Trying to decide between United Airlines and American for your next flight?
The quick answer is that American offers more in Economy Class than United does while also charging less for Economy tickets. If saving money is your goal and you’re traveling within the United States, American Airlines is the way to go. Pricing and options are about the same on international flights between these two airlines.
Low cost airlines are some of the most popular options for travelers when planning a trip around the country or around the world. Since this is the case, it’s pretty common to see vacationers comparing American Airlines and United Airlines.
When traveling in the United States, choosing between them will come down to comfort, experience and price – all will be covered in this article. To begin, we’ll give a brief background on both:
American Airlines is the world’s largest airline due to its fleet size and number of passengers carried per year. American carries nearly 200 million passengers annually. The airline size was a direct result of merging with US Airways in 2011, but American originally started in 1930 when two large airline organizations merged at the time.
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.
Pricing & Extra Charges
Most people consider flight pricing first and foremost when comparing flights between companies. Since airfare is one of the bigger travel expenses when taking a trip, it’s important to know how each company prices their tickets and baggage, along with any extra hidden fees that may pop up along the way.
American uses a fairly standard booking system which separates options into classes. Main Cabin seating is what we’ll be using for this pricing example, which allows you to choose your seat and includes no change fees (this is a plus if you need to switch flights after booking).
We tested booking flights throughout the year to compare pricing and concluded that a round trip along the United States’ East Coast is generally about $240, cross-country flights are around $400 and a trip to France is about $1030 for a single passenger with a possible stop at favorable flight times.
Here’s a full breakdown of what each American Airlines class includes:
- Basic Economy: includes carry-on and personal item, and advanced seat selection with general boarding for the lowest cost possible
- Main Cabin: includes carry-on and personal item, one checked bag and advanced seat selection with general boarding
- Main Cabin Extra: includes carry-on and personal item, one checked bag and advanced seat selection with early boarding, more leg room
- Premium Economy: includes carry-on and personal item, one checked bag and advanced seat selection with early boarding, priority check-in and security, wide seats with more leg room, complimentary amenities bag, free WiFi, and exclusive meals with free alcoholic beverage
- Business: includes carry-on and personal item, one checked bag and advanced seat selection with early boarding, priority check-in and security, wide seats with more leg room, complimentary amenities bag, free WiFi, and premium dining on international flights with access to the Flagship Lounge and Admiral’s Club
- First: includes carry-on and personal item, one checked bag and advanced seat selection with early boarding, priority check-in and security, wide seats with more leg room, complimentary amenities bag, free WiFi, and premium dining on domestic flights with access to the Flagship Lounge and Admiral’s Club
United uses a checklist process when booking your flight. 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. 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.
One difference we noticed during our research for the France example is that United had a lot more nonstop flights to choose from, making your trip to Paris less than 10 hours from New York. With American, there were almost no nonstop flights at favorable times of day, resulting in more than 15 total hours of air travel in one day.
Here’s the breakdown of United’s class system 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.
American includes one checked bag in each ticket option, except in Basic Economy. If you only plan to carry one checked bag, you should experience no additional fees. However, extra bags are priced as follows: first bag (for Basic Economy tickets) is $30, the second bag (for anyone) is $40, the third is $150 and each additional bag after that is $200. Pricing may vary for international flights.
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.
American doesn’t have many hidden fees, but there are a few additional options you can get with your flight. For example, if you’d like to insure your flight and get a refund, fees will be assessed according to the price you paid for the round trip flight. The fee is typically between $50 – $150.
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).
P.S. – When you’re done reading this one, don’t miss our other expert airline comparisons:
Ways to Save
American has the AAdvantage Program, which is a loyalty program with points given for booking flights, or spending money with their hotel, rental and dining partners. The points can be used for flights, upgrades and car or hotel rentals. Their Elite Status reward members get the best advantages if they are very frequent flyers, but the program is not always recommended if you don’t plan to fly with American regularly.
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, and it’s a huge deal for most people. Short flights might be manageable with a less than ideal cabin, but comfortable seating with plenty of leg room is a necessity for long flights. We cover the complete details on flight experience from comfort and safety on board, to customer service and food quality.
American‘s Main Cabin seating has been the source of complaints from frequent flyers in recent years. Apparently during renovation of their fleet, the seat size decreased to allow more passengers to board each flight.
Travelers have complained that leg room has become shorter and the lavatories have gotten smaller. If you’ve never been on an American Airlines flight before, these sizes might be marginally smaller than most. But for those who fly American regularly, this was a big change worth noting.
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.
American has three upgraded classes, including Premium Economy, Business and First Class – all provide about the same experience. All promise early boarding, large and cozy seats, and special service from the flight attendants. Their Flagship First even has fully-flat (pictured above) beds!
Each premium guest will receive an amenities bag, along with a special menu created by professional chefs, and a bit more privacy at the front of the cabin.
There have been reported complaints about the flight crew not attending to the premium seating as expected and issues with bumping passengers from first class – a major no-no for those who paid to be in a high-valued spot. Lately though, American has been doing more to step up their game after hearing these complaints and attending to guests as they should.
