Flight Review: United (737-900) Basic Economy From Las Vegas to Los Angeles

Aug 4, 2017

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To The Point

United’s basic economy fares are now offered on all domestic routes — but should be avoided. The Pros: free drinks and entertainment just like in regular economy. The Cons: lots of restrictions, narrow seats and prices that are roughly the same as regular economy on other carriers.

Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here: The Platinum Card® from American Express, Chase Sapphire Reserve

Back in November, United followed Delta’s lead and announced it would soon begin selling basic economy fares. Although the product was initially offered only on select routes, United has been very aggressive about its rollout and now offers the product on all domestic routes. Given that all three major US legacy carriers have introduced their own versions of basic economy, I was curious to see what the new experience would be like on United.

In This Post

Booking

After agreeing to go on a quick trip to Las Vegas with some friends, I had to figure out how I would get there from Los Angeles. The cheapest option to commute between the two cities would be to take the Megabus, but since I’m not the biggest fan of five- to six-hour bus rides and the price difference usually isn’t too significant, I started looking at flight options.

For the outbound, I booked the cheapest flight between the two cities, which was a $57 Main Cabin ticket with American Airlines. However, I had a lot more options to choose from for my return trip. Spirit Airlines, United, American and Virgin America were all offering flights with similar departure times for the same price, $42. Since American Airlines has been much slower with its basic economy expansion, the fares being shown in my search were really for the main cabin while United’s were for basic economy.

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My best option would have probably been to go with American or Virgin America. That being said, I figured that if I was already going to Sin City, I might as well commit the sin of flying United’s basic economy while I’m at it. I mean, how bad could a 90-minute flight be?

The final price of my one-way ticket came to $41.20, which I paid with my Chase Sapphire Reserve Card so I would earn 3x points for my travel purchase, or in this case, 123.60 Ultimate Rewards points. Unfortunately, I don’t have The Platinum Card from American Express, which would have allowed me to earn 5x points (206 Membership Rewards points) on my airfare since I purchased it directly with the airline. And while basic economy fares don’t earn Premier qualifying or lifetime miles, I was still able to earn 130 United MileagePlus miles, worth a mere $2 based on TPG’s most recent valuations.

Prior to completing my booking, United clearly listed out all of the restrictions that come along with basic economy and offered the option to “upgrade” to standard economy for an additional $15.

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Once my flight was booked, United reminded me of basic economy’s restrictions on the confirmation page as well. At no point during the booking process did I feel tricked into purchasing the basic economy ticket — in fact, I felt well-informed of the experience I should expect.

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Check-In

One of the most frustrating restrictions with basic economy fares is that you can’t check in online unless you’re traveling with a checked bag. United does this as an attempt to better enforce its carry-on size limit, but this also means that you need to be at the airport a lot earlier than if you were going straight to the gate. This is especially disappointing since even Spirit Airlines allows you to check in online when you’re traveling with just a personal item. Note that while elite flyers and those with the United MileagePlus Explorer Card or the United MileagePlus Explorer Business Card are excluded from the carry-on size restrictions, the online check-in “ban” still applies.

Since I was traveling with just a small backpack and do not hold status with United, I arrived at the airport earlier than I usually would have just in case there was a wait at check-in.

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Fortunately, there was no line and I was able to use a check-in kiosk right away. The final step before I was able to print my boarding pass was having a United agent come over to check the size of my carry-on bag.

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Once my boarding pass was printed, I found out that I was assigned to seat 15B, a middle seat in a row that doesn’t recline due to the emergency exit being right behind it. Prior to check-in, I viewed the seat map on ExpertFlyer and noticed that half the plane was empty. I asked the agent if I could switch seats, but was told that only gate agents can do that.

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The Lounge

Security was a breeze thanks TSA PreCheck and I soon found myself airside. Although United uses Terminal 3 for check-in, its flights operate from the D gates in Terminal 1. Before taking the tram to the satellite concourse, I stopped by the The Club at LAS in Terminal 3, which I had access to through my Priority Pass membership, another great perk offered by the Chase Sapphire Reserve.

The Club at LAS has another lounge in the D terminal, which would have been closer to my gate, but I’d heard that the T3 one was larger and had a better food selection since it’s contracted with several foreign carriers. There’s also a Centurion Lounge in the D concourse that’s said to be the best lounge in the airport, but I would have needed an Amex Platinum Card to get in for free.

The lounge is located at the east end of the terminal and is hard to miss with its large, illuminated sign. Naturally, since this is Vegas, there’s also a row of slot machines right in front.

The lounge is divided into four rooms — the first is where the bar and buffets are located.

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You’ll find a buffet on each side of the room.

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The buffet on the right consisted of a salad bar…

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… a selection of pre-made sandwiches…

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…and two types of hot soup.

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The buffet on the left consisted of lighter snacks, candy, Cup Noodles and a Segafredo coffee machine.

