Should I Earn Airline Miles or Transferable Points?
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TPG reader Bill sent me a message on Facebook to ask about earning points:
“Would it be better to get a United card and earn miles, or get the Chase Sapphire Preferred card and transfer those points to United?”
Deciding which credit card to use is an important step in maximizing your return on everyday spending. A lot of cards offer bonus categories that can help you earn rewards more quickly, but it’s helpful to think about what those rewards are worth and not just how many you can accumulate. Because transferable points (like Ultimate Rewards) are so valuable, I’ll almost always choose them over airline miles when all else is equal.
The United MileagePlus Explorer Card earns 2 miles per dollar on tickets purchased from United, and 1 mile per dollar on other purchases. It offers some useful benefits for flying on United, but there are no other bonus categories, which is pretty standard for co-branded airline credit cards. The United MileagePlus Explorer Business Card also offers 2 miles per dollar spent at restaurants, gas stations and office supply stores, but if your goal is to earn United miles, you can do even better.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card earns 2 points per dollar on dining and travel purchases (including airfare), and 1 point per dollar elsewhere. You can transfer Ultimate Rewards points to United at a 1:1 ratio, so you’re generally earning United miles faster than you would be with the personal Explorer card. If that’s not enough, you can boost your earnings further by pairing Sapphire Preferred with other Ultimate Rewards cards.
For example, you can use Chase Freedom to earn 5 points per dollar (on up to $1,500 of purchases) in rotating bonus categories like restaurants, gas stations or grocery stores. Those points can be transferred to airline and hotel partners via your Sapphire Preferred account, which means you can effectively earn 5 United miles per dollar on qualifying purchases. Another strong option is the Chase Freedom Unlimited Card, which earns 1.5 points per dollar on all purchases. That’s a solid return for spending that doesn’t fall into a bonus category on another card.
Another benefit to earning transferable points is that you get a wider range of useful redemption options. MileagePlus miles are good for booking award flights on United and its partner airlines, but they won’t help much if you’re booking a hotel room or flying with an airline in another alliance. On the other hand, Ultimate Rewards points can be redeemed with United as well as Hyatt, British Airways and other valuable transfer partners.
The one clear advantage to the co-branded United cards is that you get perks like a free checked bag and two United Club passes each year. However, that might be irrelevant if you’re a frequent flyer, since you can get some of the same benefits by earning United Premier elite status.
For more on maximizing rewards on United and in general, check out these posts:
- Do Airline Credit Cards Pair Well with Transferable Points?
- 13 Tips for Earning, Burning and Flying with United Airlines
- Why Chase Freedom Isn’t Just Another Cash Back Card