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Delta vs. United: Weighing the Pros and Cons

Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, two of the leading U.S. carriers, have much in common, but there are notable differences that can influence a traveler's decision.

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By Eglė

Published: Oct 11, 2023 min read

Delta vs. United: Weighing the Pros and Cons

When flying basic economy, Delta typically offers a more favorable carry-on bag fee structure. In terms of alliances, United is a proud member of the expansive Star Alliance, which boasts 26 airlines, while Delta is aligned with the slightly smaller SkyTeam, which has 18 member airlines. For frequent travelers considering premium credit card benefits, Delta's top-tier card provides access not only to their Sky Club lounge but also to the American Express Centurion Lounges. In contrast, United's equivalent card offers entry solely to United Club lounges. Additionally, those looking to redeem points might find that United's award tickets are generally more budget-friendly compared to Delta's. Given these distinctions, travelers should weigh which airline best aligns with their personal preferences, travel requirements, and budget.

Comparing Delta and United: Base Locations and Flight Options

WINNER - United Airlines

Delta provides its passengers with access to roughly 300 destinations spanning over 50 countries worldwide. As a member of the SkyTeam alliance, Delta collaborates with 17 other airlines, extending its reach to more than 1,000 destinations across 170 countries.
Delta Hubs: Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York (both JFK and LaGuardia), Salt Lake City, Seattle. International Destinations for Delta: Amsterdam, London-Heathrow, Mexico City, Paris-Charles de Gaulle, Seoul, Tokyo.

United Airlines, a member of the Star Alliance, connects passengers to over 300 destinations spanning five continents. This includes approximately 210 cities within the U.S. and over 120 international spots.
Being a part of the Star Alliance – the largest airline alliance globally – United is in cahoots with 26 carriers that touch down at more than 1,300 airports. This extensive network ensures travelers have myriad connection options on a global scale.

United's Main Hubs: Chicago, Denver, Guam, Houston-Intercontinental, Los Angeles, Newark, New York-LaGuardia, San Francisco, Washington-Dulles. International Destinations for United: Frankfurt, Hong Kong, London- Heathrow, Sao Paulo, Tokyo. 

Airline Credit Card - Delta vs United - RatePunk

Airline Credit Card Showdown

Result for Most Valuable Airline Credit Card: It's a draw!

Both Delta and United extend credit card offers packed with benefits like checked bags. However, Delta's AmEx cards cover baggage for up to nine people on the same booking, whereas United offers this for just two travelers.
Each airline also presents premium credit cards featuring airport lounge access. Yet, Delta gains a slight advantage since its top-tier card also grants entry to Centurion Lounges.
For the occasional traveler, the United℠ Explorer Card might seem more attractive than the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card. This is because the United card presents two one-time United Club passes and a statement credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck. Conversely, with Delta's card, you'll need to spend $10,000 to receive a $100 statement credit.
In the end, it's almost a tie between the two airlines when comparing card benefits. The deciding factor? It comes down to your preferred airline and which credit card perks resonate most with you.
American Express collaborates with Delta to issue an array of Delta-branded cards:

Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card (Annual Fee: $0)

Bonus: 10,000 miles after spending $1,000 in the first 6 months.
Earnings: 2x miles on Delta & restaurant purchases; 1x mile on other purchases.
Perks: 20% off in-flight purchases, use of Miles for payment, and no foreign transaction fees.

Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card (Annual Fee: $0 for the first year, $99 after)

Bonus: 40,000 miles after spending $2,000 in the first 6 months.
Earnings: 2x miles on Delta, restaurants, & U.S. supermarkets; 1x mile elsewhere.
Perks: First checked bag free for up to nine passengers and $100 Delta credit after $10,000 in purchases.

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card (Annual Fee: $250)

Bonus: 50,000 miles after spending $3,000 in the first 6 months.
Earnings: 3x miles on Delta & hotels; 2x miles at restaurants & U.S. supermarkets; 1x mile on other purchases.
Perks: Checked bag free for up to nine passengers, TSA PreCheck/Global Entry fee credit, companion certificate, and more.

Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card (Annual Fee: $550)

Bonus: 60,000 miles after spending $5,000 in the first 6 months.
Earnings: 3x miles on Delta purchases and 1x mile elsewhere.
Perks: Numerous, including Delta Sky Club & Centurion Lounge access, companion certificate, and more.
Each card caters to varied traveler needs, from casual flyers to regular globetrotters. Moreover, Delta is affiliated with the American Express Membership Rewards program, allowing 1:1 point transfers to SkyMiles.

United Airlines Credit Card Options

United collaborates with Chase Bank to bring forth a variety of co-branded credit cards tailored for both occasional and regular travelers.

United Gateway℠ Card (Annual Fee: $0)

Bonus: 20,000 miles after spending $1,000 in the initial 3 months.
Earnings: 2x miles on United, gas, local transit, and commuting; 1x mile on other purchases.
Perks: 25% off in-flight purchases and no foreign transaction charges.

United℠ Explorer Card (Annual Fee: $0 for the first year, $95 thereafter)

Bonus: 50,000 miles after spending $3,000 within the first 3 months.
Earnings: 2x miles on United, dining, and hotel accommodations; 1x mile elsewhere.
Perks: Numerous, including first checked bag free for two passengers, priority boarding, United Club passes, and more.

United Quest℠ Card (Annual Fee: $250)

Bonus: 60,000 miles and 500 Premier qualifying points after a spend of $4,000 in the first 3 months.
Earnings: 3x miles on United; 2x miles on dining, travel, and select streaming; 1x mile on other spends.
Perks: Includes first and second checked bag free for two travelers, $125 annual United credit, award flight credits, and more.

United Club℠ Infinite Card (Annual Fee: $525)

Bonus: 80,000 miles post a spend of $5,000 within 3 months.
Earnings: 4x miles on United; 2x miles on dining and travel; 1x mile elsewhere.
Perks: Features like first and second checked bag free for two, Premier Access at the airport, United Club membership, Hertz privileges, and more.
For those aiming to amass United miles, Chase Ultimate Rewards® can be transferred to MileagePlus at a 1:1 ratio.

When choosing the apt card, contemplate on your spending habits, the perks that align with your preferences, and the miles earned in your top spending categories. For instance, a high earning rate at gas stations might be irrelevant if you don't drive.

Airline Loyalty Programs Overview Delta vs United - ratepunk

Airline Loyalty Programs Overview

Ease of Earning and Using Miles: Winner- United.
While both airlines offer robust mileage earnings, United stands out due to its extensive network of partner airlines. This means members have access to more flights and a broader range of destinations.

Delta's Loyalty Program - SkyMiles:

  • Earning Mechanism: Delta rewards its members based on the ticket's pre-tax cost, rather than the distance of the flight. The rate of SkyMiles earned per dollar is contingent upon your membership level in their program.
  • Partner Flights: For those flying on SkyTeam or other Delta partners, miles are accrued based on a percentage of the distance flown, adjusted by the ticket's fare class.
  • Value: According to NerdWallet, a SkyMile is estimated to be worth 1.2 cents. However, it's essential to note that Delta doesn't have a fixed award chart. Instead, they price mileage flights based on demand, which can sometimes make it harder to maximize the value of SkyMiles.
  • Redemption Tip: One way to make the most of your SkyMiles is through Delta's SkyMiles Deals. These periodic promotions offer discounted rates for award flights, sometimes as low as 5,000 SkyMiles for a one-way ticket.

United's Loyalty Program - MileagePlus:

  • Earning Mechanism: United's flight rewards earnings mirror that of Delta. MileagePlus members earn redeemable miles determined by their elite status and their spending with the airline.
  • Partner Flights: When flying with Star Alliance members or other United partners, miles are calculated based on a portion of the distance traveled and the specific fare class of the ticket.
  • Value: NerdWallet values United miles at 1.2 cents each.
  • Redemption Tip: A unique aspect of the United MileagePlus program is the "Excursionist Perk." This feature allows members to include a free stopover in a multi-city roun.
Comparing Extra Fees - baggage fees - delta vs united - ratepUnk

Comparing Extra Fees

Leading in Low Fees -  Delta Wins

When examining the extra fees of Delta and United, Delta slightly edges out United, especially in terms of baggage costs. Delta not only offers a consistent checked baggage fee regardless of when you pay, but they also don't charge for carry-on bags in their basic economy class. In contrast, United tends to have higher fees, particularly if you opt to pay for checked baggage upon reaching the airport.

