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Air Canada vs United: Full Airline Comparison

Deciding between Air Canada and United Airlines for your next flight? We can help!

The quick answer is that Air Canada is preferred for its customer service and in-flight experience when traveling to and from Canada and northern North America, while United is a more no-frills, cost-effective airline that covers much more territory.

That’s the way-too-short answer, so we’ll continue to dive into the details you need to make the choice that best fits your preferences.

Before we dive into the specifics of pricing, experience and service, we’ll start with an abbreviated background on each airline:

Air Canada was founded in 1937, born out of Trans-Canada Air Lines from 1936. The airline was privatized in 1988 and merged with Canadian Airlines in 2000 to form a monster fleet for the Great White North. In the late 2000’s, the company rebranded and reorganized to better serve the Canadian community and passengers all across the globe.

United Airlines is the world’s third largest airline, beginning as Varney Air Lines in 1926. Varney actually chartered the first private air mail flight on April 6, 1926. Boeing Air Transport later purchased Varney and several other airlines to form United Air Lines, Inc. in 1931. In 2010, United merged with Continental Airlines to create the fleet we see today.

Pricing & Extra Charges

Air Canada Pricing
JW_PNW / Shutterstock

We’ll start with a pricing comparison between each airline and give a breakdown of what each ticket type includes. While it’s difficult to gauge exact rates, since flights can shift and change in pricing depending on when you book them, we’ll give examples of average costs.

Tickets

Air Canada not only allows you to book flights on their site, but you can also package deals on vacations with Air Canada vacations. For this example, we’ll be focusing on the flight pricing in the Economy section only to directly compare with the offerings United has.

On average, roundtrip flights booked at any point in the year along the East Coast from Miami to Toronto are about $175, cross-country flights from Quebec to Yukon are around $341, and flights from Toronto to Paris are about $1000. (Add taxes to these totals for the final outcome).

Air Canada offers the standard Economy class pricing and seat system, but they also have Premium Economy, Signature and Business Class available on most flights. Signature and Business are the “First Class” options; Signature will be used on long-haul flights while Business class will be available on short-haul flights. Here’s the full breakdown of what’s included with each class:

  • Economy Basic: includes carry-on and personal item with general boarding, no change fees
  • Economy Standard: includes carry-on and personal items, one checked bag, no change fees and general boarding
  • Economy Flex: includes carry-on and personal items, one checked bag, seat selection, no change fees and general boarding
  • Economy Latitude: includes carry-on and personal items, two checked bags, preferred seat, no change fees, refundable ticket and general boarding
  • Premium Economy: includes carry-on and personal items, two checked bags, preferred larger seat, premium cuisine and service, no change fees, refundable ticket, expedited security and general boarding
  • Signature: includes carry-on and personal items, two checked bags, lie-flat seating in private pod, premium cuisine and service, no change fees, refundable ticket, expedited security and general boarding
  • Business: includes carry-on and personal items, two checked bags, lie-flat seating in private pod, premium cuisine and service, amenity kits, no change fees, access to Maple Leaf Lounte, expedited security and general boarding

Air Canada’s current fare/seat types can be found listed on this page of their website.

United uses a standard approach to booking. On the first page, you’ll select all the requirements you’re looking for to narrow your search results – you can even book tickets with other Star Alliance airlines or compare United’s options with others on this webpage.

After a quick bit of research, we found that the average cost of a round trip flight from Miami to Toronto is around $810, cross-country flights from Quebec to Yukon are about $875, and a trip from Toronto to Paris is approximately $2,200 at any point during the year. We used United’s Economy class option for this particular pricing comparison.

