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  • Writer's pictureNick Burgess

Delta Airlines vs. United Airlines: A Comprehensive Comparison

Choosing the right airline can significantly impact your travel experience. In this in-depth analysis, we compare Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, two major airlines in the United States, to help you make an informed decision. We will evaluate them based on various factors including customer service, in-flight experience, frequent flyer programs, and more.

a united flight in front of a delta flight in front of a quantas flight in front of a korean air flight

Overview of Delta Air Lines

As someone who lives in the Delta headquarters city of Atlanta, I am aggressively familiar with the red triangle of flight. Delta Air Lines is known for its extensive network of domestic and international flights. With hubs in major cities like Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City, Delta provides easier access to numerous destinations. Delta's reputation for good customer service and in-flight entertainment has made it a preferred choice for many travelers.


Customer Service and In-Flight Experience

Delta's customer service is often praised for being responsive and helpful. The airline offers a range of classes including Basic Economy, Premium Economy, Business Class, and First Class. Each class comes with its own set of amenities. For instance, Delta One, the airline's business class product, offers lie-flat seats, premium food and beverage service, and enhanced privacy.


In-flight entertainment on Delta flights is top-notch, with a wide selection of movies, TV shows, music, and games available on personal screens. The Delta SkyMiles program is another highlight, offering various benefits and the opportunity to earn miles that can be redeemed for award flights.


Overview of United Airlines

United Airlines, a member of the Star Alliance, is another leading airline with a vast network of domestic and international destinations. United operates major hubs in cities like Chicago, San Francisco, Denver, and Houston, making it a strong competitor in the airline business.


Customer Service and In-Flight Experience

United's customer service has seen improvements in recent years, with a focus on enhancing the passenger experience. The airline offers various travel classes, including Basic Economy, Premium Plus (United's premium economy product), Business Class, and United Polaris (United's international business class).


United Polaris is designed for long-haul international flights and includes lie-flat seats, high-quality dining options, and access to exclusive lounges. United's in-flight entertainment system is comparable to Delta's, providing a wide array of options to keep passengers entertained.


Frequent Flyer Programs: Delta SkyMiles vs. United MileagePlus

Delta SkyMiles

The Delta SkyMiles program is known for its flexibility and ease of use. SkyMiles can be earned through Delta flights, partner airlines, and everyday purchases with the Delta SkyMiles American Express card. The program also offers various elite status levels, including Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Diamond Medallion, each providing different perks such as complimentary upgrades, priority boarding, and bonus miles.


However, the key downside to this program is the constant devaluation of the awards. SkyMiles used to be a valuable currency that could be spent in exciting routes for your next vacation. Now? They're still easy to use, but you need to amass hundreds of thousands for your next international adventure. This has led to Delta SkyMiles being coloquially referred to as "SkyPesos" by the online community.


United MileagePlus

United's MileagePlus program is similarly competitive, allowing members to earn miles through United flights, partner airlines, and purchases with the United Explorer card. MileagePlus also offers several elite status levels: Premier Silver, Premier Gold, Premier Platinum, and Premier 1K. These statuses provide benefits like access to United Clubs, complimentary upgrades, and Premier Qualifying Points (PQP) which are used to achieve and maintain status.


Advantage: United. Their MileagePlus miles are actually pretty valuable, and can transfer to partners across their alliance for better redemptions than you'll get with Delta.


Credit Card Partnerships

Both Delta and United have partnerships with major financial institutions to offer co-branded credit cards that provide additional benefits to frequent flyers.


Delta SkyMiles American Express Cards

Delta offers several co-branded credit cards with American Express, including the Delta SkyMiles Gold, Platinum, and Reserve cards. These cards provide benefits such as priority boarding, free checked bags, and the ability to earn miles on everyday purchases. The Delta Reserve card also offers access to Delta Sky Clubs and a companion certificate each year.


United Explorer and United Club Cards

United, in partnership with Chase, offers the United Explorer and United Club cards. These cards come with perks like free checked bags, priority boarding, and United Club access for United Club cardholders. Cardholders can also earn United miles on purchases and enjoy travel insurance benefits.


Advantage: Tie. The Delta credit cards went through a massive revamp in 2023 that added quite a few perks and credits, but removed things like guests in the SkyClubs and SkyClub limits unless you hit a spend threshold. United's program is vanilla and boring, but consistent, whereas Delta's Amex partnership is exciting, but highly unstable.


Domestic and International Routes

Delta Air Lines

Delta's network covers numerous domestic and international destinations. The airline has a strong presence in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, with non-stop flights to major cities like London, Paris, Tokyo, and Buenos Aires. Delta's extensive route map ensures that travelers have a wide range of options for both short-haul and long-haul flights.


