Delta vs. United Airlines: Which Is Best For You?

United and Delta have a few key differences, including the carry-on baggage allowance if you fly basic economy.
Anya KartashovaAug 23, 2021

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Delta Air Lines and United Airlines are two of the biggest U.S. carriers. So which is better for your individual travel needs, preferences and budget?

A side-by-side comparison will let you decide which is better, Delta or United.

Where they’re based and where they fly

Delta

Delta Air Lines passengers can fly to about 300 destinations in more than 50 countries across the globe. As a SkyTeam member, the airline partners with 18 other carriers that cover more than 1,000 destinations in 170 countries.

  • Atlanta.

  • Boston.

  • Detroit.

  • Los Angeles.

  • Minneapolis.

  • New York (JFK and LaGuardia).

  • Salt Lake City.

  • Seattle.

  • Amsterdam

  • London-Heathrow.

  • Mexico City.

  • Paris-Charles de Gaulle.

  • Seoul.

  • Tokyo.

United

Star Alliance member United Airlines covers more than 300 destinations across five continents: about 210 U.S. cities and more than 120 international destinations. Star Alliance is the world’s largest alliance, and includes 26 carriers serving more than 1,300 airports. This gives you a lot of global connection options.

  • Chicago.

  • Denver.

  • Guam.

  • Houston-Intercontinental.

  • Los Angeles.

  • Newark.

  • New York-LaGuardia.

  • San Francisco.

  • Washington-Dulles.

  • Frankfurt.

  • Hong Kong.

  • London-Heathrow.

  • Sao Paulo.

  • Tokyo.

Winner for most options: United

Travel credit card availability

You don't have to be a travel rewards expert to use credit cards to make travel more affordable. Here are your airline credit card options, broken down by airline.

To choose the right card for you, consider your budget (some have higher annual fees than others), your preferred perks (for instance, do you care about foreign transaction fees?) and how many miles you'll earn per dollar on priority categories. For example, it probably won't matter that you'll get 3x miles per dollar spent at gas stations if you don't have a car.

Delta credit cards

American Express issues several Delta-branded credit cards to consumers. Here’s a closer look to help you decide which one might suit you.

Welcome bonus: Earn 10,000 bonus miles after you spend $500 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Terms Apply.

Earning rates:

  • 2 miles per $1 spent on Delta purchases and at restaurants.

  • 1 mile per $1 on all other purchases.

Other benefits:

  • 20% back on in-flight purchases.

  • Pay with Miles.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

Terms apply.

Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card (Annual fee: $0 intro for the first year, then $99)

Welcome bonus: Earn 70,000 Bonus Miles after spending $2,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer expires 11/10/2021. Terms Apply.

Earning rates:

  • 2 miles per $1 on Delta purchases and at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets.

  • 1 mile per $1 on all other purchases.

Other benefits:

  • First checked bag free for up to nine passengers.

  • Priority boarding.

  • $100 Delta credit after making $10,000 in purchases.

  • 20% back on in-flight purchases.

  • Pay with Miles.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

Terms apply.

Welcome bonus: Earn 90,000 Bonus Miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer expires 11/10/2021. Terms Apply.

Earning rates:

  • 3 miles per $1 spent on Delta purchases and hotels.

  • 2 miles per $1 spent at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets.

  • 1 mile per $1 on all other purchases.

Other benefits:

  • First checked bag free for up to nine passengers.

  • Priority boarding.

  • Global Entry / TSA PreCheck enrollment fee credit.

  • Delta companion certificate.

  • Status boost.

  • $39 Delta Sky Club access.

  • Cell phone protection.

  • 20% back on in-flight purchases.

  • Pay with Miles.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

Terms apply.

Welcome bonus: Earn 80,000 Bonus Miles and 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $5,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer expires 11/10/2021. Terms Apply.

Earning rates:

  • 3 miles per $1 spent on Delta purchases.

  • 1 mile per $1 on all other purchases.

Other benefits:

  • First checked bag free for up to nine passengers.

  • Priority boarding.

  • Global Entry / TSA PreCheck enrollment fee credit.

  • Delta companion certificate.

  • Status boost.

  • Delta Sky Club access.

  • Two one-time Delta Sky Club guest passes.

  • Centurion Lounge access.

  • Cell phone protection.

  • 20% back on in-flight purchases.

  • Pay with Miles.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

Terms apply.

Card options vary in benefits, rewards earning rates and annual fees. Whether you’re a casual Delta flyer or a seasoned traveler, there’s a card for your needs. The higher the fee, the more benefits you get to enjoy as a cardholder.

