United Airlines plane

I’m considering giving some of my business to United

Disclaimer: I began this post the night before my fiasco with United and Marriott started. The issue was never resolved, so I ended up flying without my status, but I will be following up on the issue directly with United. For the purposes of this post, I am removing that hiccup from my memory.

I want to start off saying that I won’t ever talk ill of Delta. I have not only traveled with Delta the most over the past year, but I have had the least amount of issues with them. On a weekly basis, I firmly believe Delta is the best airline to travel with. From the people you interact with to the timeliness on handling problems, Delta makes weekly travel a breeze — even during delays.

As with anything in life, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. The ‘cake’ in this case is exceptional service, and ‘eating it’ would be an incredibly valuable miles program. Breaking that down — Delta without a doubt has the best service of any of the US domestic airlines, but unfortunately the SkyMiles you earn just don’t live up.

Thinking about where to shift my loyalty, it really comes down to United or Atlanta. I find that both American and United have more valuable mile currencies. Looking past the exact dollar value of one mile, United and American have more attractive partners and easier opportunities to redeem on those partners. Needless to say, I’m a bit torn where I should point my loyalty. With my current home airport, I have options for all three, and while Delta is the best in this scenario, I have begun to think that maybe I should focus on what points I want to earn while I’m still doing it for free.

I’ve recently decided to fly United a bit and I have been very pleased with the experience. In other words, I haven’t been dragged off a flight yet….(too soon?)

I’m going to go through some of the key factors I look at when evaluating an airline, and ultimately why United comes out close to the top.

In flight experience

I think Delta masters the in-flight experience. Even their older planes (MD-88s and 90s) are retrofitted with new, sleek finishes, and they have easily the most comparable (if not the best) in-flight entertainment. On top of that the service is always impeccable. Whether in first or economy, I have never been able to complain about my in-flight experience.

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First Class meal when flying on Delta.

But with my recent flights on United I have been unexpectedly pleased with the in-flight experience. I would say that it is comparable to Delta — I wouldn’t go as far as saying that it was better, but I was pleasantly satisfied. I haven’t had to deal with any major bumps in the road, but all United personnel I’ve dealt with have been very gracious. The glaring difference is the IFE — United pales in comparison to Delta. A lot of US airlines are switching to personal device streaming, which I usually use anyways, but the simple aesthetic of Delta’s IFE makes me feel like I am in a United plane. Once again, this is on domestic planes, and it really doesn’t affect my in flight experience, I am simply talking about pure aesthetic of the product.

While I don’t think this is my deciding factor to give business to United, poor in flight experience can definitely be a deal breaker. Luckily, for United’s case, it is not.

Elite benefits

In my opinion, one of the largest downsides to Delta’s SkyMiles program is their parity in Medallion levels. With Delta being arguably the best airline for business travelers, you also get a ton of elite members. Because of that, it can seem like being a Gold Medallion () is nothing better than a basic member. Ultimately, so many people fly with Delta that there are so many Diamond Medallions — Delta’s highest elite tier, that has further increased the qualifying miles.

Delta One Suite on board an Airbus A350
Delta One suites (Courtesy of Delta)

I can’t say positively how United compares in this category one way or the other. On the surface, it is a bit easier to qualify for United’s 1K, but most of the benefits are the same across similar tiers. I have been pretty lucky with upgrades, though. I haven’t traveled at the most busy times during these upgrades, but it has left a good taste of United in my mouth. (This is, of course, with the exception of just recently, when I realized my complimentary Silver status was withdrawn).

The elite benefits that I’ve gotten from United recently have been positive, and I would say are trending me in the right direction, but I definitely need time for things to even themselves out.

Partner Benefits

As my travel goals have evolved, so have my preferences in terms of the airline miles I earn. While I think that weekly business travel should be more about overall convenience, and getting you from A to B, there is something to be said about accruing miles for free that ultimately lead to a free award. I won’t break down every Star Alliance partner here, and tell you how they match up to those on the other airlines, but the top of that list is Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa. Both of which offer some great award possibilities that can be booked with United. Another cool thing about United and its partners is that you can search award availability right on the United website — in comparison to its counterparts, this is the easiest way to search and book awards through partner airlines.

While I don’t want to  immediately denigrate SkyMiles partner awards, as there are some great options to fly with Korean Air or Air France/KLM, I believe that when the rubber hits the road you have better options with a slew of United miles, versus Delta Skymiles. Do I think this is

Where they fly

I put this on the bottom because it popped into my head naturally towards the end — but this is definitely high on the list to take into consideration. The ‘Big 3′ US airlines all have a network routing model based around a few domestic hubs, in which any “other” markets connect in and out of those market. What that means is that unless you live at, or are flying to one of those major hubs, you are going to be connecting through an airport to get to your destination. For Delta, it is obviously Atlanta, New York-Laguardia, Detroit, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, LAX, or Seattle — so if these aren’t on your itinerary, you will most likely be transferring through one of them. For United, it is Houston, Washington-Dulles, Denver, Chicago O’ Hare, Newark and LAX. While Southwest has revolutionized the airline industry in regards to their route networks, there is obviously still a huge demand for the ‘Big 3.’

In my opinion, the benefits of holding status with Delta or United is a lot more rewarding than with Southwest (unless you get into the possibility of the Companion Pass). When it comes down to it, I feel like an elite with Delta or United — from early boarding to upgrades to first class, I enjoy the simple title. But because of this, we get back to the location restraint — ultimately this is a huge factor in deciding where to keep your loyalty. When travelling so much, you want the least amount of connections as possible, diminishing the possibility for error.

Atlanta is easily one of the most efficient airports at getting people from a to b. It is the busiest airport in the world but connecting from terminal to terminal is virtually seamless — in my opinion. I find it quite fascinating, actually, when you consider the amount of people that move through that airport on a daily basis. Ultimately, though, direct flights are the goal, so wherever I end up relocating will carry the most weight in regards to that. Stay tuned!

Bottom Line

As I’ve continued to mention, there is no one feature of an airline mileage program that has me leaning one way or the other. Rather, it is a holistic viewpoint of all the factors leading me to decide one way or the other. With the recent bump I had with United, and a lot of my future plans still up in the air, I wouldn’t say I’ve decided one way or the other. I do think it is worth deciding soon though.

 

 

Tucker is an avid points and miles enthusiast. Being fully involved in the world of credit cards and frequent flying for only a few years now, he brings a very fresh and unique perspective to the world of travel.

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