United vs. Southwest: Which Is Best?

Southwest is more generous with its perks, fees and customer service, but United offers double the destinations.
Sep 16, 2022

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When you’re looking to travel by air, you’ll typically find yourself sorting through a lot of options — all with different flight times, prices and airlines. Sometimes the choice is easy, especially if you want the cheapest ticket or a specific travel time. But other times, the only difference seems to be the airline. In that case, how do you choose which airline to fly?

You may find yourself making a decision between United Airlines and Southwest Airlines, as both companies 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 trying to solve the United versus Southwest puzzle.

Where they’re based and where they fly

Winner: United Airlines

Both airlines have extensive route maps, but Southwest is notably lacking in international destinations. On the other hand, United has plenty of domestic and international flight options.

United Airlines

United Airlines flies to more than 210 destinations throughout the United States, as well as an additional 120 international cities. The airline has the following U.S. hubs:

  • Chicago-O’Hare.

  • Denver.

  • Guam.

  • Houston-Intercontinental.

  • Los Angeles.

  • Newark.

  • San Francisco.

  • Washington-Dulles.

Southwest Airlines

Southwest services 103 cities within the United States and ten additional countries. However, international flights are limited to primarily Mexican, Caribbean and Central American destinations.

Unlike most other major airlines, Southwest doesn’t have hub cities. The brand operates its headquarters in Dallas but flies to many major cities in the United States.

Travel credit card availability

Winner: Tie

Airline credit cards can provide valuable benefits that improve your travel experience. Both airlines have several credit card options with different perks and annual fee price points.

Southwest Airlines

Southwest has several consumer credit cards available:

Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card
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  • Annual fee: $69.

  • Welcome bonus: New Offer: Earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.

  • 2x points on Southwest purchases and Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partner purchases, 2x points on local transit, rideshare, internet, cable, phone service and select streaming services, and 1x point on all other purchases.

  • 25% back on in-flight purchases.

  • Two EarlyBird check-ins per year.

  • 3,000-point anniversary bonus.

  • 3% foreign transaction fees.

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Business Credit Card"
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  • Annual fee: $99.

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

  • 3x points on Southwest purchases, 2x points on Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partner purchases, local transit, rideshare, internet, cable, phone service and select streaming services, and 1x point on all other purchases.

  • 25% back on in-flight purchases.

  • Two EarlyBird check-ins per year.

  • 6,000-point anniversary bonus.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card
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  • Annual fee: $149.

  • Welcome bonus: New Offer: Earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.

  • 3x points on Southwest purchases, 2x points on Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partner purchases, local transit, rideshare, internet, cable, phone service and select streaming services, and 1x point on all other purchases.

  • $75 annual travel credit with Southwest.

  • 25% back on in-flight purchases.

  • Four upgraded boardings per year, when available.

  • 7,500-point anniversary bonus.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

United Airlines

United Airlines offers the following consumer credit cards to flyers:

United Gateway Card
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  • Annual fee: $0

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

  • 2x miles on United purchases, gas stations, local transit and commuting, 1x mile on all other purchases.

  • 25% back on in-flight purchases.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

Chase United Airlines Mileage Plus Credit Card
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  • Annual fee: $0 intro for the first year, then $95.

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

  • 2x miles on United purchases, dining and hotel stays booked directly with the hotel, 1x mile on all other purchases.

  • Free first checked bag for you and a travel companion.

  • Priority boarding on United flights.

  • $100 credit for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry fees.

  • 25% back on in-flight purchases.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

Chase United Quest Credit Card
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  • 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 after earning your $125 statement credit, 2x miles on all other travel purchases, dining and select streaming services, and 1x mile on all other purchases.

  • Two free checked bags each for you and a travel companion.

  • Priority boarding on United flights.

  • $125 annual statement credit for United purchases.

  • 5,000-mile award credit after taking a United award flight booked with miles, up to twice per year.

  • $100 credit for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry fees.

  • 25% back on in-flight purchases.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

Chase United MileagePlus(R) Club Card Credit Card
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  • 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.

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

  • Two free checked bags each for you and a travel companion.

  • Priority boarding on United flights.

  • $100 credit for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry fees.

  • 25% back on in-flight purchases.

  • Complementary United Club membership.

  • Platinum Elite status with IHG Rewards and President’s Club membership with Avis.

  • No foreign transaction fees.

Airline loyalty programs

Winner: Southwest Airlines

Both airlines have loyalty programs that offer benefits to loyal flyers. When considering loyalty programs for United versus Southwest, Southwest wins.

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards

The Southwest Rapid Rewards program is free to join. You can earn points by flying with Southwest, using a Southwest Rapid Rewards credit card, or through Southwest’s partners.

To earn points by flying with Southwest, the number of points is determined by the type of ticket you purchase. You can earn anywhere from six points per $1 spent to 12 points per $1 spent. You’ll earn even more points when using a Southwest Rapid Rewards credit card or by achieving elite status.

NerdWallet values Southwest Rapid Rewards points at 1.5 cents each. You can redeem Rapid Rewards points for flights, gift cards, hotel stays, rental cars or use points to shop. Redeeming points for Wanna Get Away flights is an excellent choice.

The Rapid Rewards program has two elite status tiers, A-List and A-List Preferred.

