Should I Use a Chase Sapphire Preferred or United Explorer Card to Buy Flights on United?

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The sign-up offer for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card has been increased from 40,000 to 50,000 points after $4,000 spent within the first three months. You can earn an additional 5,000 points when you add an authorized user and make a purchase within the first 3 months as well.

Update:  As of July 20, 2014, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card no longer offers the 7% annual points dividend.

TPG reader Hunt wants to maximize his points when buying flights on United:

@thepointsguy which card should I use to buy United flights: Chase Sapphire Preferred or United Mileage Plus Explorer card?”

Although it might seem like the best idea when buying an airline ticket is to purchase it using the co-branded credit card – like the Explorer for United, I would actually use my Chase Sapphire Preferred card instead. That’s because it gives you 2X points per $1 on travel expenses, including airline tickets – just like the Explorer would give you 2 United miles per $1 on United tickets.

Only the Sapphire Preferred comes with a 7% annual points dividend, so you’re actually doing slightly better in terms of earning here with 2.14X points per $1 all told – and since you can transfer Ultimate Rewards points to your United account at a 1:1 ratio, the Sapphire Preferred is the winner here.

Plus whereas the United Explorer only gives you 2 miles per dollar on United purchases, the Sapphire Preferred also gives you 2 points per dollar on all travel (including airline tickets but also hotels, trains, car rentals, even taxis and parking) and dining purchases as well, so that ups your earning in an entirely new category.

I also think the Ultimate Rewards shopping portal is a more valuable bonus points-earning tool when it comes to travel purchases than the United shopping portal because it regularly offers bonuses of 1-3 extra points per $1 for purchases made through online travel agencies like Travelocity and Orbitz whereas the United shopping portal does not, so you’re already doubling or triple your earning there.

The Ultimate Rewards shopping portal regularly offers bonuses at online travel agencies.
The Ultimate Rewards shopping portal regularly offers bonuses at online travel agencies.

Now, there are a few downsides to using the Sapphire Preferred instead of the Explorer. For one, the United Explorer awards you with 10,000 bonus miles every calendar year you spend at least $25,000 on it, while the Sapphire Preferred has no spending threshold bonuses. Second, if you don’t have elite status on United, the Explorer provides you with a few valuable perks that the Sapphire Preferred does not, including a free checked bag, priority boarding and two United club passes per year.

Still, unless you plan to fully maximize those benefits on lots of flights – at which point you might already have elite status – I’d still say the spending bonuses on the Sapphire Preferred as well as the flexibility Ultimate Rewards points give you to transfer not only to United but to 9 other transfer partners, are more valuable than using the Explorer.

For more information, check out my post on Maximizing Airline Purchases: Choosing the Right Site and Credit Card.

For more information on the Sapphire Preferred check out these posts:
Details on the Sapphire Preferred 2X on Travel
The Sapphire Preferred 7% Annual Dividend
Ranking the Chase Ultimate Rewards Transfer Partners
Top 10 Ways To Maximize Each Ultimate Rewards Transfer Partner
Why I Love Chase Ultimate Rewards

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