It's been years since I flew United, but enticed by cheap airfares I recently made a quick trip to Medford, Oregon for a family wedding, flying United. All the airlines were offering bargain basement prices ($150 RT between major hubs), but since United's worked best with my schedule, I chose them out of convenience rather than anything else. It was on this trip that I also experienced their Economy Plus service for the first time.
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Booking & Check in
I booked my flights through Expedia as I was able to bundle my flights together easier to get the best airfare. I'd recommend doing this whenever possible as they (or other travel portals) give you more flights to select from, without locking yourself in to the same airline for a round trip. For the return I went on Alaska at the same price as they offered a little bit later departure that allowed me to schedule a lunch with a friend in Portland on my layover.
The only issue with this method is that I was not able to get a seat assignment on my Denver-San Francisco leg (perhaps due to my late booking date) although I was able to do so for San Francisco-Medford. Rather than risk being a bumped stand-by passenger and miss the wedding, I decided to see if I could get my seat assignment through the United site. While I was able to do so, getting one of the last two open seats, I wasn't too excited about the prospect of being in a middle seat in the back of the plane.
I checked in online the night before, as I didn't plan to check any luggage. I was also wishing for a miracle that maybe some better seats had opened up. True, Denver to San Francisco is only a two-hour flight, but I've always despised the middle seat with my long legs. Low and behold, I was given an offer to upgrade my seat to First Class for about $150 or to Economy Plus for $39. While there wasn't way I'd be so extravagant to upgrade to First Class, Economy Plus did sound very enticing, offering me 5 extra inches of leg room. (The majority of United planes have a 31 inch pitch in Economy. On this 757-200 I would get a full 36 inches.) I noted that the first eight or so rows in Economy were designated Economy Plus and at the time I checked in online more than half were empty, so it was nice to have a good selection of seats to chose from.
After checking in online I was also give the chance to purchase United's Premier Line option for $25 that would give priority security line and priority check-in. I also noted that they sell one-time pass to their travel lounge, Red Carpet Club, for $39. I passed. As much as I looked forward to my Economy Plus seat, I was quickly getting the idea that United was trying to suck me dry of every last cent.
At the airport
As I had checked in online and didn't check any luggage, I was able to bypass the United counter at the airport. I noticed that United's area actually wasn't bad compared to my experiences with American at the Denver airport. There were plenty of EasyCheck-in kiosks that most passengers seem to be utilizing.
When I got to the gate, I saw United posts a stand-by passenger list on a monitor. The list for my flight had more than a dozen passengers. My first thought was, "I bet these lucky passengers are going to get a seat in Economy Plus." As the check-in time approached, I saw the gate agent call more people to the podium as she handed out seat assignments. I couldn't wait to see if my hunch was right.
We boarded on time and I settled into my seat and stretched out, enjoying the extra five inches of leg room. I was seated on the aisle and a gentleman was seated on the window seat, with no one between us. But that didn't last long. A family came down the aisle and I was a little bit surprised when the father asked me if I would mind changing seats. Uh, yeah, I would, I informed him as politely as I could, as I had paid an extra $39. He looked a little baffled. Obviously he didn't know about the Economy Plus seats. He then asked the gentleman on the inside and he, too, politely declined. Apparently he, his wife, and child were not seated together. I felt bad, I really did, but this was United's problem. Fortunately, a flight attendant stepped in and helped him out. He did end up sitting next to me, obviously a stand-by passenger enjoying the luxury of extra leg room at no extra cost. I, on the other hand, felt a little bit squished as he was a little portly, and while these seats were long on legroom, they were still the standard skinny economy seats.
Quite honestly, I think Economy Plus is a joke and a bad one at that. I flew home on Alaska and their 32-inch pitch was quite comfortable for my long legs. Why not do away with the silly Economy Plus seats, give every economy passenger a comfortable 32 inches, and have fewer stand-by passengers? It makes it easier for gate agents as well who spend time frantically trying to get passengers a seat in the final minutes before boarding.
My flight to Medford was on a smaller commuter type jet, a Canadair CRJ-700. Since this was a quick one hour hop up to Medford, I didn't opt for the Economy Plus. It only gets you 3 more inches (34 inch pitch). For some reason the 31 inch pitch on these smaller jets doesn't seem as bad anyhow.
The food situation
Passengers these days pretty much know that you pay for airline food. United is no different. Forget about getting even a bag of pretzels or peanuts. Except for soda, juice, or coffee, you'll have to produce a credit card to get even a nibble. Snack boxes will set you back $6, although they do have some a la carte items for $3. As mine was a shorter flight I opted for some cookies - a package of 6 Walker's Short Bread for $3 (these are big cookies, so it was a fair deal). I love Walker's so this made me happy, although I certainly didn't eat them all. On longer flights you can pay $9 for a regular meal.
I do credit United for having a good selection of items, certainly better than the few choices than American offered me on my recent flight to Florida. In that respect, I'd rather be on a United flight. The only part I don't like is their credit card requirement. It does make it easier for flight attendants, but not every traveler uses one.
I have mixed feelings about Economy Plus. Flying by myself on a long distance flight I think I would consider upgrading again. However, I don't think it was worth it for a short 2-hour flight. United tries to come off as a customer-service oriented airline with all their little extras, but I think it's just a way for them to generate money. While it irks me that stand-by customers get these choice seats, I do have to say hooray for them! Perhaps if we all refused to be suckered in by these upgrades, United might do away with them.
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