Here’s the breakdown of United’s class system (availability will vary by destination) and what’s included with each option:

  • Basic Economy: includes carry-on and personal item, last to board and seat will already be assigned
  • United Economy: includes carry-on and personal item with general boarding
  • Premium Economy: available on international flights, includes carry-on and personal item, two checked bags with general boarding
  • First: includes carry-on and personal item, two checked bags with early boarding, premier access check-in, premium dining and complimentary beverages
  • Business: available on international flights, includes carry-on and personal item, two checked bags with early boarding, premier access check-in, premium dining and complimentary beverages
  • United Premium Plus: available using the Mileage Plus program in the First/Business Class section, includes carry-on and personal item, two checked bags, free alcoholic beverages, free meal on domestic flights, noise-reducing headphones, premium bedding, larger entertainment screen
  • United Polaris Business: this is top-of-the-line experience is reserved for select guests on select flights and has limited access. Polaris lounges have custom dining options for three-course meals with exclusive access to rest stations and shower facilities. Seasonal menus are offered in flight while seated in giant reclining seats encased in separate pods.

Delta’s current fare/seat types can be found listed on this page of their website.

P.S. – When you’re done reading this one, don’t miss our other expert airline comparisons:

Baggage

United Baggage
Billion Photos / Shutterstock

Air Canada allows guests to check bags between all classes; one in Standard Economy and above and two bags in Latitude Economy and above. For additional bags, they’ll charge $100 per bag. Pound limits will be assessed per ticket class (expect about 32kg/70lb limit), and Signature and Business classes receiving the highest limit per flight.

United only includes checked bags in premium classes. All Economy guests will pay $35 for one checked bag and $45 for an additional checked bag per person. Economy guests are reduced to 50 lbs per bag, while premium guests can pack over 70 lbs in their suitcases. A fee will be assessed for overweight luggage.

Extra Fees

Air Canada can have tricky cancellation and change fees that may not be apparent the the buyer when first booking your flight. Most options will say they do not charge for change fees, but the limit of change appears within a short window of time so you could still be hit with change fees (up to $115) if you wait too long to switch your flight.

If seat selection is not part of your ticket option, expect to pay about $20 up to $100 for this choice. You can purchase lounge access for up to $60 with any regular ticket, and in-flight Wifi access will cost $10.

United has extra fees for upgraded experience. For example, Economy Plus is the premium version of Economy that guests can purchase for $70 per person, per flight in order to access more leg room and in-seat charging power closer to the front of the plane. Premium flight passengers can purchase access to United’s predeparture lounges (the fee is assessed based on the destination).

United also has several hundred dollars in cancellation and change fees. In order to avoid this, we suggest purchasing their refundable ticket options (usually $75-100 over Economy).

Ways to Save

Air Canada has a Special Offers tab at the bottom of their home page. When you click through to this web page, it’ll display all available discounts for various flights within the country and around the world. This is usually applicable for Economy class tickets.

Air Canada also has an airmiles program called Aeroplan. This program is used in conjunction with their in-house rewards program Altitude, now both under the name Aeroplan. There is a minimum spend level to acquire specific points/miles, each level increases the number of miles you can use toward your next trip.

United uses a rewards program called MileagePlus. Spending on this Visa card or flying with United will earn miles that never expire and can be used toward many different flights, hotels and destinations. Premier members gain access to even more deals and complimentary perks like Economy Plus and upgrades to their flight experience.

Seats & Flight Experience

Comfort is extremely important when flying, especially when traveling cross-country or internationally. Along with comfort, we’ll cover the flight experience from the perks included onboard to the customer service you’ll receive and cleanliness of the cabin.

Classes

Economy Seating

Air Canada Economy
Air Canada Economy / EQRoy / Shutterstock

Air Canada Economy class is pretty standard. They recently renovated and retrofitted all of their older planes, making AC’s Economy seating a little more ideal than United’s options. Most of their large planes are outfitted with audio-video-on-demand devices for the entertainment of their passengers.

Non-alcoholic beverages are complimentary on all flights, while international flights will serve food and alcoholic beverages on the house via Air Canada bistro. The quality of the food is fairly comparable to United’s food served onboard.

