Trying to decide between Frontier and United Airlines for your next flight?
The quick answer is that United is one of the world’s largest low-cost airlines with endless flights to destinations all over the world, while Frontier is an ultra-low-cost airline offering extremely cheap flights to cities primarily within the United States.
Low cost airlines are some of the best options for travelers who are looking to vacation on a budget. When traveling nationally, choosing between these airlines will come down to comfort, experience and price, which we’ll cover completely. To begin, we’ll give a brief background on both:
Frontier Airlines was founded in 1946 with a focus on the Rocky Mountain Region. After closing in 1986, a new business group opened with the same name in 1990 within the original Stapleton International Airport hub in Denver. It’s one of America’s top ultra low-cost carriers and the ninth largest airline in the world.
United Airlines is the world’s third largest airline, traced back to Varney Air Lines in 1926. Varney actually charted 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 Contintental Airlines to create the fleet we see today.
Tickets, Pricing, & Extra Fees
When flying on a budget, pricing is important. And since we’re comparing a low-cost airline to an ultra-low-cost airline, the costs may vary greatly. However, extra fees tacked on at the end may make the flights a little more even than most people would think. Here are the full details:
Frontier starts customers off with a base fare for each flight, which means you’ll only be purchasing a spot on the plane and nothing more. From there, you’ll be able to buy options that will allow you to bring luggage and carry-ons, secure a specific seat, forgo change fees and board the plane early.
We priced out a few trips to find the average costs of flights during the year and found that Frontier typically charges a base fare of about $185 round trip on the East Coast and around $500 for cross-country flights for a single passenger. This base fare will incur extra fees for baggage and other perks.
After choosing your base fare, you’ll be prompted to select the bundle you’d like. Here’s the breakdown of the bundles:
- The Perks Bundle: $45 allows you to bring one personal item, one carry-on bag, and one checked bag. Plus you can select your seat and get priority boarding.
- The Works Bundle: $100 allows you to bring one personal item, one carry-on bag, and one checked bag. Plus you can select your seat and get priority boarding. You can also get flight flexibility and a total refund if you request it.
- Unbundled: this approach allows you to customize your selections and can get expensive fast. To select a premium seat it can cost up to $60 per flight, where standard seating can be as little as $15. A carry-on bag is $40 per flight. One checked bag is $40 and two bags will cost you $92 per flight. Flight flexibility is $10 per flight.
You can find all of Frontier’s current bundle types listed on this section of their website.
United uses a more 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 United’s Economy class 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, cross-country flights from New York to Los Angeles are about $615, and a trip to France is approximately $975 at any point during the year.
Here’s the breakdown of United’s class system (pricing 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 all of United’s fares/seats listed on this section of their website.
P.S. – When you’re done reading this one, don’t miss our other expert airline comparisons:
Frontier includes baggage fees in their “Perks” and “Works” bundles, but the Unbundled option charges $40 for carry-ons, $40 for one checked bag and $92 for two checked bags. Overweight or abnormal items like skis, surfboards and instruments will have different fees assessed on site.
They encourage guests to purchase their luggage online with their ticket because prices for individual bags will cost more at the ticket counter (up to $60) and will sky rocket at the gate (over $75).
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.
Frontier seat selection is included with the “Perks” and “Works” bundles but the unbundled option will charge anywhere from $15-$60 to select your seat. Purchasing flight flexibility is $10 and overweight luggage will have a pricey upcharge.
United has extra fees for upgraded experience. For example, Economy Plus is an upgrade that Economy 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
Frontier has a savings program called Discount Den that costs $60 a year. This is a subscription program that allows members to access exclusive savings throughout the year and will even allow kids to fly free on select flights.
Frontier also has an Airlines World Mastercard which collects miles with every purchase on the card. In addition to using miles toward flights throughout the year, card members will get priority boarding with each flight and foreign transaction fees will be waived on international purchases.
Outside of these programs, anyone can view Frontier’s current discounts on the home page of the website or see the full list under the “Deals” tab. These will change pretty frequently and will typically be themed for the holiday or season.
United has a similar program called the Mileage Plus Program. 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 the next most important factor when choosing your airline, since you’ll be sitting on the plane for at least two hours if not more. These two airlines have very different offerings inflight and it’s pertinent that you review the differences in style and service.
Frontier offers the bare minimum in their seat design and technology, which is why they are able to make your flight so cheap. It’s important to realize this going in before you have a rude awakening stepping aboard the plane. The seats come pre-reclined and you won’t be able to adjust them. In addition to this, the tray tables are slim and there is no on-board entertainment.
Some people complain about the cramped feeling of flying with Frontier, but you may have a better experience if you’re able to sit in the exit row or if you have an aisle seat. On the bright side, Frontier has received awards for cleanliness in the cabin.
United gets mixed reviews on their Economy class seating areas, usually dependent upon how old the aircraft is. It’s likely that each flight in Economy will provide a different experience due to the age of the plane. Many guests state that the seats are far too small in even some of the newer jets, with limited legroom and seat placement a little too close for comfort.
Overall, the design of the cabin and the general seating is fairly on par with other similar airlines and the majority of people may think it meets their expectations. However, the outdated tech in the headrest and the comfort of the chair might be a couple setbacks on your flight.
Frontier doesn’t have a First Class section, but you can upgrade to premium or “stretch” seats at the front. They cost $60 to reserve when you book online and will offer an experience more typical of standard seats in other airline’s Economy Class. The only perks to booking one of these is to access a cushier chair, get priority boarding and to not feel cramped while flying.
