Big Warning for Those Who Use Points to Fly United and American

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Yesterday United and American started selling Basic Economy fares on select routes, and generally speaking, this is really bad news. Contrary to how it is occasionally spun, Basic Economy fares do not mean that if you are willing to skip things like advanced seat assignments, earning miles as normal, and having a full size carry-on that you can save money. No, it means if you need or want those very normal things that have forever been included on these airlines, it now costs extra. The fares didn’t get cheaper without those things, the fares got more expensive with those inclusions.


While I don’t like these fares, I do agree that (almost) everything is fair in the game of capitalism. American and United are doing a good job on their own websites describing what these fares do and do not include. I mean, virtually scaring you off from buying these fares and paying more for a regular economy fare is actually in their best interest. Also as I pointed out yesterday, using American or United miles to book award tickets exempts you from the Basic Economy rules, so (at least for now), that is a good thing.

Big Warning for Those Who Use Credit Card Points to Fly United and American

However, the big losers here are those who have gotten used to using fixed value points like those from Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou, Amex Membership Rewards, and similar to book flights via those third party sites. The return has gotten as good as 1.5 – 2 cents per point in many cases, which is great for something like a domestic economy flight.  While that is a decent return per point, these sites already had their limitations when searching and booking flights, but now the situation is much worse.

On routes where United’s and American’s Basic Economy fares have launched, it is currently pretty much impossible to book an economy fare on these third party sites and not have it be the very restrictive Basic Economy fare that many of us probably want to avoid. It is possible you may be able to request a different fare class if you call to book over the phone, but even that process is not going to be simple, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that most people who want to use points in this manner do not want to be calling and messing with fare classes just to have a full size carry-on and an assigned seat. Travel Codex actually tried this yesterday and confirmed the hunch that it will not be a simple process, if it is possible at all.

But wait, it gets worse. With the exception of the Ultimate Rewards site, the others I tested like Citi and Amex don’t yet even warn you that you are booking a Basic Economy fare. It’s easy to blame the traveler for not knowing the Basic Economy restrictions, but they simply aren’t being spelled out with some of these sites at all. Unless you live and breathe this sort of stuff there would literally be no way to know that is what you are booking in many cases.

United Basic Economy Ultimate Rewards.jpg

Here is an example of the baggage fees displayed when looking at a fare via Amex Travel on a route that I know is a United Basic Economy route and fare from Minneapolis to Houston. It says no fees for carry-ons, only that isn’t really true if bring something larger than a personal item.

Amex Travel Basic Economy.jpg

I am also very concerned for those who book travel for work or otherwise have flights booked for them via these or similar third party sites as you now will have a whole new set of issues to contend with if you want something indulgent like an assigned seat and the right to earn miles. I know my husband already has a world of fun booking business travel through the Concur website, and I’m sure these Basic Economy fares won’t make the situation better.

The United and American Basic Economy fares haven’t expanded to all flights yet, so truly my best advice is to book flights on routes that don’t have those fares using these bank points while you still easily can. Hopefully when the Basic Economy fares become more common the third party sites will do a better job not only displaying the restrictions, but allowing you to select a “normal” economy fare online without those restrictions.

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  1. The one positive thing is that many business travelers who use corporate booking portals like Concur have reported previously that their companies had proactively filtered out Delta’s basic economy fares. Hopefully the same will be done for United and American.

    As for the credit card company booking portals, they’re most certainly outsourced to third parties, so I’m not sure how much change we’re going to see in the short term. Expedia (which seems to use tech that underlies a lot of different consumer facing portals) will warn you about Basic Economy on all three airlines, but for now will only allow you to “upgrade” to a regular economy fare on Delta. Hopefully this will eventually spread to UA and AA… and THEN hopefully we’ll see some movement with the credit card travel portals.

  2. In my crystal ball I foresee lots of angry people. Those who book with points as you explain in this post who don’t realize they are getting this “peon class” fare ticket. Those who travel for work whose company requires using the lowest possible fare. And low information, very infrequent travelers who won’t notice the warning when they book online, and will only find out that their family cannot sit together when they arrive at check in. Especially folks without the airline cc and/or elite status, who usually travel with only a carryon to avoid baggage fees. They will now have to pay to check their carryon, meaning they will pay just as much as they would have paid for regular economy, yet are stuck with this inferior fare class.

    • I don’t think I’m running anywhere unless it is after my dog, but this game is always always always always changing. For a while using points in that manner at a fixed value wasn’t a good deal. Then, it got better. Now, it may be getting worse again. There are always options and my job (as I see it), is to point out the best values and strategies. I’ve done that for almost six years now and hope to be doing it for quite a while longer. Goodness knows the loyalty programs always have something new up their sleeves…for better and worse.

      • Haha – I don’t think “the game is always changing” is an excuse! You work on behalf of the mega-banks, as explained in your disclaimer.

        Can you imagine if someone hawked you a car claiming 35 MPG and then when you drove it it only got 25 MPG?!

  3. Wow.

    Thank you for the warning. I am not quite sure what to do about this . I fly both of these airlines a lot because they don’t nickle and dime you like cheap ones.

    I was just going to do a United card. Now I don’t know if I should. poop

    • Well at least for now the United card and United miles aren’t impacted by any of this. In fact, having the United card protects you from some of it, but not all of it.

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