United and their new Polaris Business Class section has gotten great reviews. However, most guests will be using the First Class or regular Business Class in most flights, which will 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.
Most first class fliers state that the lie-flat seats are the ones to look for. 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.
The top of the line seats are by far the Polaris Business Class lie-flat seats, but these are limited.
American tends to have mixed reviews regarding their flight crew. Some travelers have reported praise for the captains and attendants who have gone out of their way to show kindness, but many have bemoaned the a lack of customer service which alludes to bad corporate culture.
It’s easy to see how an environment of friendliness can get lost in the shuffle of the world’s largest airline company. But being in the service industry, passengers expect airlines to be accommodating and friendly at the very least.
United also has mixed reviews with customer service; some exclaiming the service was great, but many more complaining of the lack of empathy for passengers in the booking process, as well as in flight. With United being a huge airline like American, serving hundreds of cities all over the world and employing hundreds of thousands of employees, 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.
American hands out free snacks and drinks on each flight, and is equipped with a large menu and beverage list for overnight and international flights. Wifi is available for purchase for a small fee in Economy, but will be included with Premium seating. Headrest screens have also been installed on each seat for free entertainment on every flight.
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. 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 US cities and international destinations are pretty easy to find with these airlines, the biggest difference you’ll see here is in rescheduling and cancellations. If you’re looking to travel spontaneously, it’s helpful to know which airlines are most accommodating. And in the event that your flight changes or gets cancelled, it’s also good to know which company will get you on a new flight faster.
United has 827 aircraft in their fleet, shuttling passengers on over 4,900 flights every day. American, is again one of the largest airlines, sending travelers on nearly 6,800 daily flights with 864 aircraft in it’s fleet.
American serves 95 locations in the US, with it’s main hub in Dallas/Fort Worth and an additional 10 other hubs around the country.
Because of American’s giant alliance and network of codeshare agreements with other airlines in the country and around the world, booking, cancelling and flight changes should be easily accomplished – that is, if their relationships with their many various worker’s unions are in tact. There have been more cancellations recently due to mandatory plane groundings, which accounts for about 4% of their flights. This is considered a high number of groundings in the airline industry.
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.
American serves almost the entire world with national and international flights departing daily. International destinations include 95 locations around the globe, serving 55 different countries on over five continents.
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.
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.
Both airlines are equipped with the standard aircraft makes and models. Airbus makes planes for the majority of airlines across the world and the aircrafts they build come have a built-in “Skywise Reliability” program which reports safety concerns automatically to the airline.
American uses a combination of Airbus A320 and Boeing 737-800 narrow-bodied aircraft in all their flights. The wider bodied planes in operation are their Boeing 777 and 787 models. Each of these is considered the highest standard of aircraft in the industry.
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.
American has had significantly more incidents that other airlines do to it’s age and size. American Airlines planes have been hijacked 17 times, according to the Aviation Safety Network (two of them colliding with the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001). Also in 2001, American Airlines experienced it’s second deadliest crash when Flight 587 crashed into a Queens neighborhood, killing all on board.
More recently, in 2016, a Boeing 767-300 caught fire before takeoff in Chicago O’Hare due to an uncontained failure. The entire crew and all passengers were able to get off safely, with only a few receiving minor injuries in the panic.
United has many different incidents, as well, 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. Flight 175 hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center, while Flight 93 was made famous by the brave passengers who prevented the hijackers from colliding with the intended destination – the Pentagon. Flight 93 crash landed in a field in Somerset, Pennsylvania.
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 or deaths. 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 for both acceptable and prohibited items aboard the aircraft. They 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 both airlines prohibited items, along with most electric skateboards in checked bags. American also requires mobility devices to be within certain guidelines and given advance notice. Lithium batteries are strongly prohibited on 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.
American also has an option to track your bags and will reimburse you for the items lost while you’re on vacation when you file a complaint. If the luggage has gone missing for more than three days, a questionnaire must be filled out and their Central Baggage Resolution Office will handle it from there.
In conclusion, a random example roundtrip flight from Miami to New York City during the busy summer month of June will cost one person about $262 with American and will cost one person about $590 with United. Both of these options factor in carry-on bags and at least one checked bag.
The differences between these two might not be quite as substantial as it was in something like our Spirit vs Southwest article, but they are still definitely noticeable.
United seems to miss the mark here with higher fares that include fewer perks. Your $590 might get you a little bit more comfortable seat, but is it worth the potentially poor customer service, dated plane interior and hassle in case of flight cancellation or changes? Even if you took First Class, unless you booked Polaris, it’s likely that your experience will be less than stellar when compared to American’s all-inclusive First Class.
American gives you a bit more in their Main Cabin option with no change fees, advanced seat selection and one free checked bag included in the price. Not to mention that this particular comparison from Miami to New York City from June 13 – June 19 is over $300 cheaper than United!
American Airlines is definitely the way to go when flying Economy. The seats and accommodations might be smaller or a little less comfortable, but the ticket price is cheaper, the options included with the ticket are more favorable and your bags will be paid for if lost. Neither are true top-tier options, but between the two, American is the best choice.