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.
June Casagrande
By June Casagrande 
Edited by June Casagrande

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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 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

  • Annual fee: $0.

  • Earn 30,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

  • 2 miles per dollar for United purchases, gas and transit, 1x miles on other purchases.

  • 25% back as a statement credit on purchases of food, beverages and Wi-Fi on board United-operated flights.

  • One year of complimentary DashPass once activated.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

United℠ Explorer Card

  • Annual fee: $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.

  • 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.

  • One year of complimentary DashPass once activated.

United Quest℠ Card

  • Annual fee: $250.

  • Welcome bonus: Earn 70,000 bonus miles and 500 Premier qualifying points 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.

  • One year of complimentary DashPass once activated.

United Club℠ Infinite Card

  • Annual fee: $525.

  • Welcome bonus: Earn 90,000 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.

  • One year of complimentary DashPass once activated.

  • $100 Global Entry, TSA PreCheck or NEXUS credit.

  • 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®

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®

  • Annual fee: $595.

  • Earn 70,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after spending $7,000 within the first 3 months of account opening.

  • 4x miles on American Airlines purchases, 10x miles on eligible car rentals and hotels booked through American Airlines, 1x on other purchases.

  • One free checked bag for you and up to eight companions on the same reservation.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

  • Priority boarding and priority check-in where available.

  • Membership in the Admirals Club lounge network (up to $850 value).

  • Earn 1 Loyalty Point per 1 eligible mile.

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. 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: American

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 are more valuable than those earned with United MileagePlus, with United MileagePlus miles valued at about 1.2 cents a piece and AAdvantage miles valued at 1.7 cents a piece.

A few other 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 (note that you'll get an additional 10,000 bonus miles when you transfer in blocks of 60,000 points). 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.

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, but 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: American

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.

In our recent analysis of airline add-on fees, we found that United ranks toward the bottom of the pack among major domestic carriers when it comes to overall fees. United flyers can expect to pay an average of $35 in add-on fees for a typical one-way fare including checked bag, overhead carry-on bag and seat selection.

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).

Absent these add-ons, though, we found that American ekes out a win over United when it comes to fees. According to our analysis, a typical one-way fare on American averages $30 in add-on fees.

In-flight experience

Winner of the sky: 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.

Pet policies

Winner for pet-friendliness: American

Traveling with a pet is going to be challenging and expensive regardless of which airline you're flying. But if traveling with your furry friend is a must, American is going to deliver a more pet-friendly experience.

United Airlines' pet policies

United charges $125 each way to travel with a pet and an additional $125 for every stopover of more than four hours within the United States.

While you can travel with two pets regardless of age, you must purchase a second ticket to do so. United only allows cats and dogs on board flights.

American Airlines' pet policies

American charges a flat rate of $125 per ticket to travel with a pet. You'll be restricted to two pets, which is pretty standard among domestic carriers, per our recent analysis of the most pet-friendly airlines.

Like United, Delta only permits passengers to travel with cats and dogs.

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

In the competition of United Airlines versus American Airlines, we'll take American this time around. In fact, American outranked United on most metrics in our 2023 Best-Of Awards analysis of major domestic carriers.

But United has a few things going for it, including its credit card perks, more legroom in economy plus and the luxurious Polaris class. Ultimately, though, 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 2023, including those best for:

Travel Cards from Our Partners
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See more travel cards
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