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As with the food, all drinks in the staffed bar were complimentary.

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There was a solid liquor selection considering it’s a Priority Pass lounge.

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The next room housed the main lounge area, with various seating options and a couple of TVs.

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Just past that was another room, which was quieter than the main room but also felt like it could become claustrophobic if the lounge was more crowded.

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The farthest room was more open and bright thanks to the large window that faced the terminal.

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This room is also where the small business center — with its two computers and printers — is located.

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Unfortunately, I was unable to take a look inside the lounge’s shower room because it was occupied for the duration of my visit.

Boarding

After a visit to the lounge, I followed the signs to the D gates, where I’d be boarding my flight.

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After a roughly 15-minute walk and a quick hop on the tram, I was finally there.

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When I arrived at my gate, I was greeted by even more slot machines.

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As advised by the check-in rep, I asked the gate agent if I could switch seats given the amount of open ones on my flight, but was rudely told that this would not happen under any circumstances and that I should have read all of the restrictions before purchasing my basic economy ticket. Funny enough, though, United’s Twitter support team also advised me that I could try making a seat request at the gate during boarding, but since the agent did not want to help, I let it go and lined up in the last boarding group.

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Note that United prints the words “Basic Economy” in large letters on physical tickets and makes mobile boarding passes orange so that gate agents do not accidentally let basic economy passengers board out of turn.

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Although the agent didn’t make me measure my bag, I did spot a new carry-on baggage sizer at the gate.

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Once on the plane, the boarding process was relatively seamless. Due to the light load, there was plenty of space for basic economy passengers like myself to store personal items in the overhead bins rather than underneath the seats.

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Cabin and Seat

I was glad to find that our 737-900, N68822, was one of United’s 737s with the Boeing Sky Interior, as it always gives cabins a more modern feel.

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United’s 737-900s are pretty standard, with a 3-3 configuration in economy.

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Regular economy seats on this specific 737-900 (version 2) are 16-17 inches wide and have a pitch of 30-31 inches, according to United’s website. Each seat — except for those in front of emergency exits like the one I was assigned to — also recline two inches.

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Needless to say, even without a bag underneath the seat in front of me, I felt cramped.

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Although my flight was less than 90-minutes long, once airborne, I decided to ask one of the flight attendants if I could move to the open emergency exit row and without hesitation was told, “of course.” This was a pleasant surprise given how strict the gate agent had been about moving me to a different seat, not to mention I was moving to an Economy Plus seat not typically accessible to basic economy passengers!

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Economy Plus seats on this plane are 17 inches wide and have a pitch of 34 inches. While it was lot more comfortable than the seat I was originally assigned to, in retrospect, it’s not much of an upgrade — by comparison, regular economy seats on JetBlue’s A321 are 18 inches wide and have 33 inches of pitch.

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Amenities

As with many newer domestic aircrafts, this one was not equipped with seat-back entertainment screens. That being said, United does provide free in-flight entertainment streaming for those who bring their own devices — just remember that in order to take advantage of this service, you must download the United app before your flight. You can find out what entertainment options will be available on your flight by using the United Private Screening website.

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Conveniently, there are power outlets located beneath every other seat so passengers don’t drain their device’s battery while streaming.

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My flight also had gate-to-gate Wi-Fi available. Although I did not purchase a pass for this short hop — it would have been $4.99 for the duration of the flight — the service was provided by ViaSat’s super-fast Ka-Band Wi-Fi so it shouldn’t have disappointed.

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There are three bathrooms accessible to economy passengers on this plane: one in the front of the cabin and two in the rear. While I thought the mood lighting was a nice touch, the bathrooms themselves were tiny.

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Food and Beverage

Given the length of this flight, there was no food for sale. United typically has snack boxes available for purchase on flights over two hours and meals on trips over 3.5 hours. However, there was still a complimentary beverage service, which was served with a savory snack mix consisting of pretzel sticks, Cajun corn sticks and ranch soy nuts. I would have loved a Stroopwafel, but unfortunately those are only served on flights departing before 9:45am.

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Overall Impression

While I’m glad I tried out basic economy, I don’t see myself flying it again. The only reason I had a somewhat pleasant experience was because of a friendly flight attendant who allowed me to move to an open emergency exit row — however, this was a very rare circumstance. Had I stayed in my original seat or been in it on a flight that was any longer, I would have been miserable because of how tight the standard seats were on this plane.

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In my opinion, the $15 to $25 price tag to upgrade to standard economy is well worth it for the easier check-in process, additional carry-on allowance, advance seat reservation, potential upgrades and additional mileage earning. That said, I will try my best to avoid paying a premium for standard economy as long as there are other carriers providing the same product for a lower price.

Have you experienced United Basic Economy? Tell us about your experience, below.

All photos by the author.

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