United vs. Southwest: Which Is Best?

United leads with its global reach, rewards and reliability, but Southwest wins for lower fees.
Anya Kartashova
By Anya Kartashova 
Updated

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When searching for your next flight, you may find yourself deciding between United Airlines and Southwest Airlines — after all, both fly to many destinations across the U.S.

If that’s the case, this side-by-side comparison can help you make an informed choice next time you're in between the two airlines.

Where they’re based and where they fly

Winner for most destinations: United

Southwest’s lack of codeshare agreements with other airlines and its relatively small service coverage area make United a clear winner in this category.

Southwest

Southwest Airlines flies to more than 120 destinations, most of which are in the U.S. However, the airline does fly to a dozen countries outside the U.S. — mainly in the Caribbean and Central America.

Unfortunately, Southwest isn’t part of an alliance and has no partnerships with other airlines, so you’ll often have fewer options to reach certain destinations.

Southwest is also unique in that it doesn’t have hubs. Instead, it has focus cities where the carrier operates more flights.

  • Atlanta.

  • Baltimore-Washington.

  • Chicago-Midway.

  • Dallas-Love Field.

  • Denver.

  • Houston-Hobby.

  • Las Vegas.

  • Los Angeles.

  • Nashville.

  • Oakland.

  • Orlando.

  • Phoenix.

  • St. Louis.

United

United Airlines covers more than 340 destinations across five continents. The carrier is also part of Star Alliance, the world’s largest alliance that includes 26 carriers serving more than 1,200 airports.

  • Chicago-O’Hare.

  • Denver.

  • Guam.

  • Houston-Intercontinental.

  • Los Angeles.

  • Newark.

  • San Francisco.

  • Washington-Dulles.

  • Frankfurt, Germany.

  • London-Heathrow.

  • Sao Paulo.

  • Tokyo-Haneda. 

  • Tokyo-Narita.

Reliability

Winner for reliability: United

NerdWallet took a closer look at operational data for Southwest and United between July 2022 and July 2023. Our findings show United has a better track record regarding on-time performance and cancellation rates, but Southwest has fewer tarmac delays, which were almost nonexistent.

Southwest

Southwest’s on-time rate came in at 74.7%, meaning about 3 in 4 flights arrived on time. Its cancellation rate of 2.75% of all flights was also the highest of all U.S. carriers, even beating out low-cost carriers Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines. Note the airlines' historic holiday meltdown occurred during this data collection period.

Southwest came in toward the middle of the pack for mishandled bags — 0.56% of bags were lost or delayed during the time surveyed. When it comes to tarmac delays, Southwest had the lowest rate, at 0.06 per 10,000 flights.

United

United’s flights were more punctual than Southwest’s, with 78.89% of flights arriving on time. Its cancellation rate was also significantly lower at 1.73%.

However, for mishandled baggage, United lost or delayed bags at a rate of 0.68%, a number bested by Alaska Airlines and American Airlines. And when it comes to tarmac delays, 1.29 flights per 10,000 spent time sitting on the runway — a rate that was much higher than all other airlines surveyed.

Fees

Winner for lowest fees: Southwest

Southwest Airlines has a reputation for its minimal fee approach, and it charges nothing for things like checked bags and seat selection — conveniences you may have to pay extra for on United.

Southwest

Most travelers won’t have to pay baggage fees when flying on Southwest. The airline allows one free carry-on bag and two free checked bags with all tickets. If you need to check a third bag, it will cost $125 one-way per bag. Overweight checked bags (weighing 51 pounds or more) cost between $100 and $125, and oversized checked bags are $125 each.

If you’d like to take advantage of EarlyBird check-in, it’ll cost $15 to $25 each way. Upgrading your boarding group will cost $30 to $80 per segment, per customer.

Here are other common fees passengers may need to pay when flying on Southwest:

  • In-flight Wi-Fi: $8 per device, per flight (free for Business Select passengers).

  • Unaccompanied minor (ages 5 to 11): $100 per minor.

  • Pets: $125 per pet carrier each way ($35 for flights to and from Hawaii).

United

Like many major U.S. airlines, United charges extra fees for various services. Checked bag fees on United vary by itinerary and whether you pay for your bag in advance. You can use United’s checked baggage calculator to find fees for a specific flight.

