How I Planned & Packed For A $96 Budget Transcontinental Round Trip Flight And What I Learned
I hunt plane ticket deals like it’s my job and do my best to take advantage of deals when I find them, as often as possible. A few months ago a $121* round trip ticket from Philadelphia (PHL) to San Diego (SAN) came across my screen and I hopped on it.
The tickets I booked included flying out of Philadelphia on a Thursday at 6am with a short layover in San Francisco (SFO) and a 2pm arrival in San Diego. Returning home would be a red eye flight departing the following Tuesday at 9pm out of SAN with the same layover in SFO and arrival in PHL at 8am Wednesday morning. Booking a trip this way meant I wouldn’t lose a day in travel and could maximize my time on the group in Southern California and Mexico. Their is a caveat to this insanely cheap deal, it was a basic economy ticket on United.
In an effort by larger US carriers to offer insanely cheap deals that can compete with budget airlines (Spirit, Frontier, etc.), United has started offering a very restrictive ticket called Basic Economy. In a nutshell, here’s the flaming hoops that will require careful jumping through to avoid added fees, thus cancelling out any savings by booking a basic economy flight.
- No seat selection
- No full sized carry on / no access to overhead storage
- No phone / app early check, must be done at counter in airport
- No flight changes
- Last to board
During ticket purchase process there’s an option to upgrade to a Standard Economy seat that allows a free carry on + personal bag, seat selection and boarding in group 3 or 4 In several steps, to ensure you know that you’ll miss out on these luxuries. The markup is usually 30% higher and in some cases 200%.
*In full disclosure, I used my Chase Sapphire Preferred card with a 25% Ultimate Reward bonus to get this ticker for roughly 9,650 points, or a cash equivalent of $96.50. This flight cost me nothing out of pocket.
No Seat Selection
It’s a roll of the dice to let the airline select your seat and there are 3 distinct snake eyes that are possible.
- Middle seat
- Seat in front of an emergency exit row (these don’t recline)
- Aisle seat next to a toilet (just gross)
I seemed to have hit the jackpot on all 4 flights. PHL to SFO was middle of the plane window seat, empty middle seat. SFO to SAN was the last row window seat with an empty middle seat again. Even though the lavatory was directly behind me the short flight meant it was barely used. The return flight from SAN to SFO was a middle of the plane isle seat, empty middle seat while the SFO to PHL flight was another isle seat forward of the wing, empty middle seat!
No Full Sized Carry On / Personal Item Only
Of all the restrictions, this one gave me the most anxiety. I’m used to traveling with a small backpack as a personal item plus a carry on stowed in an overhead bin. I’m now looking at cramming five and a half days worth of clothing, personal items and maybe camera gear into a bag that measured no more than 9 x 10 x 17″ and this video didn’t help my anxiety.
I consider myself a pro at the carry-on only game but this was going to be tricky. After admittedly scouring the Internet for far too long and measuring, then re-measuring my existing bags I decided it would be best to purchase a bag just for these sorts of trips. Buying another bag isn’t something I really wanted to do given the number I already own.
The 5 Cities 19L Carry On Luggage won, and at under $20 it wouldn’t break the bank, nor were my expectations all that high. When it arrived I was both shocked out how small and big it was, and at the build quality. Let’s be real honest here, this is built like a $20 bag, and that’s what I expect out of it. It did the job and fit, with a bit of room in the luggage checker at the airport.
So what did I pack? A lot, honestly. Without every tiny cable and widget, here’s a breakdown of what fit in the bag for my trip:
- 2 t-shirts
- 2 pairs of socks
- 2 pairs of boxer briefs
- EMS quick dry shorts
- Swim trunks
- Samsonite compression sack for above clothing
- Travel adapter / battery bank combo
- 12″ Macbook
- Fahrenheit 451 book
- Passport in RFID blocking wallet
- Crumpler Camera Bag
- Marmot Mini Hauler toiletry bag
- Dr. Bronner’s 2oz peppermint soap is a must!
- BUBM electronics / accessories organizer
- Sunglasses (prescription)
- Laundry sheets
- Shure SE215 IEM headphones clipped to the outside of the bag
- 24oz Hydro Flask held in hand
Admittedly I could have packed more clothing in lieu of putting my camera bag inside the carry on luggage (or left it at home), but I felt it was safer and better protected to do it this way, also while I was driving from place to place I could simply take this smaller bag and not worry about having the camera gear roll around on the empty passenger seat and possibly get ruined.