Delta is also a transfer partner of the American Express Membership Rewards program. You can transfer AmEx points to SkyMiles at a ratio of 1:1 to top off your balance.

United credit cards

United partners with Chase for its co-branded credit cards for both casual and frequent flyers.

United Gateway℠ Card (Annual fee: $0)

Welcome bonus: Earn up to 15,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus, an additional 15,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in the first 6 months.

Earning rates: 

  • 2 miles per $1 spent on United purchases, gas, local transit and commuting.

  • 1 mile per $1 on all other purchases.

Other benefits:

  • 25% back on in-flight purchases.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

United℠ Explorer Card (Annual fee: $0 intro for the first year, then $95)

Welcome bonus: Earn 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus, an additional 10,000 bonus miles after you spend $6,000 in the first 6 months

Earning rates:

  • 2 miles per $1 on United purchases, dining and hotel rooms.

  • 1 mile per $1 on all other purchases.

Other benefits:

  • First checked bag free for up to two passengers.

  • Priority boarding.

  • Two one-time United Club passes per year.

  • Global Entry / TSA PreCheck enrollment fee credit.

  • Earn PQPs with eligible spend.

  • 25% back on in-flight purchases.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

New United Quest℠ Card (Annual fee: $250)

Welcome bonus: Earn 80,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus, an additional 20,000 bonus miles after you spend $10,000 in the first 6 months.

Earning rates:

  • 3 miles per $1 spent on United purchases.

  • 2 miles per $1 spent on dining, travel and select streaming services.

  • 1 mile per $1 on all other purchases.

Other benefits:

  • First and second checked bag free for up to two passengers.

  • Priority boarding.

  • $125 annual United credit.

  • Two 5,000-mile award flight credits per year.

  • Global Entry / TSA PreCheck enrollment fee credit.

  • 25% back on in-flight purchases.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

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

Welcome bonus: Earn 75,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.

Earning rates:

  • 4 miles per $1 spent on United purchases.

  • 2 miles per $1 spent on dining and travel.

  • 1 mile per $1 on all other purchases.

Other benefits:

  • First and second checked bag free for up to two passengers.

  • Priority boarding.

  • Premier Access at the airport.

  • Global Entry / TSA PreCheck enrollment fee credit.

  • Earn PQPs with eligible spend.

  • United Club membership.

  • Hertz Gold Plus Rewards.

  • President’s Circle membership.

  • 25% back on in-flight purchases.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

You can also get your hands on United miles by transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards® to MileagePlus at a ratio of 1:1.

Winner for most valuable airline credit card: Tie

Delta and United both offer credit cards with perks like free checked bags, although Delta AmEx cards include baggage for up to nine travelers booked on the same reservation, whereas United limits the perk to two passengers. Terms apply.

Both also offer premium cards with airport lounge membership, but Delta has a slight edge in this regard because its premium card offers access to the Centurion Lounges as well. Terms apply.

For a casual traveler, the United℠ Explorer Card is slightly better than the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card because it comes with two one-time United Club passes and a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck enrollment fee statement credit. For the Delta card, you have to earn the $100 statement credit benefit by spending $10,000 on the card. Terms apply.

Overall, both airlines’ card offerings are similar enough to call it a tie in this department. Your pick in the Delta versus United credit card battle largely comes down to which carrier you fly more often and whose credit card perks you’re likely to use.

Airline loyalty programs

Delta loyalty program

You earn Delta SkyMiles based on the cost of your ticket before taxes and fees — not the distance you travel (at least on Delta-marketed flights).

The number of SkyMiles you earn per dollar is based on your membership level in the loyalty program.

Elite status level

SkyMiles you earn

General member.

5 miles per $1.

Silver Medallion.

7 miles per $1.

Gold Medallion.

8 miles per $1.

Platinum Medallion.

9 miles per $1.

Diamond Medallion.

11 miles per $1.

When you fly other SkyTeam carriers or Delta partners and credit your flight to Delta SkyMiles, you earn miles based on a percentage of distance flown based on the ticket’s fare class.

Unfortunately, Delta no longer publishes award charts, and instead charges for mileage flights based on demand. In other words, you can’t always get an outsized value for your SkyMiles when mileage rates for a ticket more or less correlate with its cash rates.

A good way to redeem Delta SkyMiles is by booking one of the occasional SkyMiles Deals. These limited-time sales on award flights can get you to your destination for as few as 5,000 SkyMiles each way. Not all redemption rates will be as low, but it’s a good place to start looking for your next vacation destination.

