American Airlines vs. Delta: Which Is Best?

Though American ultimately comes out ahead, Delta isn’t far behind as one of the best U.S. airlines.
Jennifer Calonia
By Jennifer Calonia 
Updated
Edited by Meghan Coyle

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American Airlines and Delta Air Lines are two of the largest full-service air carriers in the U.S. Whether you're debating between two similar flights on either airline, or you're deciding which airline loyalty program to pledge allegiance to, which is the better airline between Delta versus American?

Price (which can vary widely by day and route) might be the obvious reason to pick one flight over another, but consider factors other than pricing. That's especially critical if you are considering building loyalty with one of these airlines’ rewards programs.

NerdWallet looked at the seven areas below to compare American versus Delta:

  1. Routes and destinations.

  2. Reliability.

  3. Incidental fees. 

  4. Basic economy experience.

  5. Frequent flyer program.

  6. Travel rewards cards.

  7. Premium class experience.

Our in-depth analysis found that, while close, American is better than Delta in most respects (jump to our conclusions). Here's a deep dive:

Routes and destinations

Winner: Tie

In many cases, the best airline is the one that offers the most route availability to your destinations given the decreased likelihood of a layover — and the increased likelihood of more options (such as departure dates and times).

As it turns out, American flies to more destinations overall.

But since Delta is part of a bigger airline alliance, it has a larger network of international destinations. That means you might not necessarily fly internationally on a Delta flight, but you can book that partner flight through Delta. That can be beneficial if you're trying to spend Delta miles, or you just need to make a connection to that international flight and will take the first leg on a true Delta flight.

American Airlines routes and destinations

American Airlines is headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, and is based at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

American flies to about 350 destinations in more than 50 countries. As a member of the Oneworld alliance, its partners include British Airways, Finnair, Iberia and nearly a dozen others. Yes, that means you can earn American Airlines miles when flying with those airlines too. And yes, that also means you can redeem American Airlines miles for flights on those other airlines.

  • Boston.

  • Charlotte.

  • Chicago-O’Hare.

  • Dallas-Fort Worth (headquarters).

  • Los Angeles.

  • Miami.

  • New York (JFK and LaGuardia).

  • Philadelphia.

  • Phoenix.

  • Raleigh-Durham.

  • San Antonio.

  • San Francisco.

  • Washington-National.

Delta routes and destinations

Delta is headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. It flies to more than 280 destinations on six continents.

Together with its alliance partners, Delta serves more than 1,000 destinations in 166 countries. It is one of the 19 airlines in the SkyTeam alliance. That makes it possible to earn and redeem SkyMiles through other international airlines. Some of its partners include (see the full list of Delta partners here):

  • Atlanta.

  • Boston.

  • Detroit.

  • Los Angeles.

  • Minneapolis-St. Paul.

  • New York (JFK and LaGuardia).

  • Salt Lake City.

  • Seattle.

Reliability

Winner: Delta

Delta has a stronger operational track record of more on-time flights and fewer cancellations. Delta's reliability score is a perfect five stars, compared with American’s 3.3 stars.

NerdWallet examined operations data from both airlines for flights between July 2022 and May 2023. Airline reliability metrics included the percentage of on-time flights, canceled flights and tarmac delays.

Here's American versus Delta compare on reliability:

Delta produced more on-time flights and fewer cancellations. However, American experienced fewer tarmac delays per 10,000 flights compared with Delta.

Lowest fees

Winner: American (by $2, on average)

How much you’ll pay in incidental fees depends on your travel details and preferences.

NerdWallet looked at the following five fee-based data points:

  1. Fee for one checked bag on a domestic flight. 

  2. Fee for one carry-on on a domestic flight for main cabin passengers.

  3. Fee for seat selection toward plane rear.

  4. Fee for seat selection toward front of the plane. 

  5. Average seat selection fees.

American and Delta charge similar fees. American Airlines charges $35 per checked bag (if you prepay online) on domestic flights, or otherwise $40 at the airport. Delta Air Lines charges $35, whether or not you prepay online or pay at the airport. Neither airlines charges main cabin passengers for a carry-on or personal item — even if you've got the cheapest basic economy fare.

Seat selection fees — whether toward the rear or front of the aircraft — differ between airlines by $3 (American) to $5 (Delta).

Costs for flying with pets

NerdWallet considered each airline's pet policies.

American charges $150 per carry-on kennel each way when flying within and between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, if permitted.

The Delta pet fee is much cheaper, at just $95 each way for domestic flights as well as those to Canada.

Despite American's higher pet fee, here's at least a consolation: American recently changed its cabin pet policy to allow customers with a pet to also bring either a personal item or carry-on bag stowed in the overhead bin (but not both). Previously, those travelers with pets had to pay the $150 pet fee and could only have one other small item that fit under the seat. That meant larger items like a carry-on bag with wheels, needed to be checked (and paid for). Alas, that's no longer the case.

Basic economy experience

Winner: American

In a comparison between American versus Delta's basic economy, American wins as it has fewer limitations.

American Airlines provides greater seat selection for basic economy passengers. It also beats Delta by offering elite status upgrades even to frequent fliers who bought the cheap seats.

Delta basic economy is annoying because fares won’t count toward earning you SkyMiles toward status. At least American Airlines basic economy flyers earn some AAdvantage miles.

In terms of basic economy versus main cabin fare cost, differences are minimal. NerdWallet analyzed the costs of dozens of round-trip routes and found that American’s basic economy fare has a $72 markup versus standard main cain fares. Delta's markup was not far behind at $70.