Only 2 days worth of clothing‽ Yes, really, including the clothing I wore out on the plane it was more than enough. The Airbnb’s I had booked both had free to use washers and dryers. I stopped packing for what if situations and this has significantly reduced the amount of clothing I was bringing. After scoping the weather leading up to the trip I deemed a jacket would not be needed, although a zip-up / pull over hoodie worn on the plane wouldn’t have added to the total bag volume anyway. I wore a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers on the plane.
Think you’re sneaky and will slip by airline staff? Think again. The per-bag check fee at the counter is $25 and if you somehow get past them and a crew member spots you trying to board with more than one bag, or your bag is larger than what fits in their personal bag checker specifications there’s an additional $25 fee piled on top of the aforementioned $25 check bag fee. A cheap flight can all of a sudden double with these fees. Ladies, this means your personal bag is your purse.
The only super grey area here is duty free shopping. Your mileage may vary but I believe you should be OK making purchases at duty free and taking that on the plane in addition to the personal bag.
No Early Check In From App
Like most airlines, United sends an email and notifies you via the app to check in 24 hours prior to the flight. Upon doing so, I got a warning message indicating online check-in could not be completed and I needed to visit the counter at the airport to complete check-in.
Both first leg flights were at low-volume times at the airports, I also have TSA Pre-Check via the Global Entry program I participate in, so I wasn’t worried about waiting in security lines, which allowed me to reduce the 2-hour arrival prior to boarding time to about 70 minutes. This is always slightly risky in the event for some reason the Pre-Check doesn’t get applied to my ticket or there’s problems, but being last to board I had zero issue here.
The check in at the counter was painless, like any other airline check in with the only exception of needing a United staff member to authorize my personal item only choice and get to the next screen to print out boarding passes. The whole time spent at the counter was under 3 minutes and not once did a United staff member ask me to place my bag in the size checker. This holds true for the gate.
A woman at a kiosk next to me assumed that United was like Frontier and she would be able to pay a small, nominal fee for an additional carry-on at check-in. The agent informed her her only option for the second bag was to check it, at a cost of $25.
Once I had my paper tickets I promptly folded them and placed them in my passport wallet and refreshed the United App, which I then used to get through TSA (I did get Pre-Check!) and board the plane. Overall, this wasn’t a major inconvenience for me, at all.
No Flight Changes
I’ve never purchased a flight where I could make changes, even for a fee that was anywhere near affordable so this didn’t bother me.
Last To Board
Being the last to board was something I was actually looking forward to. Because I wouldn’t have to worry about enough overhead storage, I didn’t see a reason to get on a plane and sit for 20-30 minutes while everyone else boarded. As the early boarders, those with disabilities, children or requiring extra time started lining up, followed by premiere fliers, first class, then boarding groups 1, 2, 3 it became apparent who got the cheap seats on each flight I took. By the time group 5 was called there were only a handful of us left, all with our sad looking personal item only bags, but all going to the same destination as those who spent considerably more.
About The Flights
On the four separate legs I noticed a few similarities and a few differences, based on the aircraft I was on. With both outgoing legs I was on aircraft that had TVs in the headrests, headphone jacks in the chair armrest, no USB ports and extremely inconvenient 110v power plug adapters below and between each seat. On the PHL to SFO leg the gentleman in the isle seat (empty middle remember) was working on his laptop the entire flight and had to get out of his seat several times to plug the adapter back in as it was extremely loose.
The TVs were pay to play, with a credit card slot next to them and offering DirectTV, they would only work after swiping for $5.99. Oddly, United offers free movies and TV shows on any mobile device within the United app (iPhone, iPad, Android, etc.). Before taxiing out the cabin staff reminded all to ensure they had the latest version and once in the air it was possible to connect to the WiFi on board and stream free of charge. I watched Deadpool 2 in HD on my iPhone without a single buffer problem, free. Worth noting, make sure your device is fully charged beforehand because as mentioned, no USB and the 110v plugs are a royal pain to access.
On the return legs neither plane had TVs but the United App worked just fine.
All 4 planes seemed fairly modern, had comfortable seats and more than enough leg room. The staff were pleasant, a bag of pretzels and beverages were offered at no cost. I’m willing to bet the person I sat next to, in front of or behind payed a crap ton more money for the ticket. The biggest concern with flying basic economy is the amount of luggage that can be brought on the plane in my eyes.
Concluding Thoughts & Considerations
For quick getaways to visit friends, family or long weekend getaways, a basic economy option on United might mean two trips a year instead of one due to the massive savings. The exceptions and considerations for these flights are mostly limited to the ability to sit next to someone if not flying solo, and what can be packed. Visiting cold and inclement weather destinations that require layers, sweaters, snow pants or big hiking boots would be virtually impossible to travel on basic economy flights as a full sized carry-on would be needed, at a minimum.