United vs. American Airlines: Which Is Better?
Whether your next flight destination is near or far, it's likely that either United Airlines or American Airlines has a route that'll get you there. These airline giants are in constant competition, especially for passengers flying from the United States, ensuring that ticket prices are often closely matched.
When fares are comparable, the decision between United and American Airlines comes down to your specific needs and what you prioritize when flying. To make an informed choice, consider a direct comparison of what each airline has to offer based on your flight preferences. Here's an overview to help you determine which carrier is the better fit for your journey.
Hubs & Destinations
Deciding on the best airline for you could hinge on your travel needs and starting point. For domestic flyers, American might edge out the competition, while United could be the go-to for international flights. Consider your nearest airport — it could be the deciding factor, especially if you're looking to collect miles or attain elite status. Take Houston, for example, where United frequently offers more budget-friendly options due to its hub presence.
United Airlines. United Airlines connects passengers with 300 cities across five continents, running 4,500 flights daily, including to 200 cities in the U.S. The main hubs for United in the U.S. are: Chicago-O’Hare, Denver, Guam, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, Washington-Dulles.
United's extensive network is bolstered by its partnerships with around 36 airlines, with nearly 22 of those in the Star Alliance. Their partnership roster features airlines like Air Canada, All Nippon Airways, and Singapore Airlines. If you’re a United MileagePlus member, you can redeem your miles with these partners, giving you access to virtually any destination.
American Airlines. American Airlines, in collaboration with its regional partner American Eagle, boasts 6,700 daily flights to 350 destinations in 50 countries. American’s hub cities include: Charlotte, Chicago-O’Hare, Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Miami, New York-JFK, New York-LaGuardia, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Washington-National.
American’s alliance network, though smaller than United's, includes 14 Oneworld alliance airlines, such as British Airways, Japan Airlines, and Qantas. Through the AAdvantage program, miles can take you to a host of destinations. However, redeeming miles with partners like British Airways may come with hefty fees, particularly for premium cabins.
When comparing American and United, this cost variance is significant, offering American Airlines patrons an alternative to the high fees of some partner airlines, albeit possibly at the expense of more miles. Naturally, your choice between American and United may be influenced by your proximity to their hubs, your destination, and the value you place on your miles and the associated costs of redeeming them.
Travel Credit Card Options
Choosing the right airline credit card involves weighing the perks that matter most to you. These might include complimentary checked bags, reduced rates for award flights, increased access to award flights, or avoiding foreign transaction fees. Your willingness to pay an annual fee could also influence your decision.
United offers a range of credit cards, from the no-annual-fee United Gateway Card to the premium United Club Infinite Card with full lounge access. Here are some highlights:
- The United Gateway Card charges no annual fee and offers rewards on purchases, including United flights, gas, and transit.
- The United Explorer Card has a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, which then goes up to $95, along with benefits like a free checked bag and priority boarding.
- The United Quest Card has a $250 annual fee, higher earning rates on United purchases, and includes anniversary award flight credits.
- The United Club Infinite Card, with a $525 annual fee, offers lounge membership and enhanced earning rates on United purchases, with added travel benefits.
American Airlines, through Citi and Barclays, offers several credit cards ranging from those with no annual fee to luxury cards with lounge access. Some features include:
- The AAdvantage MileUp Card has no annual fee and offers bonus miles for American Airlines and grocery purchases.
- The AAdvantage Aviator Silver Mastercard has a $199 annual fee, offering multiple ways to earn miles and annual travel credits.
- The Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard, with a $595 annual fee, provides the most benefits, including Admirals Club lounge access and a hefty bonus miles offer.
Both airlines provide a variety of credit cards suitable for different budgets and travel styles. However, United takes the lead with its cards' benefit of expanded award flight availability, making it easier for cardholders to use miles for booking flights. With United's premium cards, you have the flexibility to book any United flight with miles, which can be a significant advantage for travelers with specific destinations in mind.
