United vs. American Airlines: Which Is Best for You?

When these full-service domestic carriers go head-to-head, one's credit card perks and business class win out.
Apr 6, 2022

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No matter where you plan to fly next, there’s a good chance United Airlines or American Airlines can take you there. These two massive carriers are fierce competitors, especially for U.S. travelers, which means fares for your next destination are often competitive (and could be nearly identical).

So when the price is the same, how do you choose between these two airlines? The answer ultimately depends on your personal circumstances and what you value most in a flight experience. Here’s a side-by-side look at American versus United so you can decide.

Where they’re based and where they fly

Winner for flight options: American for domestic travel, United for international

When you’re choosing an airline — especially as you’re considering one to earn miles or elite status with — your home airport may be the most important consideration. If you live in Houston, for example, you’ll probably find more low-priced flights on United, which has a hub there.

But if you live in Dallas, American probably has more to offer.

🤓Nerdy Tip

When assessing an airline's broader footprint relative to your home airport, take into account the number of cities you can reach with a given airline and where you can travel on its partner airlines.

Let's look closer at where these two airlines fly.

United Airlines' destinations

United operates 4,500 flights every day to 300 cities on five continents, including 200 U.S. cities. United’s U.S. hubs are:

  • Chicago-O’Hare.

  • Denver.

  • Guam.

  • Houston.

  • Los Angeles.

  • Newark.

  • San Francisco.

  • Washington-Dulles.

United has partnerships with about three dozen airlines, including nearly two dozen in the Star Alliance. Notable partners include Air Canada, All Nippon Airways, Hawaiian Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa, Singapore, Swiss and Thai Airways. If you collect United MileagePlus miles, you can redeem them on several partners that can take you pretty much anywhere you want to go.

American Airlines' destinations

American, along with partner American Eagle, operates 6,700 daily flights to 50 countries reaching a total of 350 destinations. American Airlines hubs include:

  • Charlotte.

  • Chicago-O’Hare.

  • Dallas-Fort Worth.

  • Los Angeles.

  • Miami.

  • New York-JFK.

  • New York-LaGuardia.

  • Philadelphia.

  • Phoenix.

  • Washington-National.

American partners with about two dozen airlines (about a dozen less than United). Their partner list includes 14 airlines in the Oneworld alliance. Notable partners include Air Tahiti Nui, Alaska Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Hawaiian Airlines, Japan Airlines, JetBlue and Qantas.

So if you’re a member of American’s loyalty program, AAdvantage, you can use your miles to book flights on these partners. But there’s a dark spot on this partner list: British Airways is notorious for having some of the highest fees and taxes when you redeem partner miles for a flight — especially in business or first class.

For example, a recent search for a Los Angeles-to-London flight on British Airways paid for with American Airlines AAdvantage miles showed out-of-pocket costs up to $1,096 on top of the AAdvantage miles redeemed.

AAdvantage members heading to destinations served by British Airways can often choose flights on American, where a Los Angeles-to-London business class flight might come with $340 in fees instead of $1,096. So you’ll have an alternative to British Airways’ budget-busting fees if the flights operated by American work for you, but you may pay more AAdvantage miles for the flight. This can make a big difference in considering American versus United Airlines.

Travel credit card availability

Winner for best airline credit card: United

Knowing your priority airline credit card perks could help you pick which airline to give your loyalty to. Example benefits include free checked bags, discounted award flight rates, additional award flight access or no foreign transaction fees. Whether or not you're comfortable paying an annual fee might come into the equation, too.

Understanding these "must-haves" can help you decide whether an American or United co-branded credit card is best for you.

United MileagePlus credit cards

You can choose between four United Airlines consumer credit cards, from the entry-level United Gateway℠ Card to the high-end United Club℠ Infinite Card, which gets you into airport lounges when you fly.

Here's an overview of those options.

United Gateway℠ Card

United℠ Explorer Card

  • Annual fee: $0 intro for the first year, then $95.

  • Earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

  • 2 miles per dollar for United purchases, dining and hotels; 1x miles on other purchases.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

  • One free checked bag.

  • Priority boarding.

  • No United flights are off-limits for booking with miles.