Being aware of potential fees can ensure you're securing the best value when booking.

Delta's Fee Breakdown:

  • Checked Baggage: $30 for the first bag and $40 for the second.
  • Seat Selection (for basic economy fares): The cost varies.
  • Change Fee (for domestic and U.S.-originating international flights): $0, except for basic economy fares.

United's Fee Breakdown:

  • Checked Baggage: prepaid: $30 for the first bag and $40 for the second//  at the Airport: $35 for the first bag and $45 for the second.
  • Carry-on Luggage: $25 for most basic economy tickets.
  • Seat Selection (for basic economy fares): The cost varies.
  • Change Fee (for domestic and U.S.-originating international flights): $0, except for basic economy fares.
  • RatePunk extension - best price comparison tool for travelers

Comparing Basic Economy Fares: Delta vs. United

Delta Stands Out in Basic Economy

When comparing Delta and United's basic economy fares, both airlines offer a range of restrictions, but Delta has a slight edge, especially with its complimentary carry-on baggage policy. In contrast, United charges even for carry-on bags under its basic economy category.

Another point to note: Delta's basic economy fare doesn’t grant SkyMiles or Elite Qualifying rewards. Hence, Delta's basic economy might be suitable for those on occasional trips, while frequent flyers should consider a cabin upgrade to earn SkyMiles.

Delta Basic Economy Features:

  • Carry-on luggage: Free (up to 9x14x22 inches).
  • Checked baggage: Additional charges apply, including for transatlantic flights.
  • Personal item: Allowed (up to 9x10x17 inches).
  • Seat selection: Free at check-in, subject to availability.
  • Boarding: Generally last, exceptions for elite members or Delta credit card holders.
  • Elite status: Not applicable.
  • Upgrades: Not available.
  • Flight changes/refunds: A fee applies - $99 for domestic and specific international destinations; $199 for other international flights.

United Basic Economy Features:

  • Carry-on luggage: $25 fee for MileagePlus members. Non-members can only bring a smaller bag; otherwise, they'll pay the checked bag fee plus a $25 gate-handling charge.
  • Checked baggage: Fees apply, even for transatlantic journeys.
  • Personal item: Allowed (up to 9x10x17 inches).
  • Seat selection: Available at an extra cost.
  • Boarding: Typically last, exceptions for elite members or United cardholders.
  • Elite status: Does not contribute towards Premier qualification. However, MileagePlus members can earn certain rewards.
  • Upgrades: Available for Economy Plus during check-in.
  • Flight changes/refunds: Not permitted past 24 hours from booking, with specific exceptions.
Delta vs united - pet friendly option - ratepunk

Pet-Friendly Airlines: Delta vs. United

Delta Wins. For those keen on traveling with their pets, Delta stands out as the more accommodating option over United.

Delta's Pet Guidelines:

  • Fee: Delta has a straightforward fee of $95 per ticket for pet travel.
  • Number of Pets: One pet per carrier is standard. Yet, two pets (between 10 weeks to 6 months of age) can share a carrier, given they fit comfortably.
  • Types of Pets Allowed: Delta is relatively flexible, welcoming dogs, cats, and household birds on board.

United's Pet Rules:

  • Fee: United charges $125 for each pet journey. An extra $125 is added for stopovers longer than four hours within the U.S.
  • Number of Pets: Traveling with two pets is permissible, but each requires its separate ticket.
  • Types of Pets Allowed: United's policy is stricter, only permitting cats and dogs on their flights.

P.S. You may be interested in our review on most pet friendly airlines in the world. 

When comparing Delta and United, each has its strengths. Delta offers lower baggage fees and a more bearable basic economy option, while United shines with a robust loyalty program, cost-effective awards, and broader global reach. Though our annual analysis places Delta above United, it's noted that United's pet policy lags behind. However, for those indifferent to pet policies, the choice between Delta and United should hinge on their service to your home airport and desired routes.

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Oct 11, 2023

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