The 6 Best Cards for Flying United
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Among the three remaining legacy carriers, United offers some of the best choices when it comes to credit cards. While there are only two remaining United MileagePlus consumer credit cards, you also have your pick of Chase cards that offer Ultimate Rewards points that can be transferred to United miles.
In today’s post, I’m looking at six of the best credit card choices for United flyers in order to help you find the best ones for your needs.
Annual Fee: $450
Sign-Up Offer: 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months
Reasons to Get It: Since Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer to United at a 1:1 ratio, this card can be a great choice if you’re eyeing future award travel with the airline. The Sapphire Reserve earns 3x points on all travel and dining purchases (and 1 point per dollar on everything else), so if you spend a lot in these two categories you could be ready to book a flight in no time.
The card does have a high ($450) annual fee, but that’s offset by a $300 annual travel credit that will automatically be applied to any eligible purchases — from airfare to hotel stays to sightseeing tours. The sign-up offer gets you enough points (transferred to miles) for United award flights such as a round-trip saver-level business ticket for travel in the US.
Annual Fee: $450
Sign-Up Offer: 50,000 miles after you spend $3,000 in the first three months
Reasons to Get It: As this card’s name implies, cardholders enjoy United Club membership along with eligible travel companions. It also offers two free checked bags for cardholders and one companion traveling on the same reservation. Other perks include just about everything that first-class and elite-status passengers receive on the ground, such as priority check-in, security screening, boarding and even baggage handling. Like elites, you also receive a waiver for close-in booking fees on award tickets.
The United MileagePlus Club Card offers a better rate of return on everyday spending than the United Explorer Card (including 1.5 miles per dollar spent vs. 1 mile per dollar), although it earns just the standard 2x miles on United purchases.
Annual Fee: $95 (waived the first year)
Sign-Up Offers: The personal card is offering up to 60,000 bonus miles. 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus, earn an additional 20,000 bonus miles after you spend $8,000 total on purchases in the first 6 months after your account is open. The United Explorer Business Card is offering a bonus of 50,000 miles after you spend $3,000 in the first three months.
Reasons to Get It: These are the entry-level United cards, but they have some outstanding features not found with other airline cards at this price point. The personal version recently added a $100 Global Entry/$85 TSA PreCheck credit, and it offers a 25% discount on inflight United purchases, including Wi-Fi, food and beverages. Plus, the personal card earns 2 miles per dollar on United purchases and on dining hotels and 1 mile per dollar on everything else, while the business version earns 2x miles at gas stations and office supply stores in addition to 2x on United airfare and restaurants.
Other perks include a free checked bag for you and one companion on the same reservation, so long as you use the card to pay for your ticket (or any taxes and fees on an award ticket), priority boarding, two United Club passes each year and the unpublished benefit of additional award space.
Annual Fee: $95
Sign-up Offer: The current sign-up bonus is 60,000 points after new applicants spend $4,000 within three months of account opening.
This card offers double points on all travel and dining purchases (not just United tickets), which is 1 point per dollar fewer than the more premium Chase Sapphire Reserve offers on this, and points can be transferred to United as well as other airline and hotel programs. For tips on how to redeem the sign-up bonus, see Nick Ewen’s post, 10 Fun Ways to Use 50,000 Ultimate Rewards Points. The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card also features primary rental car insurance and some solid purchase-protection benefits.
Annual Fee: $95
Sign-Up Offer: 80,000 bonus points after spending $5,000 in purchases within three months of account opening
This card is extremely popular among travel rewards enthusiasts, as it offers 3x Ultimate Rewards points on your first $150,000 spent in combined purchases in certain categories like travel, shipping, internet, cable and phone services and advertising purchases made with social media sites. Earn 1x points elsewhere.
You can pool points earned from your Ink Plus Business Card (no longer available for sign-ups) with those from your Chase Sapphire Preferred, as well as with accounts held by your spouse or domestic partner. There’s a $95 annual fee for this card, and no foreign transaction fees.
Annual Fee: $550 (See Rates & Fees)
Although this card earns Membership Rewards points, which cannot be transferred to United MileagePlus, it’s still a good choice for airline purchases — including those with United. With this card, you’ll get 5x Membership Rewards points on all flights booked directly from airlines. While United isn’t a transfer partner, there are three options that are part of the Star Alliance: Air Canada, Al Nippon (ANA) and Singapore. Transfer points to any one of these partners, and you can redeem their miles for flights on United.Other card holder benefits include a $200 annual statement credit toward incidental airline fees (though not actual airfare).
Choosing the Best Card for You
As always, the best option depends on your specific situation and your travel preferences. If you don’t have elite status with United but fly the airline occasionally, the United Explorer Card and the United Explorer Business Card are great options due to valuable perks like a free checked bag, priority boarding and a couple of United Club passes each year. I have the personal Explorer card primarily for the increased Saver award space, which makes my United miles much more valuable.
If you have any level of elite status with United, the above-mentioned features are redundant, and you’d be better off with a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which has the same $95 annual fee but offers double points on not just United tickets, but all travel and dining purchases, or the more premium Chase Sapphire Reserve, which offers 3x points on travel and dining. Plus, you can transfer Ultimate Rewards points to multiple airline and hotel programs — and according to TPG’s latest valuations, United miles are worth 1.4 cents each, while Chase Ultimate Rewards points are worth 2 cents.
Another alternative for those with or without elite status is the United MileagePlus Club Card, which offers an outstanding 1.5 miles per dollar spent on all purchases, making it a great card for spending outside of bonus categories, such as health care bills. And since you can enter a United Club with a valid boarding pass from any airline, this benefit is still valuable to those who are infrequent United flyers. For more information on this, see TPG’s recent post, Do Lounge Memberships Work When I Fly with Another Airline?
Finally, the Chase Ink Business Preferred is a no-brainer for any small business owner who wants to earn points that can be transferred to United, while the Amex Platinum is ideal for those who are able to charge large amounts of airfare to their credit card, either for themselves or for others. For example, a person who purchases primarily business and first-class tickets won’t have much need for the perks offered by the MileagePlus cards, and can earn more valuable rewards using this card.
By examining both spending habits and travel needs, United flyers can choose the cards that offer the best combination of rewards and benefits. Hopefully this post has given you some ideas on how to maximize your United purchases and reap benefits along the way.
For rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, please click here.