For most United flights, a carry-on bag is included in the ticket price. In the economy cabin, you can expect to pay $40 for the first checked bag and $50 for a second bag. The cost is $5 less per bag if it was paid for in advance online at least 24 hours before departure. The first two checked bags are free for those in premium economy, business or first class.

United offers in-flight Wi-Fi at a cost. MileagePlus members pay $8 per flight segment and nonmembers pay $10 on domestic and short-haul international itineraries. Rates may be higher for long-haul international trips. Wi-Fi day passes are also available for flyers who want unlimited access for 24 hours.

The fee for unaccompanied minors ages 5 to 14 is $150 each way for one to two children, $300 for three to four children and $450 for five to six kids.

Pets cost $125 each way for animals that can travel in the cabin plus an additional $125 for layovers longer than four hours on domestic itineraries (more on international itineraries). Pets flying on fares purchased on or after April 26, 2024, will incur a fee of $150 each way.

Loyalty programs

Winner for the best loyalty program: United

Because United and its partners cover many more destinations than Southwest, its miles can take you almost anywhere in the world. Southwest’s loyalty program doesn’t provide the same opportunity, making MileagePlus a better option for those looking to travel overseas using rewards.

Southwest

Southwest’s Rapid Rewards loyalty program awards miles based on the type of fare purchased.

The airline offers passengers four types of fares: Wanna Get Away, Wanna Get Away Plus, Anytime and Business Select. The number of points earned per dollar ranges from 6 to 12.

Southwest fare type

Rapid Rewards points you earn

Wanna Get Away

6 points per $1 spent.

Wanna Get Away Plus

8 points per $1 spent.

Anytime

10 points per $1 spent.

Business Select

12 points per $1 spent.

On top of that, status holders earn a tier bonus on the earnings listed above.

Southwest status tier

Bonus points you earn

A-List.

25%.

A-List Preferred.

100%.

Based on NerdWallet valuations, Southwest Rapid Rewards points are worth 1.5 cents apiece.

However, just because Southwest Rapid Rewards points have a higher valuation than MileagePlus miles at 1.2 cents, doesn’t make Rapid Rewards a better program. We also look at the number of partners and how many flight options a program provides.

With United’s number of global destinations and the overall reach of the Star Alliance network, you have more options when redeeming your miles for an award flight.

The Southwest Rapid Rewards program has two elite status tiers: A-List and A-List Preferred. Elite members get priority airport lanes, earn bonuses on rewards (see the table above), free same-day changes and priority boarding. Preferred members also get free in-flight Wi-Fi, a higher earning bonus on rewards and two drink tickets per flight.

A separate Companion Pass tier allows you to designate one individual to fly with you for free (not including taxes or fees) for the duration of its validity.

Here are the requirements to qualify for these status tiers.

Southwest status tier

Requirements to earn

A-List

20 one-way flights or 35,000 tier qualifying points.

A-List Preferred

40 one-way flights or 70,000 tier qualifying points.

Companion Pass

100 one-way flights or 135,000 tier qualifying points.

Depending on your travel patterns, the Companion Pass may be the one perk that could sway your decision in favor of Rapid Rewards.

United

When you fly United and credit the flights to the MileagePlus program, you earn redeemable miles based on the cost of your ticket. For every dollar spent toward base fare cost, you’ll earn a certain number of points depending on your elite status level.

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.

If you’re flying on a Star Alliance carrier, tickets earn redeemable miles calculated by a percentage of the total distance flown and the fare class in which you booked your ticket.

Based on NerdWallet’s recent valuations, United miles are worth 1.2 cents each.

You can redeem MileagePlus miles for flights on United and for those operated by its Star Alliance and nonalliance partners. This gives you plenty of destinations where you can travel using United miles.

United MileagePlus members can earn elite status in the program by earning a combination of Premier Qualifying Flights (PQFs) and Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs). PQFs are based on the number of segments flown while PQPs are based on the base fare and carrier-imposed surcharges on flights, seat purchases and paid upgrades.

You’ll need the following number of PQFs and PQPs to earn Premier elite status in the MileagePlus program.

Elite status level

Requirements to earn status

Premier Silver

12 PQF and 4,000 PQP or 5,000 PQP.

Premier Gold

24 PQF and 8,000 PQP or 10,000 PQP.

Premier Platinum

36 PQF and 12,000 PQP or 15,000 PQP.

Premier 1K

54 PQF and 18,000 PQP or 24,000 PQP.

In terms of perks, United passengers who are also Premier members are eligible for complimentary upgrades, free checked bags and priority travel services.