United loyalty program

When you compare Delta and United Airlines, you’ll see that their flight rewards earnings are identical. United MileagePlus program members earn redeemable miles based on their elite level and how much they spend with the airline.

Star Alliance and other partner tickets earn redeemable miles calculated by a percentage of the total distance flown and the fare class in which you booked your ticket.

Here's how the miles earning potential for United flights works out:

Elite status level

MileagePlus miles you earn

General member.

5 miles per $1.

Premier Silver.

7 miles per $1.

Premier Gold.

8 miles per $1.

Premier Platinum.

9 miles per $1.

Premier 1K.

11 miles per $1.

Based on NerdWallet’s recent valuations, United miles are worth 1 cent apiece.

One of the best ways to get extra value out of your United MileagePlus miles is by booking a multi-city round-trip ticket that includes a free stopover, also known as the Excursionist Perk. By utilizing this strategy, you can book a one-way flight to an extra city within your round-trip itinerary without redeeming extra miles.

Winner for ease of miles: United

United’s long list of partner airlines means that your miles can get you more flights to more destinations than Delta’s partnerships can deliver.

Extra fees

Airline fees may not be fair, but understanding what costs may get added to your flight price can help you book the right ticket from the get-go.

Delta

Here are the extra fees you might get dinged for when flying on Delta:

  • Checked baggage: $30 for the first bag, $40 for the second bag.

  • Seat selection (on basic economy fares): Varies.

  • Change fee for domestic flights and international flights originating in the U.S.: $0 (excluding basic economy fares).

United

Here are the fees you could incur with United:

  • Checked baggage: $30 for the first bag (prepaid) or $35 at the airport; $40 for the second bag (prepaid) or $45 at the airport.

  • Carry-on luggage: $25 on most basic economy fares.

  • Seat selection (on basic economy fares): Varies.

  • Change fee for domestic flights and international flights originating in the U.S.: $0 (excluding basic economy fares).

Winner for lowest fees: Delta

When it comes to fees, which is better: Delta or United? Although the margins are slim, Delta wins this round with its lower checked baggage fees and the lack of carry-on fee for its basic economy tickets. Plus, its checked baggage fees are the same whether you pay for a bag at check-in or at the airport. United, on the other hand, charges a bit more for deciding to check luggage at the bag drop-off point.

Basic economy fares

Delta

Delta offers a basic economy ticket, and here’s what these flyers can look forward to:

  • Carry-on luggage: Permitted at no cost (9 inches by 14 inches by 22 inches).

  • Checked baggage: Must pay, even on transatlantic flights.

  • Personal item on board: Permitted (9 inches by 10 inches by 17 inches).

  • Seat selection: Permitted at no cost at check-in (when available).

  • Boarding group: Last (unless you’re an elite member or have a co-branded Delta credit card).

  • Elite status qualification: Yes.

  • Upgrades: None.

  • Flight changes / refunds: Not allowed more than 24 hours after booking.

United

If you want to fly on the most bare-bones ticket that United offers, be prepared for the following.

  • Carry-on luggage: Permitted for a $25 fee for MileagePlus members. Nonmembers are not allowed a full-sized carry-on bag — if you try to take one aboard, prepare to pay the applicable checked bag fee and a $25 gate-handling charge.

  • Checked baggage: Must pay, even on transatlantic flights.

  • Personal item onboard: Permitted (9 inches by 10 inches by 17 inches).

  • Seat selection: Available for a fee.

  • Boarding group: Last (unless you’re an elite member or a co-branded United cardmember).

  • Elite status qualification: No Premier qualifying flights.

  • Upgrades: Can pay for Economy Plus at check-in only.

  • Flight changes / refunds: Not allowed more than 24 hours after booking unless you switch the ticket to economy.

Winner of basic economy tickets: Delta

When pitting Delta versus United, it’s important to compare their basic economy fare policies and decide whether saving a few bucks is worth it.

As you can see, the restrictions are quite similar on both airlines. One key difference that swings the balance in Delta’s favor is the option to carry a bag onboard at no cost when flying basic economy. United charges even for carry-on bags when you buy a basic economy ticket, which makes this a worse option when all other things are equal.

If you’re choosing between Delta and United

In the competition of Delta versus United, there isn’t a clear winner. Delta charges less baggage fees and makes basic economy more tolerable for a frugal traveler. United, on other hand, has a stronger loyalty program and a stronger presence when it comes to global connections.

Beyond this comparison of Delta and United Airlines, look at which airline serves your home airport as well as the routes you want to fly and make your final decision based on that.

To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card, see this page. To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card, see this page. To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card, see this page. To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card, see this page.


How to Maximize Your Rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for:

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