Trying to decide between United & Delta for your next flight? We can help with that!
The quick answer is that Delta is the superior airline in terms of customer service, free flight changes, and overall experience. United is the more budget-friendly option, depending on what extras you need. Both airlines are enormous and have tons of flights around the world.
That’s the way-too-short answer. Realistically, there are lots of nuances to cover in order for you to determine which option best fits your needs.
Before we dive into the specifics of pricing, experience and service, we’ll start with an abbreviated background of each airline:
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 Contintental Airlines to create the fleet we see today.
Delta Air Lines was established in 1925 as a crop dusting company and is now the world’s second largest airline and a founding member of SkyTeam Alliance. They began shuttling passengers by 1929 and expanding services from Monroe, LA to Atlanta, GA and beyond. After merging with Northeast Airlines, Western Airlines and later Pan Am, Delta became the leading airline for flights across the Atlantic. It merged with Northwest Airlines in 2008, leading to its great success.
Pricing & Extra Charges
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.
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 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. 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.
You can find all of United’s fares/seats listed on this section of their website.
Delta has an easy-to-manage booking process with different flight times available on all days of the year and a user-friendly interface.
After our research of Main (economy class) pricing through the year, we were able to determine what Delta typically charges for airfare. We found that an average flight on the East Coast at any point in the year is about $257, a cross-country trip averages $526 and a roundtrip to France is approximately $2000.
If you’re looking to book an international flight and Delta doesn’t have one available, it’s likely you’ll be able to find one with their SkyTeam Alliance partners. You can find the link to that booking page by clicking the small SkyTeam logo next to Delta’s logo at the top left of the homepage.
Delta has five different classes on their flights, though availability will vary by destination. Here’s the breakdown of what each one includes in the price:
- Basic: this is the lowest fare available and has its limitations. You’ll board last and be assigned a seat in the back of the plane. You won’t be able to upgrade or get a refund if you cancel.
- Main: this is Delta’s economy class. You’ll have general boarding and get to choose your seat. You’ll also be able to change your flight for free and can receive Delta credit if you cancel.
- Comfort: this is Premium Economy, which features more leg room toward the front of the cabin. You’ll have dedicated overhead bin storage, free beer, wine and snacks, and you’ll get to deplane first. You’ll also be able to change your flight for free.
- First Class: You’ll get two free checked bags, priority boarding and big, cozy seats. You can also change your flight for free. In flight you’ll receive premium meals, drinks and snacks, as well as special service.
- Delta One: the most elite option Delta has. You’ll get two free checked bags, priority boarding and lie-flat seating at the front of the plane. You can also change your flight for free and get complimentary Sky Club access. In flight you’ll receive chef-curated fine dining with special service.
You can find all of Delta’s fare/seat types listed on this page of their site.
P.S. – When you’re done reading this one, don’t miss our other expert airline comparisons:
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.
Delta will allow up to two free checked bags when you purchase First Class or Delta One tickets, but all other ticket options will incur a $30 fee for the first bag and $40 for the second bag. The third bag will be $150 and if you have overweight luggage it could cost $100-200 extra.
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).
Aside from overweight luggage and special or bulky checked bags and items, Delta does not have any hidden fees for regular passengers. It’s not impossible special restrictions or events could change this in the future.
Ways to Save
United uses a 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.
Delta offers a similar program with their American Express card, which allows you to earn miles by booking flights with Delta or other affiliated airlines, or shopping with partners. There’s no limit to the miles you earn and you can get special benefits like up-front seating and waived fees for baggage.
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.
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.
With Delta, you’ll be placed in Main Cabin whether you purchased the Main Cabin or Basic Economy ticket. They have what’s considered some of the best fabric for a low-cost airline and include video screens in the headrest for your entertainment.
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.
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.
Delta has two different premium options, including First Class and Delta One. First Class is what most people would expect with larger chairs, more privacy, special service, complimentary food and beverages and priority boarding. First Class may vary from plane to plane, as there are some that have yet to be renovated.
Delta One is a step above (similar to United Polaris and comes with a hefty price), allowing guests to access the Sky Club and features lie-flat seats on board for sleeping through long flights. You’ll even receive exclusive chef-curated food and beverage.
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.
Delta has always been a highly rated company where customer service is concerned. Despite their growth in recent years, expanding to destinations all over the world, their standard of “Southern Hospitality” has not changed much. Although there have been more recent complaints about flustered attendants and customer service agents, the majority of passengers agree that Delta does there best to put travelers first.
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 extra. 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.
Delta also offers complimentary snacks and beverages on all flights to all classes. We love their Biscoff cookies, which have been their signature snack of choice for decades. Alcoholic beverages can be ordered by all classes and headrest tablets are located in each seat for onboard entertainment. Wifi can also be purchased.
Both Delta and United cover most major US cities and have a powerful presence around the world. It’s mostly important to note the procedures for accommodating passengers in the event of a flight change or cancellation and which airlines you can book with their alliances and codeshare agreements.
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.
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.
Delta has hubs in Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York City, Salt Lake City, and Seattle/Tacoma. Their influence is sprinkled throughout the contiguous United States, but has a primary focus on the East Coast.
As a founding member of the SkyTeam Alliance, they have codeshare agreements with airlines like Hawaiian and WestJet. Delta often does a better job at handling cancellations and rebooking, though their customer service phone line may be difficult to manage. There have been more recent complaints of waiting days for flight changes and last minute schedule shifts, but overall Delta does not make a habit of doing this.
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.
Delta has a massive international presence, flying to hundreds of different cities across the globe. Delta is the only US airline that currently serves Copenhagen, Dakar, Lagos and Stuttgart. You can also book international flights through their SkyTeam Alliance partners like Air France, China Airlines, Kenya Airways and Virgin Atlantic.
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. Crashes are very rare, while incidents resulting in minor injuries can be a little more common. We’ll also cover safety measures in place for yourself and your baggage.
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.
Delta employs Airbus and Boeing, but primarily uses Boeing 717, 757, 767 models, along with Airbus A330. Delta typically prefers to renovate and repurpose old aircraft through their company owned TechOps, in order to save money on planes. But they have more recently been open to replacing outdated aircraft with brand new Airbus, Boeing and Bombardier models.
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.
Delta had its fair share of fatal crashes before 2000, totaling 12 reported accidents overall along with two additional incidents resulting in minor injuries. More recently in January 2015, nearly two dozen passengers were injured during a hard landing into a snow bank at LaGuardia Airport.
In January 2020, a Boeing 777 dumped gallons of fuel over a five mile radius of territory in Los Angeles County, injuring 56 people on the ground. The plane made a safe landing at LAX with no injuries on board.
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. Lithium batteries are strongly prohibited on both Delta 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.
Delta has an option to track your bags so you don’t lose them in the first place. But if you do lose them, they’ll ask you to submit a claim online or in the airport so they can investigate.
In conclusion, both of these airlines can get you from Point A to Point B pretty easily, no matter what those destinations happen to be. It may be difficult to deal with these massive companies and their customer service, but the endless flights to just about anywhere in the world can make the hassle worth it.
We are partial Delta Air Lines, since we’ve flown with them for decades, they are based in the Southeast and we’ve had pleasant experiences with them. They run a fairly tight ship (and we love their Biscoff cookies on each flight). The best part about Delta is changing your flight for free, getting reasonable airfare, and having extensive partnerships with other airlines around the world.
We would suggest taking United if you are looking to save some money, since their international flights in particular tend to be a lot cheaper than Delta. The only other reason we’d choose United over Delta is simply to experience Polaris Business Class. Since the majority of you will be flying Economy, though, we will always side with Delta.