Basic Economy Fares Severely Limit Carry-Ons

Last month I flew to Los Angeles for three nights for a “sister weekend” with my sister Teresa. I chose United’s Basic Economy fare, because it just seemed wrong to pay $241 for a roundtrip ticket from Medford to Los Angeles when I could get one for $198. This meant, however, that I was not allowed to take a full-sized rolling carry-on onto the plane. I was limited to one “personal item” that could be no larger than  17” x 10” x 9.” My bag would have to fit underneath my seat on the plane, or I would have to pay a checked bag fee of $30, plus a $25 gate handling fee, or as I like to call it, a “you broke the rules” fee.

Could I do it? Could I pack everything I would need into a personal item? Challenge accepted United Airlines. And yes, I was able to fit everything I needed for the weekend (including a hardbound book!) into a Baggallini Avenue Tote—note my bragging photo at left. Everything, that is, except my deodorant, which I forgot. Sorry Teresa. I even wore two light sweaters, one on top of the other. A little hot perhaps, but smart, right? That and the fact that I didn’t have deodorant with me was only a slight cause of concern.

I got to the airport to get my boarding pass, because with a United Basic Economy ticket, you are not allowed to check in online ahead of time, as the desk agent must see the size of your bag. You also cannot pick a seat in advance, and are instead assigned whatever is left when you check in. As I suspected, the United desk agent did not pay any attention to my bag when he handed me my boarding pass. I worried my outstanding packing and sweatiness would be for naught.

But fear not. At the gate, when those in the cheapest seats were finally allowed to board—Basic Economy Passengers like myself—the gate agent checked out every personal item bag with the eyes of a hawk, and pulled several people aside for trying to carry-on two bags, or for a personal item bag that was too big. And she made them pay too.

I definitely couldn’t fly Basic Economy if I were going to a cooler climate, or on a trip for longer than three or four days. One carry-on, yes. But a personal item only? It’s not easy. Although I didn’t care where my seat was on the plane (second to last row, both directions), I didn’t love waiting until I arrived at the airport to get my boarding pass. I much prefer to talk to as few people as possible and get all my ducks in a row ahead of time online. But if the price is right, and your kind sister is willing to share her deodorant with you, it might just be worth it. On this trip, it definitely was worth it for me.

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