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

by on November 17, 2013 · 20 comments

in Chase, Sunday Reader Questions, Video Blog Post

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Update:  As of July 20, 2014, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card no longer offers the 7% annual points dividend. View the current sign up offer here.

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

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Jasmine

    free checked bag when using explorer card to purchase flight. That’s $50 round trip. Don’t see how using sapphire is more valuable unless you don’t check in luggage. Plus you also get zone 2 boarding.

  • Mr jinx

    What about the fact the united card gives you premier miles for every dollar spent on, up to 5 K?

  • Ben Price

    Most frequent travelers I come across simply don’t check bags…kind of like “priority boarding” with Delta…a “perk” that’s not really a perk (have you seen the gate lice when a DL flight starts to board?). These cobranded airline cards are notorious for perks that hardly mean squat.

    I think sometimes it makes sense to use your cobranded card, but from the wording of this article, it looks like TPG is mainly analyzing intangibles, i.e. the 7% dividend, the fact your UR points can be used in other ways, the 2x dining, etc.

  • Jasmine

    But if your checking in luggage it would not make sense. The $50 spent would have to equal 2500 reward points earned. Which would have to be around $1200 for a flight. if you also travel with a companion they also get a free checked bag or in my husbands case check in golf clubs which does count as luggage.

  • Ben Price

    I don’t disagree. More offering (potential) insight to a exhaustively covered topic.

  • Gilad Rom

    Does that only happen when you’re not elite?

  • Sandeep

    Actually Explorer may be more valuable for checked baggage. Of course assuming you are checking bags without status, Explorer would allow charges to be waived not just for you but also a companion. That would mean a savings of $100 per round trip. Critical info that should be shared when declaring Sapphire the winner in this case.

  • scott


    You get zine 2 boarding as long as you have an explorer card. You dont have to use it for the ticket purchase. Yoy do have to use it for the luggage benefit, however.

  • jasmine

    ya i agree with ben zone 2 boarding is not that great on united. basically it comes down to if your checking in luggage or not if you dont have status.

  • Umberto Mateos

    This brings up a good question. I have the Sapphire preferred, Ink bold, ink plus and Amex Platinum. My Amex is loaded with points but I find Chase points get me more, What advise on card use can you give me between the two Chase business cards and the Sapphire card? I am still new at this and need some help on how and when to use what card. Much thanks.

  • FEV7

    Another question – do both cards have the same trip delay provision?

    I’m thinking during questionable weather, this might be an important consideration.

  • Nathan

    Remember the United Club membership gives you $5 back per ticket book, and I’m not sure if this will register when you book through a 3rd party (Does someone know?)

  • loosh

    I use Sapphire all the time to book travel. No matter where you purchase, you’ll get at least 2 x travel points. ALSO, if you book via the UR Portal, you’ll get an EXTRA 1 point per $. So if you book a $500 flight through UR portal using your chase card, you’ll get 3 points, totaling 1500 points, which can then be transferred to United, etc. So, it’s probably best to book through Chase UR in this case.

  • Anthony

    I clicked on one of your Sapphire Preferred referral links earlier and it was showing a 50,000 point bonus after $3,000 in spend but an annual fee of $125 and also showed a picture of the new chip and signature card. Now through any link, it has the traditional 40,000 and $95 annual fee card. Do you have any insight?

  • Jayson

    That’s not correct. The Explorer card doesn’t give you PQM, it only gives you MileagePlus Miles to add to your FF account. The legacy cards still offer PQMs, but they’re not relevant anymore since you cannot apply for them.

  • Jayson

    Ever tried boarding in Zone 5 with a carry-on? Good luck finding any available bins. I think the Explorer card is worth its AF for the sole reason of getting Zone 2.

  • demax182

    I already have a Sapphire and got an invitation for the Explorer via post mail. I wonder if I can have both?

  • Saj

    Can I claim the miles I travel on a United Airline flight to Chase UR points? I just took an international trip using UA. I would like to apply for a card that would allow me to claim that 20K odd miles that I just traveled.

  • Lt

    You can have both, I do

  • joshwass

    If I book a United flight and pay for some of it with Chase UR points and the rest with my United card, do I get free checked bags (for example if its a 300 tickets, and I use Chase UR to fund 250 dollars and pay the balance with my united credit card).

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