United Quest℠ Card

  • Annual fee: $250.

  • Welcome bonus: Earn 70,000 bonus miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

  • 3x miles on United purchases; 2x miles on travel, dining and streaming services; 1x mile on other purchases.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

  • Two free checked bags.

  • Two 5,000-mile anniversary award flight credits.

  • No United flights are off limits for booking with miles.

United Club℠ Infinite Card

  • Annual fee: $525.

  • Welcome bonus: Earn 80,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.

  • Membership to United Club network of airport lounges ($650 value).

  • 4x miles on United purchases, 2x miles on other travel and dining, 1x miles on other purchases.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

  • Two free checked bags.

  • Priority boarding and priority check-in where available.

  • No United flights are off limits for booking with miles.

American Airlines AAdvantage credit cards

Citi offers three AAdvantage consumer credit cards and Barclays Bank offers four. Your choices run the gamut from a $0-annual-fee card that will actually pay you a $50 statement credit for signing up to a luxury card that gets you membership to American’s network of airport lounges.

American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp℠ Card

AAdvantage® Aviator® Silver Mastercard®

  • Annual fee: $199.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

  • 3x miles on American Airlines purchases, 2x on hotels and car rentals, 1x on other purchases.

  • Earn two $99 companion tickets by charging $20,000 in a calendar year.

  • Earn up to 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles and $3,000 in Elite Qualifying Dollars by meeting minimum spends.

  • Up to $50 in anniversary Wi-Fi credits.

  • Up to $25 food and beverage credit on every flight.

Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®

Both airlines offer good credit cards for every budget. But United edges out American when you factor in United’s expanded award availability for credit card customers. American’s reduced mileage perk gets certain cardholders up to 7,500 miles off on a rotating list of discounted destinations, which usually don’t include high-demand routes, like Hawaii (plus, American is removing this benefit in October 2021). But with higher-end United cards, the ability to book any United flight with miles makes it easier to get to dream destinations.

Airline loyalty programs

Winner for loyalty program: Tie

Both United and American offer lots of ways to earn miles. When you fly the airline, the number of miles you earn in either program is based on the ticket price, usually starting at 5 miles earned per dollar spent for both airlines. Elite members in both programs earn a higher number of miles per dollar spent and different fare types can affect the mileage earning rate, too.

Both programs also let you earn miles flying partner airlines, spending on credit cards, shopping online and booking hotels or rental cars with companies that partner with the airlines.

NerdWallet estimates that the miles you earn with American AAdvantage and United MileagePlus have similar values, with United MileagePlus miles at about 1 cent a piece and AAdvantage miles slightly better at 1.2 cents a piece.

But a few things set the two programs apart.

United MileagePlus loyalty program

United flights booked with MileagePlus miles can be pricey. For example, a recent search showed flights from Los Angeles to Chicago in late August for 15,000 United miles nonstop each way in economy. The same route with one stop costs 12,500 United miles.

But if you’re paying with American AAdvantage miles, fares from the Los Angeles area to Chicago start at just 6,000 miles.

If you have a credit card that pays Chase Ultimate Rewards® points, you can convert them at a 1:1 ratio to United MileagePlus miles. Marriott Bonvoy points also convert to United miles, but at a lower rate of 3:1.1. Points transfers make it easier to combine points from multiple accounts or household members to book an award.

United MileagePlus miles never expire.

American Airlines AAdvantage loyalty program

Chase points don’t transfer to AAdvantage miles. Neither do Citi ThankYou points, American Express Membership Rewards points or Capital One miles. That can make it harder to gather enough miles for a flight. Marriott Bonvoy points transfer to AAdvantage at just a 3:1 ratio.

But while it can be harder to get AAdvantage miles, you can find better deals redeeming them for flights on American, as the Los Angeles-to-Chicago example above illustrates.

American miles expire after 18 months of inactivity. You can keep them from expiring with almost any account activity, including earning miles by making a small purchase through the AAdvantage eShopping mall.

