Delta vs. United vs. American

Delta and United beat out American in several critical areas of service and experience.
JT GenterDec 1, 2021

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When booking a flight, U.S. travelers can often take their pick from three major legacy airlines: Delta, United and American. But in the battle of Delta, United or American, which airline is best?

To choose, consider five factors: where each flies, their credit card offerings, their loyalty programs, overall fees and the in-flight experience. Here’s a closer look at how these three airlines compare.

Where they're based and where they fly

Winner for accessibility: United

United offers the most destinations, the most international destinations and the most countries of these three airlines.

Delta, United and American each operate flights to hundreds of domestic destinations and international flights to dozens of countries. So the right airline for you will likely depend on your proximity to a hub. Except for the major markets of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, each airline focuses its hubs in different cities.

Delta

As the old saying goes, "Whether you go to heaven or hell, you have to change planes in Atlanta." Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines operates a network of nearly 300 destinations in over 50 countries across six continents.

Delta's U.S. hubs and key markets include:

  • Atlanta.

  • Boston.

  • Detroit.

  • Los Angeles.

  • Minneapolis-St. Paul.

  • New York-John F. Kennedy.

  • New York-LaGuardia.

  • Salt Lake City.

  • Seattle.

United

Chicago-based United Airlines flies to nearly 250 domestic destinations, while its roughly 130 international destinations across 69 countries cover Europe, Asia, Oceania, India, South America and parts of Africa.

United's airport hubs can be found in:

  • Chicago-O'Hare.

  • Denver.

  • Guam.

  • Houston-Intercontinental.

  • Los Angeles.

  • Newark.

  • San Francisco.

  • Washington-Dulles.

American

American Airlines bases its operations in Dallas-Fort Worth and flies to over 350 destinations across 60-plus countries on five continents. American focuses on flights to the Caribbean, Europe, South America and connecting its Oneworld partners to destinations in Asia and Oceania.

American Airlines' hubs are found in:

  • Charlotte.

  • Chicago.

  • Dallas-Fort Worth.

  • Los Angeles.

  • Miami.

  • New York-JFK.

  • New York-LaGuardia.

  • Philadelphia.

  • Phoenix.

  • Washington-National.

Travel credit card availability

Winner for airline credit card: Delta

NerdWallet thinks a lot about the question of which airline offers the best credit card. Our roundup of the top airline credit cards on the market includes four Delta Air Lines credit cards and one United card — making Delta the clear winner if you’re considering a travel credit card that’s co-branded with a specific airline.

Delta, United and American each offer a wide range of consumer and small business credit cards. Each has a no-annual-fee card, a midtier card with a few perks — like free checked bags — and a premium card that includes lounge access. Here are the details for each.

Delta

Delta offers four consumer and three small-business credit cards — all of which are issued by AmEx. Annual fees range between $0 and $550 and perks range from earning 2x miles on restaurants up to Delta Sky Club access. Terms apply.

  • Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card ($0 annual fee). Earn 10,000 bonus miles after you spend $500 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Terms Apply.

  • Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card ($0 intro for the first year, then $99 annual fee). Earn 40,000 Bonus Miles after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Plus, earn up to $50 back in statement credits for eligible purchases at U.S. restaurants with your card within the first 3 months of membership. Terms Apply.

  • Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card ($250 annual fee). Earn 50,000 Bonus Miles and 5,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $2,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Plus, earn up to $100 back in statement credits for eligible purchases at U.S. restaurants with your card within the first 3 months of membership. Terms Apply.

  • Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card ($550 annual fee). Earn 50,000 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. Plus, earn up to $100 back in statement credits for eligible purchases at U.S. restaurants with your card within the first 3 months of membership. Terms Apply.

  • Delta SkyMiles® Gold Business American Express Card (​​$0 intro for the first year, then $99). Earn 50,000 bonus miles and a $50 statement credit after spending $2,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Terms Apply.

  • Delta SkyMiles® Platinum Business American Express Card ($250 annual fee). Earn 60,000 bonus miles, 5,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs), and a $100 statement credit after spending $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Terms Apply.

  • Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card ($550 annual fee). Earn 60,000 bonus miles, 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs), and a $100 statement credit after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Terms Apply.

United

United offers four personal credit cards and two business credit cards through Chase.

  • United Gateway℠ Card ($0 annual fee). Earn 20,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

  • United℠ Explorer Card ($0 intro for the first year, then $95). Earn 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

  • United Quest℠ Card ($250 annual fee). Earn 80,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

  • United Club℠ Infinite Card ($525 annual fee). Earn 100,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open..

  • United℠ Business Card ($0 intro for the first year, then $99). Earn 75,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

  • United Club℠ Business Card ($450 annual fee). Earn 75,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

American

American Airlines offers four AAdvantage credit cards through Citi and one AAdvantage Aviator credit card through Barclays. Annual fees range from $0 to $450 and perks vary from earning 2x points on groceries to a full Admirals Club membership.

Airline loyalty programs

Winner for ease of earning and redeeming miles: American

The overall value of American Airlines’ miles has the edge on United. What’s more, the airline still uses an award chart, and you can easily redeem airline miles for award flights with American and its partners online.

On Delta, United and American, you'll earn miles based on the dollars you spend on airfare. But when it’s time to redeem those miles, the three carriers differ slightly.

Delta SkyMiles

General Delta SkyMiles members earn five SkyMiles per dollar spent on airfare. You'll earn even more miles if you have Delta Medallion elite status, up to a total of 11 miles per dollar. Delta doesn't offer as many opportunities to earn miles flying partner airlines, but there are still 16 ways to earn SkyMiles.

