Hawaiian Airlines vs United (the ultimate comparison)

Hawaiian Airlines vs United (the ultimate comparison)

My ultimate goal with this Hawaiian Airlines vs United comparison to help you decide which one would be best for your next visit to Hawaii. Or, maybe you’re just looking to escape the Islands. I don’t know. Anyway, making a choice isn’t easy, since both of these airlines do a multitude of things better than the other.

When you step onboard any Hawaiian Airlines aircraft (no matter where in the world you may be), the cabin crew will greet you with an Aloha spirit that’ll make you feel like you’ve been instantly transported to Hawaii. You don’t get that same sort of vibe on United Airlines. Flights to Hawaii on United feel exactly the same as flights to Newark.

On the other hand, United has a better lie-flat business class seat than Hawaiian Airlines does. For some, that’s all that matters. This is only the tip of the iceberg though, so keep reading to see how these airlines compare in a wide variety of categories…

1. Hawaiian Airlines vs United: a brief summary of all the similarities and differences

It’s amazing to me how two completely different airlines can be so competitive on routes to and from Hawaii. The company cultures of both Hawaiian Airlines and United Airlines are completely opposite of one another (unlike the similarities you read in my Alaska Airlines vs Hawaiian Airlines comparison), but neither has a problem attracting and keeping loyal flyers.


  • Hawaiian Airlines and United Airlines are the two largest airlines serving the Honolulu Daniel K. Inouye Airport (HNL).
  • The lie-flat business / first class seats that both Hawaiian and United offer on some flights to the islands are some of the best in North America. The standard recliner-style first class seats they both offer on some flights are equally mediocre.
  • The basic economy class experience on both airlines is about equal. It’s not good, but at least it’s equal.


  • Hawaiian Airlines is currently flying two aircraft types to and from Hawaii (the A330 and A321neo). United utilizes a larger number of aircraft types (including but not limited to the 737, 757, 767, 777, and 787).
  • Hawaiian Airlines has a vast network of inter-island flights, but United does not.
  • The fleet size of United Airlines is well over 10 times the size of the Hawaiian Airlines fleet (854 vs 61).
  • United Airlines also serves 10 times the number of destinations of Hawaiian Airlines (342 vs 32).
  • Hawaiian Airlines serves free meals in economy class. United does not.
United airlines 757 at HNL
United has a wider variety of aircraft types, but Hawaiian Airlines has the better livery. It’s basically the kind of stuff that makes this comparison all the more difficult for hardcore AvGeeks such as myself.

2. Hawaiian Airlines vs United Airlines seats

There’s no point in dragging this out longer than needed. For the most part, United Airlines has more comfortable (and feature rich seats) than Hawaiian Airlines does. If the seats are the only thing that matter to you on flights to and from Hawaii, United Airlines is going to be your choice.

Hawaiian Airlines seats

Even though I don’t think that Hawaiian Airlines seats are very competitive with United Airlines seats, I do have to give them credit for greatly improving their product offerings over the years. Hawaiian Airlines seats are getting better – in all classes of service.

First class

There are currently two different types of first class seats available on Hawaiian Airlines. Well, technically there are three, but I’m not counting inter-island flights since United doesn’t compete with them on those routes.

First class seats on widebody aircraft such as the A330 are spacious and comfortable. These are fully lie-flat seats, although they don’t feature video screens. Which is weird.

Hawaiian airlines a330-200 first class
Yeah, it may look a little odd, but Hawaiian Airlines A330-200 first class is really nice. Don’t knock it until you try it!
SANspotter Hawaiian airlines first class selfie
No, these seats aren’t very private, but the pre-departure Mai Tai’s (served by happy people in floral shirts and dresses) automatically makes this better than United.

First class seats on the A321neo are standard recliner-style seats that are very similar to what you’ll find in Alaska Airlines 737 MAX 9 first class.

Hawaiian airlines A321neo first class seats
Hawaiian Airlines A321neo first class seats are just ok. United doesn’t have much to worry about (except for the pre-departure Mai Tai’s).

Premium economy

Premium economy seats on Hawaiian Airlines are officially known as “Extra Comfort” seats. These are standard economy class seats with a few extra inches of legroom.

Hawaiian Airlines a330-200 extra comfort premium economy seats
Just a bunch of people “extra comforting” in Hawaiian Airlines A330-200 Extra Comfort.

Economy class

Economy class seats on Hawaiian Airlines are about the same as the economy seats on United Airlines. When comparing the economy seats of both of these airlines, there is no clear winner (in my opinion).

