For the first time in about five years, I returned to North and South Carolina. The trip was amazing- but more on that later! First I need to share my experience flying to and from Charlotte, since it was quite an unusual experience. The short version: avoid flying United Basic Economy!
I am no stranger to flying budget flights. The year I visited all fifty states, I relied heavily on $20-$30 flights on discount carriers like Spirit and Frontier, known for their miniscule seats and poor amenities. I pack light and bring just a backpack with me to avoid doubling / tripling that fare with bag fees. It’s never presented a problem- aside from having my legs crowded and boarding late, I’ve happily gotten to where I needed to go.
United Basic Economy commits the cardinal sin of a travel provider- it puts me at risk for getting to my destination.
The first point which alarmed me happened the day before my flight to Charlotte. I got a notification telling me to check in and to get ready to go to Terminal 2 for my flight. There were two problems with this. The first is when I went to United’s website to check in, it advised I would have to check in at the airport. This already poses a problem with my planning- when I check in I confirm the boarding time and gate details and plan my arrival to the airport around it. The second problem is that United typically flies out of Terminal 1- do I trust the notification, or do I trust what I know about the airline?
I researched separately online and found that indeed my flight was assigned to a gate in Terminal 1, so all indicators were that the message I got was wrong. I planned to arrive at the airport early just in case. It was a good thing I did, because I didn’t plan for another massive setback at the airport.
When I entered my information into the United check-in kiosk, the top of the console starting flashing red, like when you’re in a grocery store and the self-checkout has an issue that requires an employee to validate. This was a similar situation. United wanted to really, really, really make sure I was telling the truth when I said I didn’t have a piece of carry on luggage. Eager to get to my gate, there’s nothing more frustrating than standing 5+ minutes waiting and hoping someone shows up soon.
Insult to injury, when my boarding pass finally printed, I got a middle seat. That annoyed me even more when I got to the gate and saw 80% of the standby passengers got window or aisle. I wasn’t surprised to be in the final boarding group- that tends to happen with discount fares- although it added a little chaos when I needed to ask the aisle passenger to get up so I could sit down.
That’s pretty much it, except for one more note. On my way back from Charlotte to Chicago, I had a near identical experience, with one exception. It took about 15-20 minutes to get an employee to validate that I didn’t have a carry on. The kiosk had the gall to ask me every five minutes if I was still interested in continuing the transaction, and I was tempted to get in the long bag check line to at least guarantee I’d be able to speak to a United employee (there was no one stationed around the kiosks, though it was right in front of about ten counter agents).
The only note I’ll say in United’s favor is that I seemed to be the only person with this problem. I’m a little surprised since it’s hard to imagine I’m the only person who travels backpack-only with a cheap fare, but the only other guy who got stranded at the kiosks with me at CLT airport needed to validate his passport, not his baggage. It’s plausible that purchasing a carry on would have solved my problems, but for a two day trip, it’s not really worth it!
I can imagine United’s perspective on this, counting how many flights have been delayed by customers fighting $60 bag fees during boarding. Still, this doesn’t seem like the best way to fight that problem. By taking away critical information from the customer, United may have traded one bottleneck for another and could have problems with customers arriving late or at the wrong gate. If an automated attestation is enough to convince the postal service I’m not shipping anything hazardous, it should be enough to convince United that I’m not trying to sneak a carry on bag past them.
With that off my chest, I look forward to sharing more about the trip itself! I played seven escape rooms, found five geocaches, visited two natural parks, and tried a variety of different restaurants around the area. Flight aside, it was a great trip!