The history of United Airlines dates back over 95 years, when Varney Airlines (which would eventually become part of the larger carrier) launched its first flight in a tiny Swallow aircraft on April 6, 1926 – a mail run from Pasco, Washington to Elko, Nevada via Boise, Idaho.
Since then, the company has grown into one of the largest airlines in the world, with a fleet of over 1,300 planes (including both mainline and regional aircraft) operating more than 4,500 flights across five continents. The airline introduced its frequent-flier program 40 years ago, in May 1981, founded the Star Alliance in 1997, and became the first North American carrier to fly the Boeing 787 Dreamliner in 2012, among other milestones.
With hubs and large bases in Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., chances are United flies most of the places you want to go. That's why you might be wondering what the flight experience is like before you buy a ticket. Here's everything you need to know about United Airlines before booking, including feedback based on passenger reviews.
United offers several fare classes with different restrictions and allowances for each. In broad terms, they include:
- Basic Economy
- Economy Plus
- First Class (domestic and regional)
- Premium Plus
- Polaris Business Class
You will want to be sure of what you're selecting before hitting that booking button.
At the bottom of the heap is Basic Economy. While cheaper than other fare classes, your seat will be automatically assigned prior to boarding and you won't be able to change it (though you can pay for a seat assignment of your choice), and group or family seating is not available. You waive your right to a full-sized carry-on bag on certain routes, though personal items (i.e. under-the-seat bags) are allowed. You'll also board last. If you're going for Premier elite status with the airline, these fares won't count as segments toward your tier.
According to Yelper Mark S., "I strongly advise people avoid the basic economy tickets. Yes, I saved about $50, but there were many hassles."
Regular economy seating includes limited advanced seating assignments unless you have elite status. However, if you buy up to an Economy Plus ticket, you'll have more options at time of purchase, or after. Same with Premium Plus (premium economy), first class, or Polaris.
Flight Change and Cancellation Policies
Like other airlines, United has recently relaxed its change and cancellation policies in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it's not as easy as simply getting your money back.
If you purchase a ticket in:
- Economy Plus
- First Class
- Premium Plus
- Polaris Business Class
And are traveling:
- Within the U.S.
- Between the U.S. and Mexico or the Caribbean
- To international destinations from the U.S.
You will not pay a fee to change your tickets.
If the price goes down, you will receive a future flight credit from the airline – but just note that this will expire 12 months from the date of issue of your original ticket.
However, you will have to pay a fare difference if the price goes up. One unlucky passenger named Paul, who claims his February 2021 flight was cancelled and that he was prompted to rebook, found he was on the hook for an extra $1,200.
Basic Economy tickets purchased before April 30, 2021 can be changed for free, but most issued on or after May 1, 2021 are non-changeable and non-refundable.
If you would like to standby for a different flight, say if there's one with more convenient timing, expect to pay $75 unless you're a Premier Gold elite or higher.
Baggage Policies and Fees
Whether or not you can check a bag for free will depend on the ticket you buy and whether you have Premier elite status or a United credit card. Luckily, United has a handy calculator to figure out what you might need to pay depending on your specific flights, your class of service, and your elite status.
Basic Economy fliers are allowed to bring one small personal item on board that can fit under the seat in front of them, though they can bring larger carry-ons on transatlantic flights from the U.S. as well as those to Mexico and Central America. They must pay for checked bags on all flights.
Economy passengers with no elite status can prepay $30 (or $35 when you check in) to check a bag, though they get a free checked bag on some international itineraries.
Premium Plus passengers get two checked bags of up to 50lbs for free, and those in first or business class get two free checked bags up to 70lbs each for free.
If in doubt, call the airline to confirm your baggage allowance based on your fare class and destination. Otherwise, you could rack up hundreds of dollars in extra charges, as was the case for recent passenger Wilfin, who thought he could check bags for free, but ended up nearly $500 out of pocket.
Groups board in the following order:
- Pre-boarding of unaccompanied minors, families with small children, and passengers needing extra time
- High-level elites and those in Polaris, first, and business class
- Low-level elites, those with Premier Access, and United credit cardholders
- Economy Plus
- Basic Economy
Sounds orderly, right? Not according to a recent TripAdvisor review by lmliooper, who said, "On reaching the gate, it was total confusion! Boarding was en masse, free for all! It was not in any particular order even though the groups for boarding were printed on boarding cards…strangely, boarding was neither by class nor row numbers." Perhaps it was just a pandemic-era kerfuffle, but you might to do well to show up at the gate early to improve your chances of embarking ahead of other interlopers.
Seats and Legroom
Like many other airlines, United has diversified its range of seat and cabin offerings in recent years. What's available will depend on the route you fly and the type of aircraft operating it.