Hawaiian airlines a330-200 economy seats
Hawaiian Airlines economy class isn’t bad – especially if you’re headed to the islands. Ain’t nothing that can make an economy class seat feel better than knowing you’ll be in Hawaii soon!

United Airlines seats

The thing about United Airlines seats to Hawaii is that there are a wide variety of choices. United isn’t as consistent as Hawaiian Airlines is when it comes to the kinds of seat types being offered across their entire fleet of aircraft, so you have to be really careful about which type of aircraft that you’re booking.

First class

In the most simplest explanation possible, United Airlines is offering three types of first class seats on flights to and from Hawaii. The best kind are Polaris Business class seats which can be found on all wide body aircraft (such as the 777, 787, and 767). These are fully lie-flat seats, and they are glorious. Polaris business class seats are much nicer than Hawaiian Airlines A330 first class seats.

United 777-200 business class seat to Hawaii
United 777-200 business class (technically first class on routes to and from Hawaii) is very good. However, the lack of pre-departure Mai Tai’s may be a dealbreaker for some. I won’t judge you for swaying your preference towards the free Mai Tai.
SANspotter in United politics business class
The nice thing is that the lie-flat Polaris seats are extremely consistent between aircraft types. Here I am in United 777-300/ER business class from ORD to SFO hoping and praying we overshoot SFO and end up in HNL instead.

United Airlines also flies the 757 to and from Hawaii, which features either a lie flat business class seat or a standard recliner seat. They’ll tell you which one it is when you’re booking the flights, so do pay attention to that.

United airlines a319 first class
This is United A319 first class (an aircraft they don’t fly to Hawaii), but the seats are identical to the ones installed in other narrowbody types they fly out to the islands.

For what it’s worth, Hawaiian Airlines first class seats are better than United Airlines non-Polaris first class seats.

Premium economy

Premium economy on United is officially known as Economy Plus. It’s exactly the same as it is on Hawaiian Airlines, which means that it’s essentially a standard economy class seat with a few extra inches of legroom.

United 737 max 9 economy plus seats
This is Economy Plus on the United 737 MAX 9. If this looks like something you could put up with for a 5 hour flight out to the islands, than by all means, go for it.

Economy class

Economy class seats on United Airlines are nothing special, and they certainly aren’t any better than what you will find on Hawaiian airlines. It’s basically all the same.

United basic economy seats
United Airlines economy seats are so boring that I can’t even think of a good caption for this. How does “404 video screens not found” sound? I know I’ve used that one before, but C’mon. It’s the first thing I think of when I look at this pic.
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3. Hawaiian Airlines food vs United Airlines food

Just as easily as United Airlines won the seat comparison, Hawaiian Airlines wins the food comparison. Except when it comes to economy class, which I’ll explain in more detail below.

Hawaiian Airlines food

The nice thing about flying Hawaiian Airlines to and from Hawaii is that you’ll be served Hawaiian-themed food. It’s just one of the extra little touches that Hawaiian Airlines has over United Airlines that may make your decision easier.

First class

First class food on Hawaiian Airlines is better than the first class food in United Airlines (again, that’s just my opinion). It’s not a drastic difference, but I’ve always felt that the Hawaiian Airlines cabin crews take more pride with the meal service. It just feels like a more luxurious experience.

Hawaiian airlines first class dinner
Grilled Huli Huli style marinated portobello mushroom over a bed of lentils. Typical of the culinary creativity you’ll be served in Hawaiian Airlines first class.
Hawaii airlines first class menu
And if by chance you think I have terrible taste in food, here’s what else was on the menu.

In terms of quality, I would say the food is slightly better than what United Airlines serves in first class.

Premium economy

Premium economy food in Hawaiian Airlines usually consists of a hot sandwich (or a rice bowl), and some kind and a snack. I do need to warn you that this isn’t very high-quality food, and if you easily get squeamish, you may want to bring your own food instead.

Hawaiian airlines premium economy food
It may not look like much, but it’s a bowl of rice and vegetables, a salad, and a cookie more than what United Airlines serves in premium economy.
Hawaiian airlines premium economy snacks
You’ll get lots of complimentary snacks too, which will no doubt be useful to satisfy any cravings not taken care of by the “meal.”

Economy class

Economy class food on Hawaiian Airlines is exactly the same as what you’ll get in premium economy. It’s not all that great, but at least it’s free.

Hawaiian airlines economy class sandwich
Here’s an example of one the hot sandwiches (from my Hawaiian Airlines 767-300 economy review). It was probably the most disgusting airplane food that I’ve ever eaten, but that didn’t stop me from eating all of it (lol). 

