Why would anyone fly United Airlines, under any circumstances, ever?

alaska from plane

This is not a rhetorical question; I really want to know.

Some background: I flew United Airlines last summer for the first time in years. The company offered a reasonably-priced flight to Anchorage that helped make my week-long trip affordable and convenient.

At least that was the plan. But then they proceeded to lose my luggage, including my tent and all of my camping gear, forcing me to scramble to find last-minute replacements. Inexplicably, United refused to refund my $25 baggage fee, but instead offered a $100 voucher good for future travel. Since I’ve been trying to get into the travel voucher game, I thought the voucher would be a good deal in the long run.

I wrote about receiving the voucher back in December. Eight months later, I still have not used it. I now have just one month left in which to redeem it, or it’s gone.

The biggest reason I haven’t used the voucher is because United’s prices are simply not competitive. They’re so outrageous, in fact, that even if I were to use the $100 voucher, United’s flights would still cost more than flights on Southwest and other airlines.

Possible uses for my United voucher

I’ve checked United’s flight prices from Chicago to all the cities on my wishlist, but most of them are crazy expensive. I travel to Pittsburgh a lot to visit family, so I figured I could easily use the voucher to go back to the Steel City. But the going rate on United for a one-way flight is $233. Compare that to the $69 to $89 I normally pay with Southwest.

Who on earth is paying $233 for a one-way ticket from Chicago to Pittsburgh? Somebody must be doing it, otherwise the daily flight wouldn’t exist, but I can’t fathom any human being actually booking that flight at that price.

My next thought was to find a short flight to some random city that costs exactly $100, thereby getting the flight for free after the voucher discount. But the only flights in the $100 range from Chicago go to cities like Louisville, Indianapolis and Detroit. I could visit each of those places on Megabus for literally just a few bucks. In fact, I recently booked a Megabus round-trip to Indy for $2.50. Yes, that’s two dollars and fifty cents. I don’t want to waste the voucher on a city that I can get to on Megabus merely by scrounging up the loose change in my couch.

departure board

Other cities on my wishlist are just as expensive on United: Houston ($370), Atlanta ($290), and New Orleans (a staggering $391.) Keep in mind that these are one-way prices!

After quite a bit of research, I’ve discovered only three cities I have any interest in that seem to offer affordable United flights from Chicago: San Francisco ($169), Seattle ($181), and Las Vegas ($189.) Unfortunately, all three are places I’ve been hoping to visit with my partner, and when you factor in full price for the return flight, spending money, and the cost of lodging, a full week-long vacation at any of these places is still going to run at least $1,000, and that’s not in our budget right now.

United does offer weekly specials for last-minute flights, but they’re usually nothing to write home about. During a recent week, the company’s “great deals” list included Quebec City for $358, Pittsburgh for $161, Memphis for $157, and Tampa for $321. Sorry, but those are not deals. Southwest’s regular prices are much cheaper.

I have one last option, and that is to sell my United voucher. But I don’t believe that is allowed according to the terms of service. If I want to get my $100 worth of savings, I have to get my ass on a United plane somehow, somewhere.

Back to that original question

I’ve written before that I will never complain about airline prices. And that is true when it comes to the industry as a whole. But when one airline’s prices are so much higher than those of other major airlines, something is seriously out of whack.

And it’s not just their prices that are a problem. United consistently earns some of the worst scores when it comes to customer service. Remember, this is the airline that breaks guitars and kicks people off flights for taking pictures. And it’s not like United offers any special amenities – they don’t have tv sets and outlets on each seat like Air Canada and JetBlue.

So why would anyone fly United, under any circumstances, ever? Obviously the airline must have some redeeming qualities or it wouldn’t have lasted all these years. Surely there are some cities in which flying on United is affordable, right? I just don’t know which cities they are. Clearly, Chicago is not one of them (even though Chicago is the home of United headquarters!)

Do you travel United? Have you ever gotten cheap airfare on United? If you have an opinion on the airline, pro or con, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please leave a comment below!

Edit: After I wrote the final draft of this post, I received a letter from United informing me that I accumulated enough mileage points from the Alaska flight to earn 1-year subscriptions to Afar and People magazines. So, um, there’s that.

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About Scott Shetler

Scott is a Chicago-based journalist and blogger who seeks out quirky sights and awesome destinations throughout North America and beyond.

20 comments on “Why would anyone fly United Airlines, under any circumstances, ever?

  1. The last time I flew United was a few years ago and I was not impressed. At the time, I think it was the cheapest flight to wherever it was we were going. But I too have noticed their prices are through the roof lately. Plus, their planes are older with little legroom and I’m pretty tall!

    JetBlue has better planes and usually better prices, so I primarily stick with them.
    MassachusEATS recently posted..Sprinkles Ice Cream

  2. Here I am – a frequent United flier. It’s become my airline of choice, mostly because it’s my employer’s preferred airline and I travel on business a few times a year. I do like racking up miles. It enabled me to fly my family on a trip for free, so there’s that.

