When planning a trip within the United States, it’s likely you’ll make the comparison between Alaska Airlines and United Airlines before booking. These are two popular air carriers that have many similarities, but more differences that we’ll touch on in this article.
The quick answer is that Alaska has great service and is the preferred airline for flying to the state of Alaska and on the West Coast of the United States. United may receive more customer complaints, but it is one of the world’s largest airlines and serves all six continents on the planet.
Before we dive into the specifics of pricing, experience and service, we’ll start with an abbreviated background on each airline.
Alaska Airlines was founded in 1932 as McGee Airways, based in Anchorage, AK. They struggled through the Great Depression, but rose to the top in Alaska after a series of mergers and purchases, officially rebranded to Alaska Airlines in 1944. They began regularly flying throughout the contiguous US and beyond by the early 2000’s and became part of Oneworld Alliance by 2020.
United Airlines is the third largest airline in the world, beginning humbly 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 giant company we see today.
Pricing & Extra Charges
Let’s begin by comparing pricing between each airline. It’s difficult to gauge exact rates, since flight costs can shift and change by date, but we’ll give examples of averages. The purchasing process will also be covered, along with added expenses you may encounter while booking.
Alaska has a pretty straight-forward booking system, allowing you to select your departure and destination cities on the dates of your choice. You can choose one-way, roundtrip or multiple stops in the options.
We did a little research to see what the average price is for Alaska flights in Main Cabin (economy class) across the US to get a feel for the costs you might see when booking them. We concluded that an average flight on the East Coast at any point in the year is about $1069, a flight on the West Coast is about $275, and a cross-country trip averages $520.
While researching multiple booking days and options, it was a little difficult trying to find days that were available with Alaska even to major cities and airports. You can book with other partners through the OneWorld Alliance, but there is no direct link to do this on their website.
Alaska has three different classes for you to choose from on their website when buying tickets. Here’s the breakdown of what each one includes in the price:
- Saver: this is the lowest fare available and has limitations. You’ll get one carry-on and one personal item, but you’ll board last and be assigned a seat in the back of the plane.
- Main Cabin: this is Alaska’s economy class. You’ll get one carry-on and one personal item, you’ll have general boarding and get to choose your seat. You’ll also be able to change your flight the same day if necessary. Premium Main Cabin is also an option available on select flights, which is placed at the front of the Main Cabin.
- First Class: this is the most elite you can get on board. You’ll get one carry-on and one personal item, one free checked bag, priority boarding and seat selection. You can also change your flight same day. In flight you’ll receive other perks and special service.
Here’s a link to a to a listing of current fare types on Alaska’s website.
United uses a standard approach to buying tickets. On the first page of the booking process, you’ll select all the requirements you’re looking for to narrow your search results – you can even search and compare other Star Alliance airlines to United’s options and the options are endless. We used the United Economy option for this particular pricing comparison.
Our research showed that the average cost of a round trip flight on the East Coast is around $485, West Coast flights average $261, and cross-country flights from New York to Los Angeles are about $615.
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.
You can find a listing of United seat types on this section of their website.
P.S. – When you’re done reading this one, don’t miss our other expert airline comparisons:
Alaska will waive fees for strollers, car seats and mobility devices. All other baggage will have fees assessed based on the number of bags you have and their weight. Your first checked bag will be $30, the second is $40 and the third is $100 per person. If your bag is overweight, you’ll be charged a $100 fee, as well.
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.
Alaska applies a $50 change fee for those who’ve purchased the Saver option on their ticket and require a flight change within 24 hours before their flight time. Aside from this, flight changes are free on all other tickets. You can also upgrade from Main Cabin to Premium for $15 or more, (cost is assessed based on your flight length and the destination).
United 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), which is far more expensive than Alaska.
You can upgrade from United Economy to Economy Plus 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). This is also more expensive than Alaska.
Ways to Save
Alaska’s Mileage Plan is highly regarded for being one of the most generous mile rewards programs offered by airlines. It offers one mile for one mile in rewards each time you fly, plus you can earn miles by shopping, dining and purchasing through approved vendors. Alaska also has a savings page found on the “Deals” tab, an option under the “Book” tab.
United has a similar rewards program called Mileage Plus. 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 taking long flights 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.
Alaska has two different types of Economy seating labeled “Main Cabin” and “Premium Class”. Main Cabin will be your standard economy seating featuring fairly spacious chairs with adjustable headrests. There have been complaints of the reclining feature and comfort of these chairs, so that will vary from person to person.
The Premium Class uses the same style chair that you’ll find in Main Cabin, but you’ll get more leg room and be seated just after First Class. You’ll also have access to Alaska Beyond Entertainment which can be streamed from your phone. The economy seats do not have video screens in the headrest.
United uses a variety of new and old planes, making the Economy experience different on each flight based on the plane’s age. Many guests state that the seats are far too small in even some of the newer jets, with limited legroom and tighter seating placement.
Overall, the design of the cabin and the cleanliness is on par with other similar airlines and the majority of people may think it meets their expectations. But the outdated tech in the headrest and the comfort of the chair might be a couple no-go’s for some.
Alaska’s First Class is available on all their aircraft, including small regional planes. They have large, comfy seating with access to inflight entertainment and special service and meals delivered by the flight attendants. The whole experience is not the fanciest, but considered worth the value.
United has three different First Class options, the best of which is the new Polaris Business Class. It’s received great reviews in quality and experience, but other First and Business Class options may vary depending on the age of the plane.