United three different First Class options, which are drastically different from anything Frontier has to offer. The new Polaris Business Class has received rave reviews in quality and experience, but other First and Business Class options may vary depending on the age of the plane.
The good news is that your seat will always be more comfortable and offer more leg room; but the actual design and experience may not be worth the hefty price if you get an older 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. 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.
Frontier does not typically receive great customer reviews regarding their staff, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have a bad time. Generally, the service is poorly executed because of the cheaper price for flying. The airline does not go above and beyond to accommodate guests because they are not required to.
United also has mixed reviews with customer service; some praising attendants for great service, but many others complaining about the lack of regard for passengers in the booking process, as well as in flight. United is one huge airline, serving hundreds of cities all over the world and employing hundreds of thousands of employees, so empathy isn’t always 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 make someone’s day.
Frontier is a great example of getting what you pay for. Since the base ticket only books a spot on the flight, you’ll be paying for all the extras – including food and drinks on board. We suggest bringing snacks and a water bottle with you to avoid overpaying for these items on the flight, along with some headphones, a laptop and a book for entertainment.
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.
Flights to most major US cities are fairly easy to find with these airlines, the biggest difference you’ll see is in the international offerings. 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.
United has 827 aircraft in their fleet, shuttling passengers on over 4,900 flights every day.
Frontier has 106 aircraft in it’s current fleet, taking travelers to 115 different destinations.
Frontier is based in Denver and has a priority focus on the Rocky Mountain region of the United States. They’ve also got focus cities, or smaller hubs, in nine other US cities including Miami and Atlanta. Save for a few, most 115 of Frontier’s destinations are within the United States.
Due to Frontier’s size, it’s possible that flight changes may be a bit more difficult, resulting in hours spent on the phone with customer service or waiting a day for a new flight to your destination.
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 in 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 the 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.
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. This will be slightly more expensive, but could save you the hassle of dealing with customer service when changing or cancelling.
Frontier currently has one flight to Canada, going to Calgary. The other international destinations include Mexico, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Jamaica. In Summer 2021, they’ll offer flights to Nassau in the Bahamas and Philipsburg in St. Maarten.
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.
Frontier allows adult passengers to bring one pet in a small carrier that fits under the seat in front of them. The charge per pet is $99 each way and must be reserved in advance to guarantee placement. They’ll allow any small pets, including dogs and cats, plus rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters and household birds. These rules apply to domestic flights, but Frontier will allow dogs and cats on flights to the Dominican Republic and Mexico.
United will allow small cats, dogs or even rabbits to travel in the cabin if there is enough space. Pets are required to be at least 2 months old and must remain in their carrier for the duration of the flight. The carrier has to fit under the seat in front of you and can be hard or soft-sided. United charges $250 for passengers to travel with one pet.
Frontier and United do not transport any kind of pet in the cargo hold of the airplane.
Based on percentage, air travel is the safest way to go when compared to other forms of transportation. While crashes are extremely rare, it’s worth noting which airlines have the best safety measures in place for you personally. We’ll also cover how each airline handles lost baggage.
Frontier uses Airbus A319, Airbus A320, and Airbus 321-200 models. Airbus makes planes for the majority of airlines across the world and the aircrafts they build come with a built-in “Skywise Reliability” program which reports safety concerns automatically to the airline.
United employs Airbus and Embraer, 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.
Most airlines have a few incidents in the books, while others have many. For the most part, no airline commonly experiences scenarios that cause major harm to passengers, but we’ll touch on the worst incidents each airline has experienced.
Frontier had a few fatal crashes in their early days piloting smaller aircraft, but these days have proven much safer. Aside from a few small incidents of turbulence and bird strikes, the most recent accidents have involved chemical odor on board. This smell occurred several times between 2016 and 2018 on different A320 and A321s resulting in over a dozen passengers and several pilots being hospitalized due to the fumes.
Other than these incidents, the only true accident that has occurred in the last five years involved heavy winds and a hard landing in Orlando in 2019. No injuries were reported in this case.
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.
When it comes to safety, both airlines follow the strict TSA guidelines. They will also adhere to the rules of each country they fly in to during international travel and will have each traveler complete a form stating that they have not brought any prohibited items in their checked bags or carry-ons, which are subject to search.
We suggest you review each airline’s baggage requirements before flying. Some vacationers may not realize that the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is among United’s prohibited items, along with most electric skateboards in checked bags. Lithium batteries are strongly prohibited on both Frontier and United flights.
As far as losing baggage goes, checking directly with the airline in the airport should be your first step. If no luck there, United has a bag tracing web page where customers can search for lost luggage and file complaints.
Frontier will assess damaged baggage and may pay the cost of damage if applicable up to $3500. For lost baggage, they require you to submit a Delayed Baggage form in person or on their website. On average, they lose 3.5 bags per 1000 passengers according to a recent report by Luggagehero.
In conclusion, neither will offer the most ideal service in Economy, but we give a slight edge to United for better First Class and Business Class options, as well as having more flights to choose from in destinations all over the world.
United will be best in most cases, especially if you are traveling outside the country. They may be more expensive, but you’ll have better seating, you’ll get to choose your spot and you’ll have drinks and snacks included in the flight. In the event of a flight change or cancellation, it’ll be easier to rebook with United or another partner within the Star Alliance.
Frontier is most ideal for those looking for a bargain. If you are simply looking to save money, it’s more likely that Frontier will have the cheapest flight available, however we have seen United’s pricing be fairly comparable in some circumstances. If you do choose Frontier, just be sure to expect the bare minimum in the flight and the cost will be worth the trip.