    I have had my luggage lost on United. And formerly, on Continental.

    I’m shocked that the prices out of Chicago aren’t cheaper since it’s a hub. In fact, I have to fly through Chicago on almost every flight I take.

    Unlike you, we don’t have discount airlines out of Cincinnati (yet), so I never have the great deals like you describe on Southwest. If I did, I’d probably think twice about airline allegiance. But for now, I’m going to keep racking up mileage on United since it’s comparable to any other fares I can get out of CVG.
    Juliann recently posted..Staying in a Hutong Courtyard Hotel

    • Thanks for the insight, Juliann! I often wish I flew more often so I could score some free flights, but my points always expire before I ever come close to earning anything. At least I’m getting those free magazine subscriptions from that one United flight 🙂

  3. I find that all legacy airlines are on par with each other and still find it baffling that they don’t try to compete with the likes of Virgin America or Jet Blue when considering customer satisfaction. I suspect they don’t have to because businesses prefer the legacy airlines or in reality, businesses still use travel agents who receive a commission for booking legacy airlines. That said, I had a flight to Brussels cancelled by United after being delayed three hours. I approached an employee and simply said that I didn’t want to wake up the next day in the United States and I would go anywhere. He booked me on an immediate departure First Class to DC and the Economy Plus to Frankfurt. I then had a quick flight in a regular seat to Brussels. I arrived 6 hours later then my original plan, but what a sweet ride! Oh, and somehow my baggage made it to Brussels as well.

    • Good point Lynn, I can see why businesses would want to stick with one legacy airline to accrue all those points. I was wondering if United’s international flights might be different… it sounds like you had a good experience in that regard!

    • Thanks for the insight, Nicole. I only remember flying American once. I always go with the cheapest carrier, so if I’ve only flown American once, that doesn’t reflect well on their pricing.

  4. Hey Scott- I hear lots of negatives about United, and lots of people dislike them, but I have to say I have never had a bad experience with them. They are one of the few that fly out of my small city, so I don’t have to go to LA or SF, they have never been unreasonably late, never lost my luggage, and I have found reasonable prices from my city (meaning the are competitive with the cost of me getting to and staying in LA or SF, and flying from there). I do have their points card and they offer many ways other than flying to accrue points. That said, I flew Virgen to London (fromLA) on a special and was in awe:-). But they will never come to Fresno.

    • Ah, a couple people now have mentioned that United is one of the only carriers for their city. Maybe that’s how United does it – they go to all the cities that the other airlines avoid. Someday I hope to lose my Virgin virginity 🙂

  5. And to top it off, you’ll have to pay for any checked baggage. Last time I flew Southwest, the 1st checked bag was free. So that makes United even more expensive. And Southwest is so much more enjoyable to fly wih.
    Talon recently posted..Food of New Mexico

  6. I kind of hate all the legacy carriers. Delta is currently my favorite and their miles don’t expire, but they have a HORRIBLE redemption value! I tried to redeem mileage for a one way flight from New York to San Francisco, which would have cost me 12,500 on United for 50,000 on Delta! For 50k miles on United I could fly to Europe one way in business class!

    United does annoy me though. Like how their older aircraft have free movies but the ones with DirectTV don’t have any free entertainment at all.

    As for the voucher, I’m of the opinion that vouchers are kind of useless. They have all these rules associated with them. I’d have asked for miles instead (which I did several years ago after they sent me to a different airport in the middle of the night and then lied about ground transportation). After complaining on Twitter and writing a post about the experience, eventually they called me and offered me a whole lot more…
    Aaron @ Aaron’s Worldwide Adventures recently posted..Is it Safe to Travel in Iraq?

    • Aaron, that’s interesting about the points differences between United and Delta – I did not know that. People seem to feel that United’s rewards program is pretty good, so I’ll give them credit for that. I never fly enough to accumulate points, but I’m starting to look into getting a new credit card, so maybe I should consider United’s card if I can get a free flight out of the deal.

  7. I regularly fly United, not because I think they’re a great airline, but for status reasons — priority boarding, seat options, etc. It really makes a difference when traveling a lot. Prices can be very high, but don’t seem out of line with the other big-name carriers and I’ve experienced my share of frustration with most of them. In an ideal world, all airlines would be like Hawaiian Airlines — pleasant service and a mai tai prior to landing. 🙂
    Cathy Sweeney recently posted..Emilia-Romagna Funghi Feast

  8. I think you already answered your own question. You took them because they were cheap, but the deals are few and far between. You got me thinking of the last time I flew United and I think it was LAX to LHR and while it wasn’t great, it was the cheapest.
    Rebecca recently posted..Alaska – The Last Day-ish

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