Airline Loyalty Programs
When it comes to airline loyalty programs, both United and American provide numerous avenues to accrue miles. The basic earning structure is similar for both, with travelers typically earning 5 miles for every dollar spent on flights. Elite members enjoy increased earning rates, and the type of fare you purchase can also impact how quickly your miles accumulate.
Both airlines allow you to earn miles through flying with their partner carriers, using co-branded credit cards, engaging in online shopping, and making bookings with partner hotels and car rental agencies.
There are some differences in the value of miles between the two. For instance, United MileagePlus miles might have a different valuation compared to American AAdvantage miles, which may affect how far your miles can take you.
United Airlines Loyalty Program. Redeeming miles on United can sometimes be costly. For example, you might find that a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago could run around 15,000 miles for a nonstop journey in economy class, while a flight with a stopover might require fewer miles.
However, for those who accumulate Chase Ultimate Rewards, these can be transferred to United MileagePlus at a 1:1 ratio. Marriott Bonvoy points can also be transferred to United, though at a 3:1 ratio, with the bonus of extra miles when transferring larger amounts. A major perk of United MileagePlus is that the miles do not expire, giving you flexibility in booking.
American Airlines Loyalty Program. Conversely, Chase points do not transfer to American AAdvantage, nor do points from several other major reward programs, which could make accumulating miles a bit more challenging. Marriott Bonvoy points are transferable to AAdvantage, but again at a 3:1 ratio.
Despite the potential challenges in earning miles, the AAdvantage program may offer more advantageous redemption options, as illustrated by the possibility of finding lower-mileage flights in certain scenarios. AAdvantage miles do expire after 18 months without account activity, but you can prevent this by earning or spending a few miles, such as by making a small purchase through the AAdvantage eShopping portal.
When assessing extra fees, American Airlines tends to have a lower average compared to United Airlines.
United Airlines. The fees for checked baggage on United flights can change based on your flight path, whether you pay beforehand, and other specifics. United's website offers a fee calculator to help determine the cost. Generally, if you pay before your flight, the first checked bag is $30 each way, but waiting to pay at the airport will cost $35. MileagePlus elite members and some credit card holders may have the checked bag fee waived.For seat selection, the average cost is about $6 per ticket if you wish to choose your seat in advance.
United had relatively higher add-on costs. For a standard one-way ticket, including fees for a checked bag, overhead carry-on, and seat selection, customers might pay an average of $35.
American Airlines. American offers straightforward pricing for checked bags, which is clearly stated on its website. A standard checked bag on a domestic flight costs $30, with exclusions for AAdvantage elite status holders and certain credit card users. American's transparent pricing policy also applies to other services like in-flight Wi-Fi, alcoholic beverages, and upgrade charges, with set fees published online.
When considering the costs of these additional services, American Airlines typically comes out on top with lower fees. A typical one-way fare on American has an average of $30 in add-on fees, slightly less than United's average.
United Airlines. United's economy seats usually provide 31 inches of pitch, with Economy Plus seats offering 34 to 37 inches for those willing to pay for extra legroom. The upper classes differ by aircraft and route, with Polaris Business Class featuring high-end dining and luxury bedding from Saks Fifth Avenue on longer international flights. However, United's basic economy tickets rank lower compared to similar ticket options from other airlines.
American Airlines. American's economy seating generally offers 31 to 32 inches of pitch. A step up to Main Cabin Extra gives passengers 33 to 36 inches of pitch. The premium cabins, which may include lie-flat seats and exceptional service, are route-dependent, particularly for international travel. American not only provides the best basic economy product among major airlines but also surpasses its competition with superior onboard entertainment options.
Well, between United Airlines and American Airlines, American emerges as the preferred choice. Our 2023 analysis of major domestic carriers for the Best-Of Awards saw American surpass United on numerous fronts.
However, United does have its advantages, such as the benefits associated with its credit card, the additional space offered in Economy Plus, and the opulent Polaris class for long-haul travel. But when it comes down to it, the convenience of having a hub airport nearby might be the deciding factor in choosing one airline over the other.