Travelers who achieve elite status can take advantage of additional benefits — like a points bonus on flights. Status is earned when you accumulate enough one-way flights or Tier Qualifying Points, or TQP. For example, you’ll reach A-List status when you’ve flown 25 qualifying one-way flights or accumulated 35,000 TQPs in one calendar year.

One of the most notable aspects of the Rapid Rewards program is the ability to earn a Companion Pass. You can earn it by flying 100 qualifying one-way flights or earning 125,000 TQPs in a calendar year.

With this pass, a companion can join you for free on any flight from the time you earn it through the end of the following year. You only have to pay taxes and fees for their ticket.

United Airlines MileagePlus Rewards

United’s MileagePlus program is also free to join. You can earn miles by flying with United or its airline partners, using a United Airlines credit card, booking with hotel and rental car partners or shopping with partners.

NerdWallet values MileagePlus miles at 1.2 cents each — making them slightly less valuable than Southwest’s Rapid Rewards points.

How many miles you can earn depends on your status level. You’ll earn anywhere from five miles per $1 spent to 11 miles per $1 spent. You can earn additional miles by using a United Airlines credit card.

You can redeem United miles by flying with United Airlines, its partner airlines, and Star Alliance members. You can also redeem miles for upgrades, hotel bookings, gift cards or use miles to shop. Redeeming miles for United flights or upgrades are excellent redemption choices.

The airline offers four elite status tiers, and each tier provides perks. When flying with United, you’ll earn Premier qualifying points, or PQPs, and Premier qualifying flights, or PQFs, and as you earn, you can work towards achieving a higher elite status.

What differentiates United from Southwest is its many partners, allowing MileagePlus members to earn and redeem miles with a variety of other airlines.

Extra fees

Winner: Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines is transparent about fees and charges fees primarily for early check-in and boarding perks. United Airlines, on the other hand, charges more fees — especially for baggage. For this reason, Southwest is the clear winner.

Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines has a reputation for its minimal fee approach. However, travelers may need to pay fees in some cases.

Most travelers won’t have to pay any baggage fees when flying on Southwest. The airline allows free carry-on bags as well as two free checked bags with all tickets. If you need to check a third bag, or have an overweight or oversized bag, it will cost you $75 one-way per item.

However, if you’d like to take advantage of EarlyBird check-in, it costs $15 to $25 each way. To upgrade your boarding group, it will cost $30 to $60 per segment, per customer.

Here are the costs of several other common fees passengers may need to pay when flying on Southwest:

  • In-flight Wi-Fi: $8 per day.

  • Unaccompanied minor (aged five to 11): $50 per minor.

  • Pets: $95 per pet carrier each way.

United Airlines

Like many major U.S. airlines, United charges extra fees for a variety of services.

Exact 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 check fees for a specific flight.

For most United flights, a carry-on bag is included in your ticket price. If you’re in the economy cabin, you can expect to pay $35 for your first checked bag and $45 for a second bag. The cost is $5 less per bag if you pay for it in advance online. For those in premium economy, business or first class, the first two checked bags are free.

United also has a fare class called Basic Economy, which only allows passengers to bring a personal item into the cabin. For a carry-on bag, you’ll have to pay $25 at the gate.

However, if you have elite status or a United credit card, you may be able to eliminate some or all of these fees.

United offers in-flight Wi-Fi at a cost. MileagePlus members pay $8 per flight segment and non-members pay $10. Wi-Fi day passes are available for flyers who want unlimited access for 24 hours, but pricing varies.

The fee for an unaccompanied minor aged five to 14 is $150 each way, and pets cost $125 each way for animals that can travel in the cabin.

In-flight experience

Winner: Southwest Airlines

While Southwest doesn’t have a separate premium cabin or seat-back TV screens, the airline has other strengths when considering the in-flight experience offered to travelers. These strengths give Southwest an edge over United.

Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines is frequently praised for its excellent customer service and minimal extra fees. The company also provides pretzels and non-alcoholic beverages at no cost and provides alcoholic drinks for sale. Wi-Fi is available, and pricing is transparent.

When traveling with Southwest, free entertainment options are plentiful. However, the airline doesn’t offer seat-back TV screens, so you’ll need to bring your own electronic device.

No seats are assigned on Southwest flights. Instead, passengers can select their preferred available seat when boarding the plane.

Southwest may not be for you if you enjoy flying in business or first class, as the brand doesn’t have separate premium class cabins. But the airline does sell Business Select fare tickets that come with extra perks like priority boarding and a complimentary premium drink.

United Airlines

United Airlines offers a typical flying experience when compared to most U.S. airlines. The company has different ticket options, and premium class cabins are available on many flights.

Complimentary non-alcoholic beverages and snacks are available within North America, the Caribbean and on most Latin American flights. Snacks are available for purchase on select flights, as are alcoholic beverages.

The airline offers a variety of free entertainment options, and many aircraft offer seat-back TV screens. Wi-Fi can be purchased for $8 to $10 per flight segment. Unlimited Wi-Fi day passes are available, but pricing is not universal and varies by flight.

The bottom line

When considering United versus Southwest, our vote goes to Southwest Airlines. The airline has fewer fees, excellent customer service and it gives frequent flyers the chance to earn a Companion Pass — which can be a valuable perk if you typically travel with a partner.


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:

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