United Airlines food

One of the things that has always disappointed me about United Airlines flights to Hawaii is that they don’t get very creative with the menu. They usually end up serving the exact same meals they serve in domestic first class back on the mainland.

First class

I would much rather eat Hawaiian Airlines first class food then United Airlines first class food. Not that the food served on United is all that bad, but it’s extremely repetitive and it tastes a bit more mass produced. I really wish they would take more creative freedom with the food on flights to and from Hawaii.

United airlines first class breakfast on flights to and from Hawaii
This is what United was serving in first class on my last flight with them from Honolulu to San Francisco. It was just as bland as the first time I tried it (six months prior) in 767-300 Polaris business class from Los Angeles to Washington Dulles.

Premium economy

In premium economy (Economy Plus), your food options will be a snack consisting of one free drink and a bag of chips (or a cookie), or to purchase something off the in-flight menu. United Airlines does not serve free meals to economy class passengers like Hawaiian Airlines does.

United economy plus food
Sorry. Unless you’re willing to spend money on something from the in flight menu, Stroopwafels are about as good as the eating gets in United Economy Plus.

Economy class

The food options in economy class on United Airlines flights to and from Hawaii are exactly the same as they are in Economy Plus. If you want something more substantial than a snack, you’re going to have to purchase something off the menu.

4. Comparing Hawaiian Airlines and United Airlines in-flight entertainment

At the time of this writing, I proclaim Hawaiian Airlines the winner in the in-flight entertainment comparison with United. Just barely. Both airlines have rather significant disadvantages over the other when it comes to video content, so it’s important to know what those differences are before booking your flight.

Hawaiian Airlines in-flight entertainment

Hawaiian Airlines in-flight entertainment is…odd. Although they do feature personal video screens in all economy seats on the A330, there are no video screens in A321 economy – or any first class seats on any aircraft.

In first class, they hand out large 11.5″ iPads with noise canceling headphones to any passenger that wants it. In my opinion, this is a slightly inconvenient setup. Why? Well, what usually ends up happening is that you’ll fidget around trying to find a place for the iPad that doesn’t interfere with your food (or anything else that you’ve got on your tray table). 

Hawaiian airlines first class iPad video entertainment
No, you don’t get to keep the iPad they’ll give you in Hawaiian Airlines first class. It sure would be a quick and easy way to win this competition with United though. 

In terms of the selection of TV shows, movies, and audio entertainment, it’s all really good. There’s always a substantial collection of recent movies to choose from, and I’ve never not been able to find something good to watch on any Hawaiian Airlines flight.

Wi-Fi is available for purchase, though it can be quite expensive.

United Airlines in-flight entertainment

When it comes to in-flight entertainment, United Airlines is pretty much the opposite of Hawaiian Airlines. Yes, their selection of TV shows, movies, and audio is just as impressive, but not every passenger will get a personal video screen at their seat. At least not yet. United Airlines is currently in the process of upgrading their interiors (which will feature video screens at every seat), but it’s going to take a while.

First class seats on widebody aircraft such as the 777, 787, 767 feature video screens. Most other aircraft will not, but there are a few aircraft in the fleet of that do. It’s maddening.

United 787-8 video entertainment
Video entertainment (as seen here from my United 787-8 business class review) is quite good. Be warned though – you’ll be forced to sit through an *** load of credit card ads before you can watch anything.

The good news is that United offers a fast and stable streaming entertainment solution which can be accessed via your personal device. It’s completely free, and the selection of entertainment is excellent.

United airlines streaming video entertainment
If the plane you’re flying on to Hawaii doesn’t have video screens, prepare to end up with a sore wrist from watching streaming content on your phone for so long. There are worse ways to end up with a sore wrist I suppose…

Wi-Fi is available add an extra cost. However, just as it is a Hawaiian Airlines, it can be exorbitantly expensive.

5. Comparing the Hawaiian Airlines and United Airlines frequent flyer programs

The frequent flyer programs of both United Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines couldn’t be more different. They attract two completely different types of travelers, and once you understand the differences, it’ll be pretty clear which one is better for you.

Hawaiian Airlines HawaiianMiles

The Hawaiian Airlines mileage program (HawaiianMiles) is fundamentally the same as the United Airlines frequent flyer program, in the sense that you earn the most points based on the amount of money that you spend (more than the distance you fly).

In my opinion, the biggest disadvantage that HawaiianMiles has over the United frequent flyer program is versatility. Unlike United, Hawaiian Airlines has a small number of airline and hotel partners. This means that unless you’re flying Hawaiian Airlines frequently (or utilizing other airlines or hotels they codeshare with), it’s very difficult to do amass a pile of HawaiianMiles points large enough to be redeemed for free travel.