United Airlines

United also boasts an impressive network of routes, with significant coverage in North America, Europe, Asia, and South America. United's membership in the Star Alliance gives it a competitive edge by providing access to a global network of partner airlines. This makes United a strong choice for travelers looking for comprehensive international flight options.


Advantage: Delta. This is where Delta kicks ass. You can get anywhere in the world on Delta basically with a direct flight. Not to mention that they have the highest percentage of on-time departures in the industry, leading them to be named The Points Guy's best airline of 2023. This one is no contest.


Baggage Policies and Fees

Delta Air Lines

Delta's baggage policies are relatively straightforward. Basic Economy passengers are allowed one carry-on bag and one personal item. Checked baggage fees vary depending on the route and class of service. Delta SkyMiles members with elite status and co-branded credit cardholders often receive free checked bags.


United Airlines

United's baggage policies are similar to Delta's. Basic Economy passengers are permitted one carry-on bag and one personal item. Checked baggage fees depend on the route and class of service. MileagePlus members with elite status and co-branded credit cardholders typically enjoy free checked bags.


Advantage: Tie. Thanks to their credit cards, you really don't have to think about baggage fees anymore.


Seat Comfort and Assignments

Delta Air Lines

Delta is known for its comfortable seating, particularly in premium cabins. Delta One and First Class offer spacious seats with ample legroom and reclining features. Even in Economy and Premium Economy, Delta provides decent comfort. However, Basic Economy passengers might find fewer options for seat assignments without paying additional fees.


United Airlines

United has also made strides in improving seat comfort, especially in its Polaris Business Class and Premium Plus cabins. These seats offer enhanced comfort and more space. In Economy and Basic Economy, seat comfort is standard, with seat assignment fees applicable for those who prefer to choose their seats in advance.


Advantage: United. Delta's first class, named "Delta One," rolled out in 2016 to much fanfare, but mixed reviews. The seats in Delta's top product are just OK, and same goes for the food that comes along with it. United's Polaris product, however, is very highly regarded for U.S carriers.


In-Flight Food and Beverage

Delta Air Lines

Delta's food and beverage service is often regarded as one of the better offerings among major airlines. First Class and Delta One passengers can enjoy gourmet meals, while Premium Economy and Economy passengers receive complimentary snacks and beverages, with the option to purchase more substantial meals. Pro tip: their chicken salad sandwich available for purchase is totally worth the $10.


United Airlines

United has also focused on enhancing its in-flight dining experience. United Polaris passengers are treated to multi-course meals with premium ingredients, while Premium Plus and Economy passengers receive complimentary snacks and meals on long-haul flights. United's focus on improving food quality has been a good thing for travelers seeking a better in-flight experience.


Advantage: United. Anyone that's flown Delta's higher-level products won't be shocked by this one. You're not flying Delta for the food, but you might be enticed by United's.


Technology and In-Flight Entertainment

Both Delta and United invest significantly in technology to enhance the passenger experience. Delta's in-flight entertainment system is known for its extensive selection and user-friendly interface. United's system is similarly comprehensive, offering a wide variety of entertainment options.


Advantage: Delta. Delta's IFE system is the best in the business, so this one isn't very close.


Wi-Fi and Connectivity

Delta offers Wi-Fi on most of its flights, allowing passengers to stay connected while in the air. United provides a similar service, with Wi-Fi available on the majority of its aircraft. Both airlines offer in-flight messaging services on select flights.


Advantage: Delta. Delta provides free wifi now for their Medallion customers of any status level, meaning you can sign up right there on the plane for free wifi. This was really an industry first, and it's rapidly becoming the standard, so you have to give it up for Delta.


Final Thoughts: Choosing the Right Airline

Choosing between Delta and United ultimately comes down to personal preferences and specific travel needs. Delta is often praised for its customer service, in-flight entertainment, and overall comfort, making it a strong choice for both domestic and international flights. United, on the other hand, offers a vast route network, particularly through its Star Alliance membership, and has made significant improvements in its service quality and in-flight experience.


When deciding which airline to fly with, consider factors such as your frequent flyer status, the availability of non-stop flights to your desired destinations, and the specific perks offered by each airline's co-branded credit cards. Both Delta and United have their strengths, and understanding these can help you make a more informed decision for your next trip.


For the best times to book flights, it is often recommended to monitor prices and book well in advance. Tools like NerdWallet and other online data analysis tools can provide insights into the most cost-effective times to purchase tickets. Additionally, staying informed about each airline's policies and updates can help ensure a smooth and enjoyable travel experience.


In summary, both Delta and United are strong contenders in the airline sector, each with its unique advantages. By evaluating the factors that matter most to you, from in-flight comfort to frequent flyer benefits, you can choose the right airline to meet your travel needs.

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