Premium economy seating will have larger, cushier chairs and a little more leg room. They’re located toward the front of the cabin, usually behind First Class. Premium Economy guests will also take part in the special service given to First Class, minus a few of the extra perks.

United Experience
United Economy Class / Deutschlandreform / Shutterstock

United gets mixed reviews on their seating in general, because they use a mix of old and new planes for their flights. You’ll probably have a completely different experience each time you fly with United due to the age of the plane. Many passenger reviews state that the seats are far too small in even some of the newer jets, with limited legroom and tight quarters.

Overall, the design of the cabin and the general seating is standard and the majority of people won’t think any differently. However, the outdated tech in the headrest and the comfort of the chair might be a couple setbacks on your flight and long flights could be uncomfortable in Economy.

Premium Seating

Air Canada First Class
Air Canada First Class / Christian Heinz / Shutterstock

Air Canada, as mentioned before, has two different First Class Options. Signature will be available on their international and long-haul flights. Passengers will get either the Classic Pod (lie-flat seating with curved border) or the Executive Pod (newer lie-flat seating with straight walls). Classic Pods are currently being phased out, so look for flights on newer planes to take advantage of the newer lie-flat seats.

Business Class is Air Canada’s most premium option, available on national and short-haul flights. It’s very similar to the quality of service you’ll find in Signature, but you’ll get exclusive access to the Maple Leaf Lounges. These swanky lounges have 23 different locations worldwide.

United First Class
United First Class / EQRoy / Shutterstock

United has three different First Class options. The new Polaris Business Class has received excellent reviews in quality and experience, but other First and Business Class options may vary depending on the age of the plane. Many say that Air Canada has better privacy in their pods.

To avoid the older planes and guarantee better seats, search for the flights with lie-flat seats in First Class. In the booking process, you can see which kind of seat is assigned to that flight. Another helpful tip is to look up what type of plane is used for that flight. The wider body planes generally have better first class seating. In addition to this, the smaller planes have no separation between First and Economy, leaving the last row of First Class open to the rest of the cabin.

Staff

United Airlines Staff
iyd39 / Shutterstock

Air Canada is not particularly well known for their customer service, but in recent years they’ve stepped up their game – ever so slightly. While bad reviews used to be given left and right in prior decades, these days are brighter for Air Canada.

Expect pretty standard service in the airport and aboard the plane, as the staff adheres to typical procedures of courtesy and attendance. There’s nothing particularly stellar about their staff, but it’s better to have average service than crummy service.

United frequently receives bad reviews for customer service in the booking process, on the phone and on the flight. Though not every attendant will be the same, they are often seen as doing the bare minimum for passengers on the flight.

Premium passengers report the same feeling from the staff, though there are a few great reviews about particular employees that went out of their way to make someone’s day.

Overall Experience

Air Canada offers complimentary beverages and snacks to all classes, with addition items for purchase. Premium passengers will have varying levels of complimentary alcoholic beverages, but everyone else will pay extra. Seating is pretty standard and tech meets the standards of most modern day airlines.

United offers complimentary beverages and snacks to all classes, with additional items for purchase, as well, while Premium and First Class passengers will receive better service. The tech in the headrest has been a major complaint for many, especially in the old, outdated planes, and there have been reports of the Wifi going out often.

Flight Availability

Both airlines cover most major US and Canadian cities and have a powerful presence around the world.

Domestic Flights

Air Canada is headquartered in Montreal, as obligated by the government. They offer Air Canada Express for short regional flights, Air Canada Jetz for sports teams and Air Canada Rouge for low-cost flights (not highly rated).

Domestic flights go all over Canada to all major cities in the provinces and just about anywhere you can think of in the Great White North. They also serve the United States, nearly reaching every corner of the contiguous U.S., as well as Alaska and Hawaii.

United is based in Chicago, with other main hubs in 6 other US cities and one in Guam. It reaches 258 destinations within the United States. United is part of the Star Alliance and has good relationships with dozens of other airlines around the world. It’s likely that if United can’t get you on one of their own flights that they will book one with another partner airline in the event of a cancellation.

