Can I Bring a Carry On With United Basic Economy?

Last Updated on January 17, 2021

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, right?

Everyone knows this.

So when you see a really cheap airline fare you should always ask yourself why is this economy fare so cheap…

What’s so basic about a United Airlines Basic Economy ticket?

Well, it impacts your hand luggage allowance, the way that you check-in, your seating allocation, your boarding group, your ability to get refunds or flight changes, and a few other things.

This post specifically looks at bringing a carry-on bag when flying United Basic Economy.

United Airlines Basic Economy Carry On Baggage Policy

Here’s the deal. In most cases, for domestic flights, United Basic Economy does not include a carry-on.

It’s a shocker, right? But it’s true look:

So what can you bring with you when you travel?

The basic economy rules are that you are only allowed to bring one personal item.

Usually, your personal item would be your handbag or briefcase.

It’s the smaller bag that goes under the seat in front of you rather than in the overhead bin.

Without a carry-on bag suddenly the size of that under-seat allowance becomes vitally important.

And I’ll tell you straight… for United, the under-seat allowance is weirdly sized.

The permitted dimensions are 17 x 10 x 9 inches.

That’s 1530 cubic centimeters or around 25 liters. A large carry on is usually around 45 liters.

So the United personal item limit can allow you to bring a fair amount of stuff… if you pack light it’s doable.

But it’s only doable if you can find a bag to make the most of these odd dimensions.

With a “normal” shaped carry on bag, the width is usually about one-third smaller than the height. And the depth is usually about one third smaller than width.

This gives you the familiar suitcase shaped rectangle. You know what a shape a suitcase is, right?

But the United’s 10 inches x 9 inches the side is almost square. It ain’t suitcase shaped anyway. 

And, as Mayra discovered, it isn’t backpack shaped either unless you plan on flying with a child’s backpack.

Cmon United… hardly anybody makes luggage or bags this shape!

And other airlines fly the same planes but allow much larger under-seat luggage. What’s with that?

It’s almost like you are trying to force people into paying baggage fees after they’ve booked a non-refundable ticket hence obscuring the true cost of flying United.

But then that would be really sneaky so, of course, you wouldn’t do that.

GiantsGal thinks the situation is ridiculous:

9 x 10 x 17 inches Bag Options

Well, I said it’s hard to find bags…

But actually, one enterprising company has created a little mini rollaboard specifically to fit United’s weird boxy personal item size limit.

I think the bag is fantastic and the people behind it are doing a great service to help people beat United Basic Economy rules.

You see I think United expects you to succumb and pay extra fees to bring a larger bag.

With a nifty little bag like the Boarding Blue, you can really “stick to the man”.

The only downside is that you are going to look like you are dragging around hobbit luggage.

If you don’t like the Boarding Blue bag but still want to avoid checking a bag then look at duffel bags or weekender bags. 

Bags in that style are usually boxier and fit better with the basic economy under-seat shape.

United Basic Economy Carry On Exceptions

But wait…

All is not lost, there are exceptions.

There are a few scenarios where you will be able to bring a carry on with United Basic Economy.

  • If it’s a transatlantic flight you can bring a carry-on
  • If a MileagePlus® Premier® member reserved the tickets. It does not need to be you but can be your companion.
  • If you are the main cardholder of a qualifying MileagePlus credit card or a Star Alliance™ Gold member
  • If the carry on you want to bring is a musical instrument.

So if you want to bring a carry-on bag on a United Basic Economy flight then go via London.

Or get yourself into some debt with credit cards.

Or pack your socks inside an acoustic guitar.

I’m starting to wonder if basic economy fares should be renamed false economy…

What Happens If You Bring A Carry On Bag

If you are flying with a basic economy ticket you can’t check-in online or at the self-service machines.

I think Brian figured out why:

No online checking or self-service checking means you need to inconveniently go to the check-in desk and talk to an agent.

If you can find one…

At this point, the agent should check your luggage is within the personal item size limits.

If it’s too big you’ll need to pay to check it.

If somehow your oversize carry-on isn’t noticed at the check-in desk it will be noticed at the boarding gate and you’ll be forced into a gate check.

And not a free gate check like happens with Delta Basic Economy.

You’ll still need to pay to check it and also be charged an additional $25 gate checking fee. Because… well because…

United is strict on personal item size, especially when you are flying basic economy.

Basic economy passengers board the plane last when there is often no room left in the overhead bins.

So if you have turned up with a full-size carry on you will need to pay to check it.

There is no option to pay to bring it on board with you. In other words, there is no fee to pay to bring a carry on with United Basic Economy because it’s not permitted.

Checking your carry on will be the only option available to you.

Checked luggage 

Checked bags are always riskier than hand luggage.

Your checked suitcase could be lost or your belongings could be damaged when you check a bag.

Or someone might steal something from your bag.

There are also some items that are not permitted when you check your bag.

If you do end up needing to check luggage then remember to think about your valuables.

The Verdict

So that’s basic economy…

Unless you have the right credit card or are traveling on transatlantic flights you can’t bring a carry-on.

The dimensions of the bag you can take are not usually the dimensions of bags you can buy in the stores easily.

So you’ll end up using a bag smaller than the maximum.

Making it difficult to pack enough clothes for your trip.

That may lead to you paying to bring a carry on anyway.

That can’t be carried on and must be checked.

Or you’ll be made to stand in line for no good reason.

You’ll be boarding last and sitting on seats you didn’t choose…

That might not recline and might not have leg room…

Like I said…

When you see a really cheap airline fare, always ask yourself why it’s so cheap!

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