To avoid the older planes and score better seats, search for the flights with lie-flat seats. 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, while the smaller planes have no separation between First and Economy, leaving the last row of First Class open to the rest of the cabin.
Alaska has been considered by many United States residents to have a great staff that’s well-informed and very attentive to all passengers. There haven’t been many complaints about a lack of empathy or little attention to detail, though some minor incidents may occur with the occasional disgruntled employee. For the most part, Alaska consistently receives great reviews for their cabin crew and customer service representatives.
United has gotten mixed reviews on customer service. Over the years, especially after their merge with Continental, passengers have reported more distaste for the airline than before. United is one huge airline, serving hundreds of cities all over the world and employing hundreds of thousands of employees, so empathy may not be their first priority.
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 accommodate guests.
Alaska offers complimentary food and beverages on all flights to all classes, though the quality and amount of food might differ from class to class. They do not have onboard entertainment in the headrest, but you can purchase Wifi and rent their entertainment tablets to watch movies and shows. There are also USB ports in each seat, though some complaints state they encountered a few that don’t work.
United offers complimentary beverages and snacks to all classes, with additional items for purchase. Premium passengers will have varying levels of complimentary alcoholic beverages, but everyone else will pay for them. 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.
Both United and Alaska cover most major US cities, but a big difference you’ll notice is the international destinations provided by both. It’s important to note the different in availability, as well as the procedures for accommodating passengers in the event of a flight change or cancellation.
Alaska is based in Seattle, WA and flies to over 100 destinations within the United States. They also have strong ties to Anchorage, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles, practically dominating the West Coast of the US. The company is the biggest airline in the state of Alaska, reaching many different areas inaccessible by car or boat.
They are part of the OneWorld Alliance, which allows codeshare agreements with other major airlines like American Airlines. Operating under the umbrella of Alaska, you can book regional flights in the Last Frontier on Horizon Air, SkyWest, PenAir, and Ravn Alaska.
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 relationships with dozens of other airlines across 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.
However, if you are the one cancelling or rescheduling with them, things may not be that easy. Many customer reports state that United’s customer service is hard to deal with and it could take hours to resolve the problem on the phone. It’s even more difficult if you happened to book your flight through a third-party.
Alaska currently has flights to Canada, Costa Rica and Mexico. As this once small company continues to grow in fleet size and influence with the American public and across the world, we’ll likely see more international destinations available soon.
In the mean time, you can book international flights through their OneWorld Alliance partners like British Airways, Emirates, Icelandair, Japan Airlines and Qatar Airways.
United has an enormous international presence and flies to 362 different cities across the globe. They reach all 6 continents around the world with international flights departing daily. You can fly just about anywhere with United.
Statistically, air travel is the safest way to go when compared to other forms of transportation, but we’ll take a look at the accidents between each airline. Crashes are very rare, while incidents resulting in minor injuries can be a little more common. It’s also important to see which airlines have the best safety measures in place for yourself and your baggage.
Alaska primarily uses Boeing 737 models with some Airbus A320 mixed in. The Airbus models are currently being phased out in favor of Boeing. Shorter regional flights will use Bombardier Q400 and Embraer 175 through Alaska owned Horizon Air & SkyWest Airlines.
Large aircraft like Boeing and Airbus are highly rated for safety and regular maintenance, while the smaller aircraft will always have a higher risk. Despite this, Alaska was placed 8th in the world’s list of safest airlines in 2021.
Bombardier Q400 was specifically designed to fly in extreme cold weather, which makes it perfect for regional flights in Alaska. They are fast jets that fly quietly and quickly. Embraer 175 has a similar design and purpose, usually seating up to 75 guests.
United also employs Airbus and Embraer, but primarily uses Boeing 757, 767, 777 and 787 models. United plans to replace many of their older 757 models with Airbus’ state-of-the-art A321XLR within the next few years.
Alaska had a bout of incidents with airplane models no longer being used in the early days of its existence. Before 2000, the company reported seven fatal accidents. The most notable in their history was a freak accident in January 2000 where the stabilization system failed during an emergency landing at LAX. The crash killed all 88 passengers on board. This prompted Alaska Airlines to put a new, extensive lubrication check system in place before each flight.
More recently in November 2020, a brown bear was struck and killed by a plane landing on Yakutat Airport runway in Alaska. No human injuries were reported.
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.
We suggest you review each airline’s baggage requirements before flying to be sure you are not carrying prohibited items. Firearms, for example, are allowed with certain stipulations on Alaska flights (in checked bags), but they are strictly banned from United flights.
As far as losing baggage goes, checking directly with the airline in the airport should be your first step. Next step for Alaska would be to reimburse you for the essentials you’ll need for a day or two. If your baggage is missing for more than five days, they’ll file a report and investigate.
United has a bag tracing web page where customers can search for lost luggage and file complaints.
In conclusion, Alaska is rising in the ranks as one of the top airlines in the United States and would be our preferred choice for flying on the West Coast and regionally through Canada and Alaska. They still have some more expanding to do within the United States and surrounding countries in order for pricing to be more favorable outside of their more established zones.
Alaska’s travel experience is much more highly regarded than United, giving a more boutique feeling to your flight with a better customer service and cancellation process. We hope they have more service in more destinations in the near future, but for now we suggest booking with them within their established regions.
We would choose United airlines for all other flights on the East Coast of the United States and international flights around the world. The experience may not be extremely pleasant and you may be at higher risk of dicey flight cancellations and ruined plans, but they will get you just about anywhere you need to go on the globe.