Travel credit card availability

Winner for the best airline credit card: United

While both airlines have several credit card options, the winner goes to United for its variety of price points and the travel benefits offered. Cardholders can receive United Club membership, priority boarding, complimentary upgrades and automatic elite status in other travel loyalty programs.

Southwest Airlines credit cards

Southwest co-branded cards are issued by Chase and include consumer and business credit cards.

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card (Annual fee: $69)

Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card
NerdWallet rating 

Welcome bonus:

Earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.

Earning rates:

  • 2 points per $1 spent on Southwest purchases, Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partners, local transit and commuting, internet, cable, phone services and some streaming services.

  • 1 point per $1 spent on all other eligible purchases.

Other benefits:

  • Two EarlyBird check-ins per year.

  • 25% back on in-flight purchases.

  • 3,000 anniversary points.

  • 10,000 Companion Pass qualifying points boost.

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card (Annual fee: $99)

Welcome bonus:

Earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.

Earning rates:

  • 3 points per $1 spent on Southwest purchases.

  • 2 points per $1 spent with Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partners, local transit and commuting, internet, cable, phone services and some streaming services.

  • 1 point per $1 spent on all other eligible purchases.

Other benefits:

  • Two EarlyBird check-ins per year.

  • 25% back on in-flight purchases.

  • 6,000 anniversary points.

  • 10,000 Companion Pass qualifying points boost.

  • 1,500 tier qualifying points per every $10,000 spent.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card (Annual fee: $149)

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card
NerdWallet rating 

Welcome bonus:

Earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.

Earning rates:

  • 3 points per $1 spent on Southwest purchases.

  • 2 points per $1 spent with Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partners, local transit and commuting, internet, cable, phone services and some streaming services.

  • 1 point per $1 spent on all other eligible purchases.

Other benefits:

  • Four upgraded boarding positions per year.

  • 25% back on in-flight purchases.

  • 7,500 anniversary points.

  • 1,500 tier qualifying points per every $10,000 spent.

  • $75 Southwest annual travel credit.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Premier Business Credit Card (Annual fee: $99)

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Business Credit Card"
NerdWallet rating 

Welcome bonus:

Earn 60,000 points after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

Earning rates:

  • 3 points per $1 spent on Southwest purchases.

  • 2 points per $1 spent with Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partners, local transit and commuting.

  • 1 point per $1 spent on all other eligible purchases.

Other benefits:

  • Two EarlyBird check-ins per year.

  • 25% back on in-flight purchases.

  • 6,000 anniversary points.

  • $500 fee credit for point transfers per year.

  • 1,500 tier qualifying points per every $10,000 spent.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card (Annual fee: $199)

New! Southwest Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card
NerdWallet rating 

Welcome bonus:

Earn 80,000 points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.

Earning rates:

  • 4 points per $1 spent on Southwest purchases.

  • 3 points per $1 spent with Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partners.

  • 2 points per $1 spent on social media and search engine advertising, internet, cable and phone services, local transit and commuting.

  • 1 point per $1 spent on all other eligible purchases.

Other benefits:

  • Four upgraded boarding positions per year.

  • 9,000 anniversary points.

  • 1,500 tier qualifying points per every $10,000 spent.

  • $500 fee credit for point transfers per year.

  • Up to $100 credit for TSA PreCheck, Global Entry or Nexus fees every four years.

  • Up to 365 in-flight Wi-Fi credits per year.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

United credit cards

United credit cards are also issued by Chase. Consumers and business owners have multiple card options to choose from for earning MileagePlus miles.

United Gateway℠ Card (Annual fee: $0)

United Gateway Card
NerdWallet rating 

Welcome bonus:

Earn 20,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

Earning rates:

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

  • 1 mile per $1 spent 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)

Chase United Airlines Mileage Plus Credit Card
NerdWallet rating 

Welcome bonus:

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

Earning rates:

  • 2 miles per $1 spent on United purchases, dining and hotels.

  • 1 mile per $1 spent 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.

  • Complimentary Premier upgrades on award tickets. 

  • Global Entry or TSA PreCheck enrollment credit every four years.

  • Earn 25 PQP for every $500 spent, up to 1,000 PQP per year.

