buy it. I don’t see any problem with this offering.

  15. Complete useless clickbait. United has been selling Priority boarding for as long as I can remember. Its called priority boarding, not a carry-on luggage fee. Did United deny you Global Services too?

  16. United even tells you this fee is for access to the overhead bins.

    Pay the fee so you don’t have to get check and so someone else that doesn’t pay the fee will instead.

    @Tony @Benji – they have been selling “Priority Access” bundles as I note in the post, for perhaps 10x the price. That’s a different beast entirely.

  17. I find clickbait headlines and posts really frustrating. I’d rather read fewer posts with more content and analysis than more that seem half-baked or oversold.

  18. Sorry @Rich but you seem to be off in your definition of click bait. I’m making a genuine argument here, and I think I’m on the stronger side of it, so if you think I’m wrong you might lay out why..

  19. Have you seen how big group 2 has become? In my last flight from Tampa it was half the plane …mostly comprised of United Credit card holders (and a couple Gold Elite). The $9 fee will simply make group 2 boarding larger so eventually anyone boarding after group 2 will have to gate check their bag. Smart revenue generator for united and the only losers are the group 2 which is already ‘oversold’ with no one complaining.

  20. I miss the days when you just had to make sure your bag was under x kilos & you only had fee.. the ticket price, where everything was included depending on the flying class.

  21. Outside of a few it is more and more apparent that US airlines are in a race to bottom. Many have lost their mojo while the rest are capitalizing on the decline. There will always be a market in the US that is demanding a LCC cost while many others will continue to be willing to pay for a better experience. UA is clearly aligning itself to the LCC world, which is a complete shame.

  22. Agree on the clickbait. The headline is completely dishonest. Mr. Leff may believe that it basically amounts to such, but that is not a truth, just a subjective assumption. It is also not what the headline states. I will no longer be trusting articles from this site, or from Mr. Leff. Especially in light of how much he tried to argue his position, even to the point of adding more misleading statements.

    Here’s why your arguments are false:

    First, your headline states the fee is for carry-on luggage. It is not.
    You argue it is for bin access, it is not. The fee is for early boarding and includes guaranteed overhead space.

    You even argue that “United even tells you this fee is for access to the overhead bins.” No, sir, as stated in your article, United says you get guaranteed overhead space as part of paying the fee. Not that the fee is for access. So that statement is another false one.

    While I understand your belief that it comes out to being a fee for carry-on luggage, it is clearly possible for someone to not pay the fee, and have overhead space. Even if that is unlikely, it is still a possibility. In order for your headline to be honest, that could not be the case.

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