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The 5 Best Cards for Flying United

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When there are plenty of solid travel rewards cards out there, it can be hard to find the best ones for you. If you’re a United flyer looking for options that earn you points and elite-like perks, TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Jason Steele has some top suggestions.

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 five of the best credit card choices for United flyers in order to help you find the best ones for your needs.

1. United MileagePlus Explorer Card

Earn 30,000 bonus miles with the MileagePlus Explorer Card from Chase.
Earn 30,000 bonus miles with the MileagePlus Explorer Card from Chase.

This is the entry-level MileagePlus card, but it has some outstanding features not found with other airline cards at this price point. Currently, new cardholders earn 30,000 bonus miles after spending $1,000 in new purchases within the first three months of account opening — although 50,000-point offers occasionally appear. In addition, you’ll receive an additional 5,000 miles after adding an authorized cardholder who makes a purchase within the same three months.

The card earns 2 miles per dollar on United purchases and 1 mile per dollar on everything else. You can also earn 10,000 bonus miles every calendar year that you spend at least $25,000 on this card. You and one companion on the same reservation get a free checked bag, so long as you use the card to pay for your ticket (or any taxes and fees on an award ticket). Other perks include priority boarding, two United Club passes each year and the unpublished benefit of additional award space. The United MileagePlus Explorer Business Card is also worth considering; it has similar features but also earns 2x miles at restaurants, gas stations and office supply stores in addition to 2x on United airfare. There’s a $95 annual fee for both cards that’s waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.

2. United MileagePlus Club Card

Enjoy United Club membership with the MileagePlus Club Card.
Enjoy United Club membership with the MileagePlus Club Card.

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. Finally, you’ll enjoy Hyatt Platinum status, a perk also offered by the Hyatt Credit Card from Chase.

The United MileagePlus Club Card offers a better rate of return on everyday spending than the United MileagePlus 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. There’s a $450 annual fee for this card, and no foreign transaction fees. Note that you may be able to get this card with the annual fee waived for the first year.

3. Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

Earn 2 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on all travel purchases with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.
Earn 2 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on all travel purchases with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.

This card offers double miles on all travel and dining purchases (not just United tickets), and points can be transferred to United as well as five other airlines and four hotel programs. The current sign-up bonus is 50,000 points after new applicants spend $4,000 within three months of account opening, and another 5,000 points upon adding an authorized cardholder who makes a purchase within three months. 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. There’s a $95 annual fee for this card that’s waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.

4. Chase Ink Plus Business Card

The Chase Ink Plus Business Card is a great option if you spend a lot at gas stations or office supply stores.
The Chase Ink Plus Business Card is a great option if you spend a lot at gas stations or office supply stores.

This card is extremely popular among travel rewards enthusiasts, as it offers 5x Ultimate Rewards points on your first $50,000 spent in combined purchases at office supply stores and on cellular phone, landline, internet and cable TV services each account anniversary year. You also earn 2x points at gas stations and hotels (also on up to $50,000 in combined spending each account year) and 1x points elsewhere.

New cardholders currently earn 60,000 bonus points after spending $5,000 in purchases within three months of account opening. You can pool points earned from your Ink Plus Business Card 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.

5.  American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card

Earn 3 points per dollar on airfare purchases with the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card.
Earn 3 points per dollar on airfare purchases with the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card.

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 3x 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 cardholder benefits include a $100 annual statement credit toward incidental airline fees (though not actual airfare), which is similar to the $200 credit on the Platinum Card from American Express. For more information how to use this credit, see TPG Points & Miles Editor Sarah Silbert’s post, Maximizing the Amex Premier Rewards Gold Card in 2016. This card also offers 2x points at US gas stations and supermarkets and 1x elsewhere. The current sign-up bonus for this card is 25,000 points after new cardholders spend $2,000 within three months of account opening, although you may receive a better offer via the CardMatch Tool. There’s a $195 annual fee that’s waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.

Choosing the Best Card for You

The best card for you depends on how often you fly United and which perks you value the most.
The best card for you depends on how often you fly United and which perks you value the most.

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 MileagePlus Explorer Card is a great option due to valuable perks like a free checked bag, priority boarding and a couple of United Club passes each year. I have this 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. Plus, you can transfer Ultimate Rewards points to multiple airline and hotel programs — and according to TPG’s latest valuations, United miles are worth 1.5 cents each, while Chase Ultimate Rewards points are worth 2.1 cents.

Another alternative for those with or without elite status is the United 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 Plus Business Card is a no-brainer for any small business owner who wants to earn points that can be transferred to United, while the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card 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.

Bottom Line

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.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

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  • Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Named a 'Best Credit Card' for Travel Rewards by MONEY Magazine
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Earn 5,000 bonus points after you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first 3 months from account opening
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $625 toward travel
  • No blackout dates or travel restrictions - as long as there's a seat on the flight, you can book it through Chase Ultimate Rewards
Intro APR Regular APR Annual Fee Foreign Transaction Fee Credit Rating
N/A 16.24%-23.24% Variable Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95 0% Excellent Credit