United offers baggage/upgraded seating subscriptions

United Airlines white chocolate

On Monday United Airlines announced subscription programs offering customers either a year-long access to seats with extra legroom in the Economy Plus section of the cabin, or a year’s worth of pre-paid checked baggage fees.

United says it is the first domestic carrier offering these services in subscription form.

Prices start at $499 for the Economy Plus subscription and $349 for the checked-bag program and go up depending on which region of the world you choose (Continental US or beyond) and how many companions you bring along.

Are the plans a good deal?

Baggage subscription fee

United Airlines passengers flying on an economy ticket within the continental US – and to Hawaii or Alaska – currently pay $25 to check their first standard bag and $35 for the second bag.

With a baggage subscription, a traveler pays a yearly fee of $349 (plus a $50 initiation fee; currently waived). Travelers may add a second checked bag to the package for a $50 yearly fee, the bags of one companion for $100 and the bags of up to eight companions on the same reservation for $300.

The subscription only covers bag fees in the continental United States, so someone flying to Hawaii or Alaska would need to add on the North America/Central America option for an addition $100. Adding additional regions will rack up additional fees.

“With this program, a traveler would need to check a standard bag on 14 one-way, continental US flights before they broke even on their investment,” said Tim Winship, publisher of FrequentFlier.com. “That’s 7 round-trips. And if you are traveling that often it’s going to be true for most people that they’ll earn elite status in United’s frequent flier program, which already includes bag fee waivers as one of the perks.”

Economy Plus Subscription

Travelers purchasing an economy class seat on United can upgrade to Economy Plus at the time of purchase, if those seats are available. “The prices of those seats vary,” said May, “It can start at $9 and go up to $215.”

The Economy Plus subscription package starts at $499 (the $50 initiation fee is currently waived) and includes automatic upgrades to Economy Plus seats – when available – in the continental United States only. To add Alaska and Hawaii, a traveler would need the North America/Central America upgrade, for $100. Adding a companion to the package costs $200 and adding up to eight companions on the same reservation is $400.

Finding the value tipping point on this option “is a bit of a quandary,” said Winship. “I used a figure of $40 for a domestic flight upgrade. And using that figure it turns out that it would take 13 flights before that subscription price gets covered.”

“If you’re flying that much you may want to consider elite status on another airline that gives you these seats for free,” said Brian Kelly, founder of thepointsguy.com.

He can see some of United’s Premier Silver elite members buying this package because, due to a recent change in United’s frequent flier program, that group must now wait until check-in to claim their complimentary Economy Plus seat.

“Otherwise, casual travelers should probably just buy the one time passes,” said Kelly.

Overall, “I find the subscription plans puzzling,” said Winship. “Presumably the market for this is the traveler between the infrequent leisure traveler and the elite traveler. But the cynical way of looking at it would be that the targets for these subscriptions are gullible travelers who don’t really understand the value proposition here.”

(My story: United offers baggage/upgraded seating subscriptions first appeared on NBC News.com Travel in a slightly different version.)