Nickeling-and-diming its customers has become the forte of the airline industry, with everything from roomier coach seats to stowing your luggage in an aircraft's underbelly requiring an additional fee. In fact, bag fees have skyrocketed over the past few years, enabling the airline industry as a whole to rake in well over $3 billion in additional revenue during the course of 2012. Now, United is offering yet another way to pay: a $349 yearly subscription that covers one standard-sized bag for you on each flight. But, is it worth it? We break it down.
For infrequent United flyers: Presently, United charges $25 each way for a single checked bag weighing under 50 pounds – assuming you're traveling within the United States. This means that you would need to fly eight roundtrip flights per year for the yearly subscription to become the better value. For those who need to check two bags, the math works out a little differently. United's two-bag yearly fee is $399, so you would only need to fly seven roundtrip flights per year to realize a savings from the annual plan.
For frequent United flyers: If you're planning to fly 25,000 miles on United this year, think twice about splurging for an annual bag subscription. Just five roundtrip flights from one coast to the other will put enough miles in your account to grant you Premier Silver status, at which point you're given one free checked bag (under 50 pounds, of course) for each flight. If you make just two or three trips to Europe or Asia from the U.S., you'll probably hit that milestone as well. These status levels offer a number of other benefits, including discounted or free access to Economy Plus seating.
Other options for saving: If you're sure that you'll be devoting a meaningful amount of business to United, consider the United MileagePlus Explorer credit card. Having this enables you and one companion to check a single bag free on each United flight, while also offering double United miles (helping you to reach a frequent flyer status more quickly), no foreign transaction fees, priority boarding privileges, and two one-day passes to any United Club lounge. The card is free for the first year, and just $95 per year after that; if you're flying even two roundtrip flights on United with a single bag, the card is the better deal.
My advice? Those who can anticipate flying at least eight roundtrip flights per year on United are very likely to reach Premier Silver status, which negates the need to purchase an annual bag subscription. For those flying less than that, you're still better off paying per-flight. If you're unsure and have decent credit, snapping up a MileagePlus Explorer card is a great way to hedge your bets.