Alaska Airlines vs. American Airlines: Which Is Better for You?

Alaska narrowly beats out American in this head-to-head comparison of the two major domestic carriers.
Josh Garber
By Josh Garber 
Updated

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U.S.-based carriers American Airlines and Alaska Airlines have a lot of similarities in terms of partners and destinations.

Both are members of the Oneworld alliance and offer great perks to their loyal travelers. But if you’re going to choose one airline to earn elite status with, you'll need to compare the pros and cons.

Let’s take a look at Alaska Airlines versus American Airlines, so you can find out which one is right for you.

Where they’re based and where they fly

Winner: American Airlines

When it comes to which airline has more flights to more destinations, American Airlines comes ahead as the clear winner, although Alaska’s strong West Coast presence is a benefit to West Coast passengers.

American Airlines

American Airlines is one of the largest airlines in the world, flying to over 350 destinations in 60 countries. While American Airlines is based in Fort Worth, Texas, the airline has a significant presence across the United States, with 10 hubs.

  • Charlotte.

  • Chicago-O’Hare.

  • Dallas-Fort Worth.

  • Los Angeles.

  • Miami.

  • New York-JFK.

  • New York-LaGuardia.

  • Philadelphia.

  • Phoenix.

  • Washington, D.C.- Ronald Reagan.

As a founding member of the Oneworld alliance, American Airlines has partnerships with airlines like British Airways and Qatar Airways, and the partnership gives American Airlines passengers access to 1,000 destinations around the world.

Some exciting destinations that you can fly to on American Airlines include Tokyo, Madrid, Buenos Aires and Sydney.

Alaska Airlines

Alaska is a smaller airline compared to American Airlines, flying to 125 destinations in 7 countries. Alaska has a significant presence in the West Coast, with the airline headquartered in Seattle and all 5 airline hubs located on the West Coast (including Alaska):

  • Anchorage.

  • Los Angeles.

  • Portland.

  • San Francisco.

  • Seattle.

Although Alaska Airlines doesn’t fly to nearly as many destinations or other countries as American Airlines, Alaska is also a member of the Oneworld alliance, giving Alaska access to the same Oneworld partners and destinations as American Airlines.

A sample of exciting destinations you can fly to Alaska includes Maui, Belize, the Bahamas and Costa Rica.

Reliability

Winner: Alaska Airlines

Alaska beats out American Airlines when it comes to reliability, with a higher percentage of on-time flights and a lower percentage of flight cancellations and mishandled luggage.

American Airlines

NerdWallet has crunched the numbers and American Airlines is the fourth most reliable airline in the United States, receiving a rating of 3.3 out of 5 stars. For flights between July 2022 and July 2023, 78.03% of American Airlines flights were on time and 1.68% of American Airlines flights were canceled.

While on-time flights and cancellations are important, you also want to make sure that your luggage arrives with you — for the same time period, American Airlines mishandled 0.87% of luggage.

Alaska Airlines

Using the same reliability metrics, Alaska is the second most reliable airline in the United States, receiving a rating of 4 out of 5 stars from NerdWallet. For flights between July 2022 and July 2023, 79.38% of Alaska flights were on time and 1.52% of Alaska’s flights were canceled.

When it comes to mishandling luggage, Alaska also comes out ahead of American Airlines, with only 0.7% of luggage mishandled in the same time period.

Fees

Extra fees can really put a damper on your travel experience — and Alaska passengers can generally expect to pay less fees than American Airlines flyers.

Winner: Alaska

American Airlines

While the exact fees can vary based on flight, below are typical fees that you might be confronted with when flying American Airlines:

  • One bag (domestic): $30.

  • Carry-on bag (main cabin): $0.

  • Main cabin seat (rear of airplane): $0.

  • Main cabin seat (front of airplane): $23.

  • Average seat selection: $11.50

  • Total fees: $41.50.

Based on this criteria, NerdWallet gives American Airlines 3.9 out of 5 stars for airline fees, tying for fourth best airline when it comes to fees among larger U.S. carriers.

Alaska Airlines

For Alaska, exact fees can also vary based on flight, but below are typical fees that you might be confronted with when flying Alaska:

  • One bag (domestic): $35.

  • Carry-on bag (main cabin): $0.

  • Main cabin seat (rear of airplane): $0.

  • Main cabin seat (front of airplane): $0.

  • Average seat selection: $0.

  • Total fees: $35.

Using the same criteria, NerdWallet gives Alaska 4.2 out of 5 stars for airline fees, with Alaska tying as the second-best airline when it comes to fees among larger U.S. carriers.