  • 25% back on in-flight purchases.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

United Quest℠ Card (Annual fee: $250)

Chase United Quest Credit Card
NerdWallet rating 

Welcome bonus:

Earn 60,000 bonus miles and 500 Premier qualifying points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

Earning rates:

  • 3 miles per $1 spent on United purchases.

  • 2 miles per $1 on dining, select streaming services and all other travel, including airfare, trains, local transit, cruise lines, hotels, car rentals and resorts.

  • 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases.

Other benefits:

  • Up to $125 in United credit per year.

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

  • Two free checked bags for up to two passengers.

  • Earn 25 PQP for every $500 spent, up to 6,000 PQP per year.

  • Complimentary Premier upgrades on award tickets.

  • Priority boarding.

  • Global Entry or TSA PreCheck enrollment credit every four years.

  • 25% back on in-flight purchases.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

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

Chase United MileagePlus(R) Club Card Credit Card
NerdWallet rating 

Welcome bonus:

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

Earning rates:

  • 4 miles per $1 spent on United purchases.

  • 2 miles per $1 on dining and travel, including airfare, trains, local transit, cruise lines, hotels, car rentals and resorts.

  • 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases.

Other benefits:

  • United Club lounge membership.

  • Premier Access at the airport.

  • Complimentary Premier upgrades on award tickets.

  • Two free checked bags for up to two passengers.

  • Global Entry or TSA PreCheck enrollment credit every four years.

  • Earn 25 PQP for every $500 spent, up to 10,000 PQP per year.

  • 25% back on in-flight purchases.

  • IHG One Rewards Platinum elite status.

  • Avis President’s Club membership.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

United℠ Business Card (Annual fee: $0 intro for the first year, then $99)

Chase United Mileage Plus Explorer Business Credit Card
NerdWallet rating 

Welcome bonus:

Earn 75,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

Earning rates:

  • 2 miles per $1 spent on United purchases, gas stations, dining, office supply stores and local transit.

  • 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases.

Other benefits:

  • Free first checked bag for up to two passengers.

  • Priority boarding.

  • Two one-time United Club passes per year.

  • Earn 25 PQP for every $500 spent, up to 1,000 PQP per year.

  • $100 United travel credit after purchasing seven United flights that cost at least $100 annually.

  • 25% back on in-flight purchases.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

United Club℠ Business Card (Annual fee: $450)

United Club℠ Business Card
NerdWallet rating 

Welcome bonus:

NEW CARDMEMBER OFFER: Earn 50,000 bonus miles + 1,000 Premier qualifying points (PQP) after $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

Earning rates:

  • 2 miles per $1 spent on United purchases.

  • 1.5 miles per $1 spent on all other purchases.

Other benefits:

  • United Club lounge membership.

  • Premier Access travel services.

  • Avis President’s Club membership.

  • Two free checked bags for up to two passengers.

  • Earn 25 PQP for every $500 spent, up to 1,000 PQP per year.

  • DoorDash DashPass membership. 

  • 25% back on in-flight purchases.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

Should you fly with United or Southwest?

When considering United versus Southwest, our vote goes to United Airlines. It offers a greater number of destinations, a more lucrative loyalty program and is generally more reliable in terms of operations.

Having said that, Southwest isn’t a bad option for budget travelers or families wanting to check bags at no cost. Plus, its Companion Pass is truly an invaluable perk that gives you an opportunity to book BOGO tickets for you and a partner on all Southwest flights.


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 2024, including those best for:

United Cards from our Partners
Chase United Airlines Mileage Plus Credit Card

on Chase's website

United℠ Explorer Card
5.0
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

1x-2x

Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on dining, hotel stays and United® purchases. 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases

Miles

Intro offer

50,000

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

Miles
Chase United Mileage Plus Explorer Business Credit Card

on Chase's website

United℠ Business Card
5.0
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

1x-2x

Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on United® purchases, dining, at gas stations, office supply stores and on local transit and commuting. Earn 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases.

Miles

Intro offer

75000

Earn 75,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

Miles
Chase United Quest Credit Card

on Chase's website

United Quest℠ Card
4.6
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

1x-3x

Earn 3x miles on United® purchases, 2x miles on dining, select streaming services & all other travel, 1x on all other purchases

Miles

Intro offer

60,000

Earn 60,000 bonus miles and 500 Premier qualifying points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

Miles
See more United cards
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