Hawaiian airlines a330 at HNL
See? I told you the Hawaiian Airlines livery was nicer.

HawaiianMiles points don’t expire anymore, which is nice for anyone who wants to start building status (or points) on Hawaiian Airlines but don’t fly with them very often.

Note that there are also a number of co-branded Hawaiian Airlines credit cards available, which is another good way to keep earning points without flying.

United Airlines MileagePlus

For me, the United Airlines frequent flyer program (MileagePlus) is the far better choice. United Airlines is part of the Star Alliance, meaning that I can earn points by flying any of the large number of airlines in the alliance. For example, it was easy to earn MileagePlus points flying from Montreal to Vancouver on Air Canada a few years ago. I would never be able to do something like that with the HawaiianMiles.

Unless you’re flying to and from Hawaii very frequently, United Airlines MileagePlus is likely going to be the better choice.

Points never expire, and you’ll have a far greater number of ways to earn (and redeem) your points.

United 777-200 flying over Oahu
The only consolation about leaving Hawaii on United is that the points you’ll earn for doing do can go towards that dream trip to Gary, IN that you’ve been saving up for. FYI, you can’t get to Gary on Hawaiian Airlines.

7. Comparing the route networks

Even though the route networks of both Hawaiian Airlines and United Airlines are vastly different, they both have one thing in common: A very large presence in the Hawaiian Islands. While United Airlines doesn’t officially consider Honolulu to be a hub, they are one of the largest airlines that serve that airport in terms of total passenger volume.

Hawaiian Airlines route network

As their name implies, Hawaiian Airlines is based in Hawaii (more specifically, Honolulu). The majority of their flights are to and from the mainland, though they do serve a number of international destinations around Asia and the South Pacific.

Unlike United, Hawaiian Airlines has a vast network of inter-island flights. They are basically the airline you want to fly if you live in Hawaii or if you travel to and from Hawaii on a frequent basis.

It should also be noted that Hawaiian Airlines makes it easy for passengers on the mainland to connect through Honolulu to destinations in the South Pacific and Asia. A stopover in Honolulu on the way to Australia or Asia is definitely a fun competitive advantage that Hawaiian Airlines has over United.

Hawaiian airlines a330 flying over the ocean
What are your thoughts so far? Honestly, any flight (any airline) headed to Hawaii sounds good to me.

United Airlines route network

The only thing that United Airlines has in common with Hawaiian Airlines when it comes to route networks is the number of flights they have to and from the islands on any given day.

Other than that, these two airlines couldn’t be any more different. United Arlines is a global carrier serving destinations all over the globe, and they also fly to Hawaii. Hawaiian Airlines is pretty much the opposite (a Hawaii-based carrier who happens to have a small number of international destinations).

At the time of this writing, United Airlines does not fly any inter island routes.

United airlines 777-300er at SFO
It’s not really fair to compare the route network of United against the route network of Hawaiian, but…you have to give credit to Hawaiian Airlines for being so darn competitive against a massive (and well established) carrier.

8. Why would you choose Hawaiian Airlines over United Airlines (or vice versa)?

In my opinion, Hawaiian Airlines is the choice for people who like the feeling of being in Hawaii as soon as they step foot on the plane. The service you’ll get on board is Hawaiian-themed (right down to the uniforms of the cabin crew), and it’s a great way to get your vacation started a few hours early. If that’s not enough to help you make a choice, consider this:

Choose Hawaiian Airlines if:

  • You want to be served free meals in premium economy and regular economy.
  • You want better food in first class.
  • You want Hawaiian-themed service in all classes of service.
  • You want a better ground experience at the Honolulu Airport (a better / newer terminal than what United uses, plus lounge access for premium passengers).
  • You want an airline that can not only take you to and from the islands, but can fly you around within the islands as well.

Choose United Airlines if:

  • You want a better lie-flat first / business class seat.
  • You want to fly an airline that is part of a large global alliance (so that you can earn and redeem points on airlines all over the world).
  • You would feel more comfortable flying a much larger airline (which is beneficial when cancellations and delays occur, because you’ll have more options for alternate flights).
  • You like the option of choosing a variety of different aircraft types to and from the islands. United has a much more diverse fleet of aircraft than Hawaiian Airlines does.

Comments (5)

  1. SDRspotter

    April 20, 2022
    • Scott (SANspotter)

      April 21, 2022
      • SDRSpotter

        April 23, 2022
  2. Jordan

    April 27, 2022
    • Scott (SANspotter)

      April 28, 2022

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