Extra fees

Winner for lowest average fees: United

United Airlines

The cost of checking your bag on a United flight can vary by itinerary, whether you pay in advance and other factors. The best way to be sure is to use the calculator on their website. In many cases, you can expect to pay $30 each way for your first bag when you pay in advance or $35 at the airport unless you’re an MileagePlus elite member or credit card holder who gets a checked bag for free.

Flyers can expect to pay an average of $6 per ticket to select a seat ahead of travel.

American Airlines

American makes it easy to know how much you’ll pay for a checked bag, with prices listed right on its website. Check a bag on a domestic flight and you’ll pay $30, assuming you don’t have AAdvantage elite status or a credit card with checked bag perks.

This no-surprise fee approach extends to other add-ons, too, with American publishing clearly on its website how much you’ll pay for in-flight Wi-Fi (often $10), beer ($8) and 500-mile upgrades ($40).

However, American charges an average of nearly $15 more than United to select a seat. This gives it the edge according to our recent analysis of airline fees.

In-flight experience

Winner of the sky: Slight edge to American

United Airlines

Economy class seats on United can vary by plane, but most offer 31 inches of pitch — the distance from your seat back to the same spot on the seat in front of you. Economy Plus seats cost more, but get you more legroom in seats, ranging from 34 to 37 inches in pitch. Upper-class cabin seats vary by plane and by route, with United’s Polaris Business Class offering restaurant-quality dining and perks like Saks Fifth Avenue bedding on long-haul international flights.

After a deep analysis, we determined that United's basic economy tickets are some of the worst available of this ticket-type.

American Airlines

Most economy class seats on American have 31 inches of pitch, though some have 32. Pay more for Main Cabin Extra and you’ll get anywhere from 33 to 36 inches of pitch. Business and first class seating vary by route, but can include luxurious lie-flat seats with top-notch service on long-haul international flights.

American offered the best basic economy fare for passengers of the major carriers. What's more, the airline offers better onboard entertainment than its competitor.

If you’re choosing between American vs. United, choose United

In the competition of United Airlines versus American Airlines, we'll take United, especially if you avoid basic economy seats and live near a hub. Though its flight redemptions are overpriced, its credit card perks, more legroom in economy plus and luxurious Polaris class put it a (small) notch above American. However, your proximity to a hub airport may be enough to sway you to one over the other.


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 2022, including those best for:

partner programs

IHG® One Rewards
Get exclusive benefits and earn points faster
World of Hyatt
Enjoy free nights, member rates and more
Alaska Mileage Plan
Join Mileage Plan and Save $25 on your next flight
IHG® Rewards Program

IHG® One Rewards

Wherever you go, however you stay, IHG One Rewards offers rewards for every one.

on IHG One Rewards’ website

Highlights:
  1. Cheers to new tiers: New tiers allow members to earn points faster.
  2. Piling on the perks: New members benefits that enhance every stay
  3. Milestone Rewards: Allows members to choose their rewards.
  1. Cheers to new tiers: New tiers allow members to earn points faster.
  2. Piling on the perks: New members benefits that enhance every stay
  3. Milestone Rewards: Allows members to choose their rewards.

on IHG One Rewards’ website

World of Hyatt

World of Hyatt

With the World of Hyatt loyalty program, enjoy a world of rewards designed to revolve around you.

on Hyatt's website

Highlights:
  1. Earn points for things you already enjoy with Hyatt
  2. Use your points for free nights at more than 1,100 hotels around the world
  3. Three elite tiers to unlock exceptional benefits - room upgrades and more.
  1. Earn points for things you already enjoy with Hyatt
  2. Use your points for free nights at more than 1,100 hotels around the world
  3. Three elite tiers to unlock exceptional benefits - room upgrades and more.

on Hyatt's website

logo image

Alaska Mileage Plan

Mileage Plan is Alaska's loyalty program for anyone who loves to travel and is free to join!

on Alaska's website

Highlights:
  1. Join Mileage Plan and Save $25 on your next flight
  2. Our members earn 30% more miles on average than other airlines
  3. You earn based on how far you fly, not how much you spend
  1. Join Mileage Plan and Save $25 on your next flight
  2. Our members earn 30% more miles on average than other airlines
  3. You earn based on how far you fly, not how much you spend

on Alaska's website

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