Economy seats are between 16-18 inches wide and usually have 30-31 inches of pitch (the distance between your seatback and the one in front), with around two to three inches of recline. The layout ranges from 2 – 2 across the aisle on regional aircraft, to 3 – 3 on mainline planes, and 3 – 3 – 3 or 3 – 4 – 3 on larger jets like the Boeing 777.
TripAdvisor contributor RTrips7 sums it up succinctly: "Seats are narrow and there's not much legroom."
Expect the same configurations, just with three or four more inches of legroom in Economy Plus. According to Yelper Derek, who was flying cross-country from Boston, "Economy Plus was an extra $97," on his flight, "and well worth the five inches of legroom for a 5.5-hour flight!"
The airline's domestic first class consists of wide recliner seats, usually in a 2 – 2 pattern. Expect them to be 19-24 inches wide with 37-42 inches of pitch, and five or six inches of recline.
United's international and transcontinental premium economy section feels a lot like domestic first class. Only found on larger planes, it's laid out in a 2 – 3 – 2 or 2 – 4 – 2 pattern with seats that are 18-19 inches wide with 38 inches of pitch and six inches of recline.
According to passenger Nat, who flew Premium Plus from Auckland to San Francisco, "The extra legroom, size of seat, and double armrest between seats made for a very comfortable trip….This is the way to go on international flights without paying the higher cost…for business class."
Polaris Business Class
It might seem odd that a business class cabin is more premium than first class, but Polaris Business Class is indeed the airline's flagship international product. Seats are arranged in a staggered 1 – 2 – 1 pattern and are 20-22 inches wide, reclining to 78-inch lie-flat beds. According to one TripAdvisor contributor, DEP3, "Nothing beats flying Polaris for long flights – the bed, the service, the space: wow!"
Depending on how you plan to spend your time on board, here are the services you can expect.
United offers in-flight Wi-Fi (for a fee) on all its mainline aircraft and two-cabin regional planes. However, the airline engages four distinct providers so you'll need to check the services and prices for your specific flight, and several Yelpers have noted that access can be inconsistent.
The availability of power outlets can also vary dramatically by aircraft type (and Yelpers have made their ire heard), so double check that it is one of the in-flight amenities on any flights you're considering booking by referring to this handy guide. If you're flying internationally, you should have a plug at your seat, or at least one to share with a neighbor.
As for in-flight entertainment, you can check the availability of seatback screens as well as upcoming content for your specific flight on United's reference page. Selections generally include hundreds of movies and television shows, musical albums, games, and even DIRECTV on some Boeing 737 flights. In November 2019, a Canadian passenger named Richard flying between Newark and Tokyo proclaimed the systems to provide, "Excellent entertainment and a good choice of movies."
Food and Beverage
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, meal service is in flux, so check United's updates frequently. At the moment, options on shorter flights are limited to sealed snacks and bottled or canned beverages in economy, though you might be able to purchase pre-packaged snacks and alcoholic beverages on mid-range to longer flights.
More substantial snacks as well as prepackaged hot meals and complimentary wine, beer and spirits are available in premium cabins.
If you're flying international long-haul, you should receive full prepackaged meals on a single tray, plus additional snacks mid-flight and before arrival in all cabins, with more gourmet options in Premium Select and Polaris business class. Unfortunately, after combing through hundreds of Polaris and Premium Select passenger reviews on TripAdvisor, SkyTrax, and Yelp, food seems to be one of the airline's shortcomings, even in the higher classes, so pack a snack just in case.
United Credit Cards
Carrying one of United's credit cards can make all the difference not only for racking up award miles faster, but also for enjoying more day-of-travel perks with the airline.
The new United Quest Card is offering up to 100,000 bonus miles – 80,000 after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months, and an additional 20,000 after spending $10,000 total in the first six months. It offers a $125 annual United purchase credit, which can help you save on tickets. Cardholders get a first and second checked bag for free, priority boarding, two 5,000-mile flight credits each account year when you redeem miles for flights, plus up to $100 in statement credits for a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application. The annual fee is $250.
The United Explorer is a great option for most folks that's offering 65,000 bonus miles – 40,000 after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months plus an additional 25,000 after you spend $10,000 total in six months. It includes a first checked bag free, priority boarding, a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit, and two United Club passes per year. Its $95 annual fee is waived the first year.
For high-end fliers, the United Club Infinite costs $525 per year, but includes United Club membership, worth up to $650 per year, among its benefits, as well as two checked bags for free, Premier Access to expedited check-in, security, and boarding, and the same Global Entry/TSA PreCheck perk as the other two cards.
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