Why I will never take a Basic Economy flight again

Tis the holidays, which means lot of stressful travelers, packed airports, and congested roads and trains. It's within these conditions that I, through a series of inopportune developments, missed my Basic Economy flight on United and learned what the true costs are within the seemingly cheaper flights offered in this category. While a departure from my usual content, I figured this may be interesting or helpful for other travelers out there, so here goes what happened and what I took away:

My flight took off from EWR (Newark International Airport), a hub for travelers in the NYC area. United is the main airline here, and I've gone from here dozens of times before, usually by taking a series of public transit options to avoid a congested, Lincoln-tunnel-required $100 Uber ride.

For those curious, here's how to get from Manhattan to EWR:

  1. Take any subway line that'll get you to 34th St. Penn Station
  2. Get on the New Jersey Transit (NJ Transit) - tip, there's a place to board this on 8th Ave below the Amtrak, so you don't need to meander all the way through a very busy Penn Station each time
    1. Use the NJ Transit app and buy your tickets on there - much easier than paper. Just activate the ticket when you board the train and show the image to the attendant when he walks by
    2. Adult tickets are $15.25 one way
  3. Take any train line denoted on the screen with an airplane logo. Note there will be a mad rush of people going to the tracks once the track is announced (about 10-15 mins prior to departure). It's a 30 min ride and there are three stops before Newark International Airport from Penn, as follows:
    1. Secaucus Junction
    2. Newark Penn Station (very confusing, not the same as NY Penn which is the last stop)
    3. Newark International Airport
  4. Take the Air Train into Terminal C (which is United's main terminal) 
It's a process, but the whole thing will set you back only $18 and is relatively reliable, getting you there in an hour. Not, unfortunately, on a pre-holiday weekend, where travelers are squeezed tightly throughout, trains operate at halftime and with a poorly designed exit from the NJ Transit to the Air Train. For reference, whoever brilliantly designed this thought that 4 turnstiles, which travelers must 1x1 scan their tickets to get through, would somehow be enough to meet the demands of the hundreds usually de-boarding each train. Similarly, you likely will not get on the first Air Train that comes due to how small the cars are, and trains only run about every 3 mins. With all this, allow for at least 1.5 hours for travel.

What I didn't at the time realize about a Basic Economy flight is that 1) you cannot check in at all  online if you don't plan to pay the $30 fee to check a bag, and 2) even though you are traveling bagless, you are held to a 45 minute check-in window (the same as for checked bag customers), versus the normal domestic check in window of 30 mins. All of this combined with crowded kiosks and no attendants on hand resulted in me missing my check in window. 

Even though I would have had sufficient time to make my flight had I been able to just get my boarding pass when I arrived at the kiosk, I had to wait in a 1-hour travel assistance line because no other employers are capable of printing the boarding pass. It was as horrible as it sounds, and left a very bad taste for me in United and this whole Basic Economy concept, which allows airlines to put their passengers into a new class of people that they can basically dump crap on and justify as "well you're flying basic economy". Here's my summary of lessons on how Basic Economy works, with all the hidden costs that you may not have considered until you're in a tough bind:

  1. Basic Economy means you will need to queue up at the United counter at the airport no matter whether you check in or don't check in a bag
    1. If you check a bag, you have to stand in the bag drop line, which is at least a 15 min nightmare during the holidays. Not to mention you've just wiped out the financial benefit of the Basic Economy flight, since they're usually only about $30 cheaper in the first place
    2. If you don't check in a bag, you must still go to a kiosk at the United counter, where you will have to fight with dozens of other customers to wave down an attendant and get them to print your pass. Once in Raleigh airport, I waited 20 mins and couldn't get any attendant to come by, so ended up having to go through the baggage line regardless.
  2. You're held to a 45 min check-in window, unlike most domestic flights which allow you to check in 30 mins before
    1. If you miss this check-in window, no kiosk can print your pass for you. This is a lesson I learned the hard way - United attendants are shockingly misinformed about their own job abilities. I was told multiple times by employees walking about and in the baggage counter that all I needed was to go to a kiosk and get an attendant to "override" and print my pass. I then tried exactly that, with an attendant in hand, and no this was not possible (save yourself the headache and learn from me).
    2. The only people who can override the checked time limit is those at the Travel Assistance counter, at the far end of the counters. These are not the bag drop people - these are the folks who typically handle missed flights or other complex issues and are the only ones with the power to fix a check in issue. The massive downside is the line for this is usually an hour long - the issues are complex, the travelers are many, and at the time of when I went, only 2-3 attendants were there at any point in time
    3. Suffice to say, if you miss the check in window, you are done for, as there's no way you're reaching one of the rare Travel Assistance folks in time and none of the other dozens of attendants milling around can fix things for you
  3. If you miss your flight, often the Travel Assistance folks can book you on another flight or put you on standby at no extra charge. So don't freak out and start buying overpriced last minute flights. This is the one very thin silver lining that United gave us - a flight the next day (since every other flight that day was full). 
  4. Be sure to verify that the other flights on your reservation (including any return flights) have not been cancelled if you miss your flight
    1. Some airlines are better about this than others, but basically if you don't show up to a flight or if it's cancelled, you'll lose the return flight unless you call them; or sometimes you'll just lose it even if you do call them (as I've experienced with American)
    2. One lesson I've learned is to always try to book your flights as one-ways on separate reservations. I've seen minimal to no savings in booking a roundtrip vs one-way domestic flight, so best to just avoid the headache and book the flights separately in the first place
  5. Bonus travel lesson: one reason I never fly American is that they have this unfortunate tendency to cancel flights willy nilly - often for a suspect "engine issue" but sometimes to alleviate congestion at their gates in certain airports. Better yet, they won't tell you it's cancelled until about an hour before the flight is scheduled to leave (once I made it all the way through security and to the gate before even learning the flight was gone), plus they then give you absurd return flight options. So my rule of thumb is never to fly on American. 
A bit of a rant, but hopefully one that can help others avoid a similar mess. Good luck to you if you're traveling about this holiday!


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