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U.S.-based flyers have many carriers to select from for their flights, including Delta Air Lines, Alaska Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines. Considering flyers have so many options, we analyzed whether United is a good airline compared with other domestic carriers.
Here’s what NerdWallet found based on several factors, including United's loyalty program, its overall boarding and in-flight experience, and its reliability.
MileagePlus, United's loyalty program
NerdWallet analyzed the best airline loyalty programs for 2021, and the results may have been disappointing for fans of United Airlines. Compared with eight other airlines, United's MileagePlus program ranked sixth for both the best airline rewards program overall and the best airline rewards program for frequent travelers. This ranking isn’t surprising given that last year, United eliminated partner award charts and increased the number of miles needed for partner award redemptions.
Comparatively, Alaska Airlines ranked first and JetBlue ranked third in both of the aforementioned categories. Frontier is the only airline that scored worse than United. However, United does offer its entry-level Silver elites the ability to bring a 70 pound checked bag for free, which is a big plus if you're an overpacker. Only Delta offers its entry-level elites that same perk, while American Airlines caps that baggage limit at 50 pounds.
That said, beyond MileagePlus, there are several other factors to consider when flying United.
» Learn more: What the United Airlines MileagePlus program gets right
What is United Airlines like?
Your experience on United may change depending on the class of service, the destination you're flying to and other factors, like flight crew and passenger load. We’ve highlighted a few points that should give you a better idea of what United Airlines is like:
Making reservations. Making reservations on United is relatively easy and can be done online, on its app, on a third-party site (like Expedia or Kayak), by calling its reservation line, or even in person at the airport. In the U.S. and Canada, United charges a $25 service fee when booking by phone and charges even more in person, so you should try to book online when possible. In other countries, charges vary.
Check-in. Online check-in is available for eligible flyers starting 24 hours before departure, and it’s easy to do so using United’s website or app. You can also check in at the airport in person.
Boarding. When it comes time to board your United flight, you’ll be placed in one of five boarding groups. These groups are based on your status level with the airline or Star Alliance, your cabin level, or if you hold a United credit card, such as the United℠ Explorer Card or the United Club℠ Infinite Card. Preboarding may also be available for families traveling with a child 2 years or younger, those who need extra time due to a disability, active military members, minors traveling alone, and United Global Services or Premier 1K members.
In-flight experience. Your in-flight experience on United can vary widely depending on the cabin you’ve booked and the plane you’re flying on. For instance, if you’re flying United’s Polaris business class, you can expect direct aisle access from all seats, a lie-flat seat, a large screen to watch in-flight entertainment and sometimes even a sundae cart. In other cabins, you may be able to access in-flight entertainment only on your personal cell phone or tablet, and space may be more limited. Because of this, we recommend researching the plane you’ll be flying in and the in-flight experience offered in your cabin before booking.
Loyalty program. As previously mentioned, United’s loyalty program, United MileagePlus, isn’t stellar when compared with most other domestic airlines. That said, you can sometimes use your MileagePlus miles for some great partner premium airline redemptions (for example, 75,000 miles from San Francisco to Zurich on Swiss Airlines business class).
» Learn more: The best airline credit cards right now
Other factors to consider
In an AirlineRatings.com 2021 analysis of the safest airlines in the world, United ranked among the top 20 airlines out of 385 carriers. The analysis took into account factors such as fleet age and serious incident history. United, along with all of the top 20 airlines, stood out for excellence in innovation and safety.
» Learn more: Delta vs. United Airlines: Which is best for you?
Out of nine U.S.-based carriers, United ranked eighth for on-time performance, according to a 2020 analysis by OAG, a provider of air travel data. United departed or arrived within 15 minutes of its scheduled times only 76% of the time.
When it comes to lost baggage, United ranks in the middle of the pack. A report from LuggageHero that analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Transportation found that United was the 7th worst carrier for lost baggage in 2020 out of 16 U.S.-based airlines.
Based on these metrics, United may not be one of the most reliable airlines in the U.S.
» Learn more: United vs. American Airlines
Based on the 2021 J.D. Power North America Airline Satisfaction Study, United ranked 6 out of 7 North American airlines. The study looks at eight factors, including baggage, boarding, cost and fees, and in-flight services.
United scored 810 points in the study (out of 1,000); for comparison, Delta Air Lines ranked first, with 860 points and Air Canada ranked last, with 759 points. The industry average was 820 points.
Unique perks of flying United
A great perk of flying United is that it’s a member of the Star Alliance, which means you can earn and redeem award miles on some other well-known airlines, including Air New Zealand, Lufthansa, Swiss Air Lines and ANA.
Additionally, United occasionally offers MileagePlus members the chance to take part in its Mile Play promotion. With Mile Play, you can earn additional miles for taking a certain number of flights in a set period of time (for instance, I was offered 21,000 bonus miles for taking four flights worth $300 or more within a period of a few months).
» Learn more: How to earn bonus miles with airline promotions
Who should avoid United Airlines?
Although there are benefits to flying United Airlines, some travelers may want to avoid it, such as:
Travelers who don't live near a hub. United Airlines currently has eight hubs in the U.S. — in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Denver, Guam, Newark and Washington, D.C. Since flights generally operate through its hubs, the majority of U.S.-based United flights originate, end or pass through one of these locations. If you don’t live near a hub, you may want to try an airline with more flights to and from your city.
Travelers who want to earn loyalty status based on the miles they fly (instead of the cash they spend). Obtaining status on United Airlines is generally done by earning enough Premier qualifying points. With United, PQP is based on the amount of money you spend on items such as base fares, carrier-imposed fuel charges and preferred seat purchases rather than the distance of miles you fly. As a result, if you’re looking to earn status based solely on flight mileage, you may prefer a different airline.
If you’re considering flying United Airlines …
If you’re deciding between flying United Airlines or another carrier, we recommend researching the in-flight experience offered on the plane you’ll be flying in and the class of service. Also, consider customer satisfaction and reliability studies to set realistic expectations ahead of travel.
If you do choose United, be sure to sign up for the MileagePlus program before your flight to ensure you receive award miles and credit, even if you’re not aiming for status.
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 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card