It’s highly suggested that you read their refund and cancellations policy before booking, just in case you have to go through these steps yourself. In general, it’s best to be sure you’re good to go before booking a flight or just select the “full refund” option on the ticket.

International Flights

Air Canada serves 222 destinations worldwide, including the continents of Asia, Africa, the Americas, Europe, Australia and the Pacific islands. The only area not currently served is Russia. Out of the 47 countries on their list of international destinations, the United States and Europe are their top destinations.

United has a great international presence and flies to 362 different cities across the globe. They reach all 6 continents around the world with international flights departing daily. Several of their Star Alliance partners include Air China, Egyptair, Lufthansa and Swiss Airlines.

Safety

Statistically, air travel is the safest way to go when compared to other forms of transportation. We’ll take a look at the accidents and incidents between each airline.

Aircraft Safety

Air Canada‘s fleet is comprised of Airbus 320 & 330 models and Boeing 777 & 787 models, and pilots short-haul trips using Airbus 200-300 and Boeing 737 MAX 8. As of 2020, the aircraft in fleet totals 166 planes.

United has Airbus and Embraer plane models, but primarily uses Boeing 757, 767, 777 and 787 models. United also plans to replace many of their older 757 models with Airbus’ state-of-the-art A321XLR within the next few years.

Large aircraft like Boeing and Airbus are highly rated for safety and regular maintenance, while the smaller aircraft will always have a higher risk. Embraer 175 is mainly used for regional flights, usually seating up to 75 guests.

Incidents

Air Canada had multiple plane crashes and explosions in the early days of flying, but more recently has had less than a handful of non-fatal incidents. In 2015 & 2017, two different flights impacted the runways at the wrong time or speed, one during rainy weather. In both cases, some of the flight crew and/or passengers were injured and sent to the hospital, but no one died from the incidents.

In February 2020, a rear tire burst while taking off in Madrid, causing the left engine to combust. The pilots acted quickly to slow the plane and shut off the engine in order to contain the fire. All passengers and flight crew members were safely deplaned with no deaths or injuries.

United has many different incidents, primarily related to passenger arrest or minor plane damage. Two of the most notable plane crashes to date includes Flight 93 and Flight 175 on September 11, 2001.

More recently in February 2018, a Boeing 777 lost engine power en route to Honolulu. The plane was landed safely with no injuries or deaths. Again in February 2021, another Boeing 777 en route to Honolulu lost engine power causing debris to trail the flight shortly after takeoff. The plane returned to the airport and landed safely with no injuries. However, many Boeing 777 models were grounded after the incident for thorough inspection.

Baggage Safety

We suggest you review each airline’s baggage requirements before flying to be sure you are not carrying prohibited items. Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is among United’s prohibited items, along with most electric skateboards in checked bags. Medical marijuana is allowed on Air Canada flights, but they require you to go through a longer screening in security. Recreational marijuana is prohibited across state and country borders.

As far as losing baggage goes, checking directly with the airline in the airport should be your first step. If no luck there, Air Canada uses WorldTracer to keep track of missing luggage by assigning a report number to each person and updating info regarding the luggage on this website. There’s also an option to call for service nationally and internationally.

United has a bag tracing web page where customers can search for lost luggage and file complaints.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Air Canada is going to be your best bet when traveling from Canada to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, they do not offer flights between United States cities or from country to country – a flight with Air Canada either has to begin in Canada or end in Canada.

That said, if you’re traveling to or from Canada, this is a great option. Their overall maintenance, booking process, Star Alliance partnerships, and interior design are very much on par with that of United. But what really sets them a part is the Signature and Business Class options along with slightly better attention to detail. Not to mention, your flight could be cheaper.

However, if United has lower rates, it’s understandable to go with them. United has similar economy options to Air Canada and the pricing difference, as well as overall experience may not be too different from them.

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