Delta award flight prices vary based on demand, costing anywhere from 2,000 miles to hundreds of thousands of miles. When you redeem SkyMiles to fly one of Delta’s partner airlines, the price is based on an unpublished award chart. Those prices usually increase within 60 days of departure.

NerdWallet analysis finds that Delta SkyMiles are worth 1.3 cents per mile for economy class flights or 1.5 cents in business class.

United MileagePlus

United MileagePlus members earn a base of five miles per dollar spent on airfare. Premier elite members earn an elite bonus of between two and six bonus miles, for a maximum of 11 miles per dollar spent. However, there are plenty of other ways to earn United miles.

Members can redeem miles on United or any of its dozens of Star Alliance partners. United miles are worth just 1 cent each in economy or 2.4 cents per mile in business class.

American AAdvantage

AAdvantage members earn five miles per eligible dollar spent on airfare, with elite members getting up to 11 miles per dollar spent. But we've discovered a total of 34 ways to earn AAdvantage miles.

You can redeem AAdvantage miles to over 1,000 destinations, and you can redeem miles on most partner airlines right on AA's website. Unlike Delta and United, American publishes an award chart showing how many AAdvantage miles you need for an award flight on American or any of its dozens of partner airlines. American miles are worth around 1.2 cents each for economy class flights and 2.5 cents for business class.

Extra fees

Winner for lowest fees: United

Nowadays, the airfare that you pay — or the miles you redeem — is usually just part of the cost of your trip. Fees will likely increase the total cost.

NerdWallet did a deep-dive investigation of all of the major carriers and their fees. All three carriers are in the middle of the pack, neither charging the lowest nor the highest fees. United charges an average of $4 less than Delta and $8 less than American in extra fees. Budget travelers, beware: United is alone among the three in terms of charging basic economy passengers for bringing carry-on bags onto the aircraft.

Delta

  • Checked bag fees: For domestic flights, Delta charges $30 for the first checked bag. Travelers with an eligible credit card or elite status may be able to avoid this charge.

  • Seat assignment fees: On basic economy tickets, you'll need to pay a seat assignment fee to avoid getting a randomly assigned seat at check-in. All other fares allow free seat selection.

  • Change fees: Delta has eliminated change fees for trips originating in North America and the Caribbean. However, basic economy fares purchased after Dec. 31, 2021, are nonchangeable.

United

  • Checked bag fees: United doesn't publish baggage fees. Instead, you need to use United's checked bag calculator to see how much you'll pay. Checked bags for domestic flights currently start at $30 prepaid or $35 if you pay within 24 hours of departure.

  • Carry-on bag fees: United stands alone among the three airlines in not allowing basic economy passengers to bring a carry-on bag. If you book a basic economy fare, you'll need to check any full-size carry-on bags — unless you can use elite status or a credit card to board early. If you get caught at the gate trying to board with a full-size carry-on bag, you'll need to pay the checked bag fee plus an extra $25 "gate handling charge."

  • Seat assignment fees: United basic economy passengers need to pay to select or change their seat. All other fare types come with free seat selection.

  • Change fees: On United, you won't pay a fee to change or cancel flights within the U.S., Mexico or Caribbean or on other international itineraries originating in the U.S. However, basic economy fares are nonchangeable for flights after Dec. 31, 2021.

American

  • Checked bag fees: American publishes a complicated grid of checked bag fees. You'll pay $30 for a first checked bag on domestic routes — unless you have elite status or an eligible credit card.

  • Seat assignment fees: All American fares come with free seat selection except basic economy. Travelers flying basic economy can pay a fee to select a seat anytime after booking.

  • Change fees: Like United and Delta, American has generally eliminated change fees for all fare types except basic economy. You can change your flight fee-free as long as you're flying within North America or on overseas trips originating in North America or South America.

In-flight experience

Winner of the sky: Delta

Besides offering recently updated and comfortable cabins, Delta outranks United and American in our analysis of the best in-flight entertainment offerings.

Delta

Delta owns many aircraft that are more than 20 years old, but you probably couldn't tell by looking at the cabin. Delta has retrofitted many of its older planes with new seats and in-flight entertainment screens. On international flights in economy, Delta has introduced premium meals, hot towel service and alcoholic drinks like Bellinis.

United

United announced in June 2021 that it would install seatback entertainment, additional premium seats, larger overhead bins and high-speed Wi-Fi. However, you may have to wait a few years to see these onboard improvements.

American

American is taking a lower-cost strategy with its in-flight product. American has tightened seat pitch and removed in-flight entertainment screens from almost all of its domestic fleet. The upside of these "Project Oasis" retrofits: bigger overhead bins, power outlets at every seat and high-speed Wi-Fi (for a fee).

If you’re trying to choose between Delta, United and American

Delta and United tie with two apiece of these five categories, making the overall winner of the major U.S. airlines hard to pinpoint. Delta excels in providing a consistently good onboard experience, understandable fees and an extensive range of credit cards that provide a good fit for every type of traveler. United, however, offers travelers more destinations and charges the lowest fees (by $4 on average). You can take an even closer look at these two popular airlines in our study of Delta versus United.

In NerdWallet's analysis, SkyMiles are the highest valued of the three programs — but only for economy fares. If you're looking to fly business or first, SkyMiles won't stretch nearly as far as AAdvantage or MileagePlus miles.

The right airline for you depends on your specific situation. Delta, American or United may be a better fit if you're located in — or frequently travel to — one of their hubs.

The information related to the CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Mastercard® and United Club℠ Business Card has been collected by NerdWallet and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer or provider of this product or service.


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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