Airline rewards programs

Winner: American

In terms of airline loyalty programs, American’s AAdvantage is leagues ahead of Delta’s SkyMiles. American rests comfortably on our list of top rewards programs, taking the third spot. Delta trailed in sixth.

We assessed the cent per mile value for each airline’s loyalty program. Then we multiplied this with the number of miles you’d earn for each dollar spent with the airline. The result is the percentage of value that you get back in miles for each dollar spent.

Based on our calculations, American offered a rewards rate of 7.10% for every dollar spent, versus a 5.04% return per dollar spent through Delta’s program.

When we analyzed each airline’s elite status program, American scored second in our overall ranking, with Delta settling for third. Our team assessed the value of each elite tier between both status programs by comparing status perks, like free bags on flights. Additionally, we looked at how much you’d have to spend with each airline to reach each tier.

Using these calculations, we determined the elite earning rate — that is, how much value you receive for your spending toward status. For example, American AAdvantage members who’ve earned Ruby status get $29 of value for every $100 spent with the program. By comparison, Delta SkyMiles Silver Medallion status yields $23 of value for every $100 spent.

With American’s slightly higher rewards rate and easier way to earn elite status, it beat out Delta in our annual ranking.

Travel rewards cards

Winner: American

The fact that American credit cards earn Loyalty Points gives them an edge over Delta credit cards. In fact, it’s possible to earn elite status by spending on an American co-branded credit card only.

American credit cards

Citibank Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard® Credit Card
NerdWallet rating 

Travel rewards credit cards help make earning miles toward an airline loyalty program easier. American offers seven personal cards and two business credit cards with Citi and Barclays. American credit cards offer benefits like:

Annual fees range from $0 (American Airlines AAdvantage® MileUp®) to $595 (Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®).

Every dollar spent on American credit cards also earn Loyalty Points, which are needed to earn American AAdvantage elite status. This makes it faster to earn status with the airline, even when you’re not flying.

Delta credit cards

Delta offers four personal cards through American Express.

Cards for Delta flyers
Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card
Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on American Express' website

Rates & Fees
Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on American Express' website

Rates & Fees
Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card
Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on American Express' website

Rates & Fees
Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card
Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on American Express' website

Rates & Fees
Annual fee

$0.

$0 intro for the first year, then $150.

$350.

$650.

Earning rates

• 2 miles per dollar on purchases made directly with Delta.

• 2 miles per dollar at restaurants worldwide plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.

• 1 mile per dollar on all other eligible purchases.

• 2 miles per dollar on purchases made directly with Delta.

• 2 miles per dollar at restaurants worldwide plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.

• 2 miles per dollar at U.S. supermarkets.

• 1 mile per dollar on all other eligible purchases.

• 3 miles per dollar on eligible purchases made directly with Delta

• 3 miles per dollar on eligible hotel purchases.

• 2 miles per dollar at restaurants plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.

• 2 miles per dollar at U.S. supermarkets.

1 mile per dollar on all other eligible purchases.

• 3 miles per dollar on eligible purchases made directly with Delta.

• 1 mile per dollar on other eligible purchases.

Other benefits

• No foreign transaction fees.

Terms apply.

• First checked bag free.

• Priority boarding.

• No foreign transaction fees.

Terms apply.

• Companion certificate (main cabin).

• First checked bag free.

• Priority boarding.

• No foreign transaction fees.

Terms apply.

• Airport lounge access.

• Companion certificate ((first class, Delta Comfort+ or main cabin).

• Credit for application fee for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry

• First checked bag free.

• Priority boarding.

• No foreign transaction fees.

Terms apply.

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Terms apply.

Business class experience

Winner: Toss up

If you prefer to have many comfortable seating options, then American offers more. But for a long international flight, Delta One’s enhanced privacy doors on select aircraft are enticing.

American business class

American offers more business class variety between the two airlines. If flying a long-distance trip, Flagship Business and Business Plus unlock benefits like:

  • Complimentary access to Flagship and Admirals Club lounges.

  • Priority boarding. 

  • Full lie-flat seats. 

  • Casper pillows and blankets.

  • Gourmet in-flight dining.

  • Shinola and D.S. & Durga amenity kit.

  • More Loyalty Points for faster status.

  • Status members receive extra benefits, such as mileage bonuses.

Domestic and shorter international flights from the U.S. don’t offer lie-flat seats. Instead, business class travelers get roomier seats, more legroom, pillows and blankets. There's also upgraded in-flight dining options.

Delta business class

Delta's only business class option is a Delta One ticket. Delta One is available on long-haul international and select long-haul domestic flights. Delta One offers luxurious perks both before you board and while in flight, including:

  • No change fees for ticket changes or cancellations for flights originating from the U.S., Canada and Europe.

  • Priority boarding.

  • Full lie-flat seats.

  • A lumbar pillow that converts to a mattress pad (ultra long-haul flights only).

  • Full-height privacy doors (Airbus A350 and A330-900).

  • Grown Alchemist amenity kit.

  • Helps you earn SkyMiles.

Which is better: American Airlines or Delta?

Is American or Delta better?

Between Delta versus American, our full analysis found that American wins in more categories, including the ability to achieve elite status more quickly.

Although it doesn’t have as many flight routes, Delta makes up for it with more reliable operations.

In terms of loyalty, expect a modestly better experience being loyal to American Airlines, which generally has more flight routes. That makes it easier to earn elite status and fly to more places in its own planes at lower redemption rates.

But for a one-off experience, Delta tends to win in terms of not just a swankier cabin, but more likelihood of an on-time arrival.


How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are some of the best travel credit cards of 2024:

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