Basic economy

While both American Airlines and Alaska have basic economy cabins, American Airlines’ basic option is slightly cheaper, earns flyers more redeemable miles than Alaska and includes upgrade privileges that Alaska doesn’t offer, giving American Airlines the edge.

Winner: American Airlines

American Airlines

Basic economy is American Airlines lowest main cabin fare — meaning that while the price is lower than other economy tickets, you also get less benefits.

For example, free seat selection and free cancellation are not included with a basic economy ticket. Basic economy on American Airlines earns 40% of the redeemable miles that you’d earn on a standard ticket.

While there are downsides to booking basic economy tickets, American Airlines has a few basic economy benefits that Alaska doesn’t, including the ability to make same-day changes for a fee and complimentary upgrades for elite status holders.

Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines’ basic economy, called Saver fares, is more restrictive than American Airlines’ basic economy class, with no same-day changes allowed, no complimentary upgrades for elite status holders, and mileage and status earnings of only 30% of main cabin fares.

Given the additional restrictions for Alaska basic economy, it’s no surprise that NerdWallet ranks American Airlines as having the second best basic economy product in the U.S., compared to Alaska who comes in fourth.

Loyalty program

Alaska has the best elite status and reward program in the U.S., making Alaska’s loyalty program the clear winner.

Winner: Alaska Airlines

American Airlines

Earning elite status on American Airlines is largely based on money spent on American Airlines flights or on American Airlines co-branded credit cards. Because of this, it costs significantly more to earn status on American Airlines than it does on Alaska, where you earn status based on miles flown.

Although it costs more to earn status on American Airlines, American Airlines status is quite valuable — based on NerdWallet’s calculations, American Airlines has the most valuable airline status in every tier based on benefits earned.

The value of American Airlines’ elite status helps to outweigh the cost of earning that status, which is why we American Airlines ties for the third best elite status in the U.S.

American Airlines also offers significantly more co-branded credit card options than Alaska, giving you more options to earn points.

While American Airlines miles can be harder to earn than Alaska miles, as American Airlines miles are earned based on spend rather than flight distance, they are worth slightly more at a value of 1.7 cents per mile.

Alaska Airlines

One of the main benefits of Alaska’s loyalty program is that Alaska elite status is earned based on the number of miles flown instead of cash spent, which makes it significantly less expensive to earn elite status on Alaska compared to American Airlines.

NerdWallet crunched the numbers and it costs approximately $12,000 to earn the top-tier status with Alaska, compared to over $49,000 to earn similar status with American Airlines.

Additionally, Alaska’s top-tier status, MVP Gold 100k, has some unique features that include:

  • Two one-way international upgrade certificates on American Airlines.

  • Four first-class guest upgrades.

  • A choice between:

    • 50,000 bonus miles.

    • A complimentary CLEAR membership.

    • Alaska lounge membership.

    • Complimentary Wi-Fi on every Alaska flight. 

    • Gifting MVP Gold status.

Bank of America Alaska Airlines Visa® Credit Card
NerdWallet rating 

While Alaska’s miles are worth slightly less than American Airlines miles — being valued at 1.4 cents per mile — Alaska miles are easier to earn, with mileage earning being based on distance flown rather instead of money spent.

Although Alaska’s loyalty program is ranked by NerdWallet as the best in the U.S., it does lack in credit card options, with only two credit cards available — the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card and the Alaska Airlines Visa® Business card.

Business class

Winner: American Airlines

As, between the two airlines, only American Airlines offers lie-flat business class seats, American Airlines is the clear winner when it comes to business class options.

American Airlines

American Airlines offers lie-flat business class seats, including in its flagship international and flagship transcontinental products, with lie-flat seats available on many cross-country and international routes.

American Airlines’ flagship business experience also includes a host of other benefits including:

  • Flagship lounge access. 

  • Priority check-in, security and boarding.

  • Chef-inspired dining.

  • Amenity kits.

  • Casper sleeping sets.

Alaska Airlines

While Alaska Airlines doesn’t offer lie-flat beds in its business class, it does offer the most legroom of any U.S. carrier for non-lie flat business class seats.

Additionally, business class passengers on Alaska can check in two complimentary bags, pre-order complimentary meals and have access to a pre-departure lounge, as well as free in-flight wine, beers and cocktails.

Who comes out on top?

Alaska Airlines comes out on top of American Airlines in a head-to-head comparison, in large part due to Alaska’s generous elite program, where miles and status are earned based on miles flown instead of dollars spent.

American Airlines is still a great option though, especially for travelers who value lie-flat business class seats, a larger (and more international) flight network or who plan on taking advantage of American Airlines’ less restrictive basic economy fares.


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