How to unlock additional award availability with United credit cards

Dec 1, 2019

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The United MileagePlus program has undergone some significant changes. The airline has pulled its award chart for United-operated flights as of Nov. 15, 2019, so moving forward, saver award space — award seats requiring fewer miles — will be even more valuable. Today, we’re going to examine a unique feature of United’s credit cards that allows you to unlock hidden saver awards.

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Which United credit cards offer expanded award availability?

Aside from the no-fee United TravelBank Card, all United credit cards from Chase offer this expanded award availability:

  • United Explorer Card — Limited-time sign-up bonus until Jan. 9, 2020: Earn up to 65,000 bonus miles; 40,000 miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months. Plus, an additional 25,000 bonus miles after you spend $10,000 total on purchases in the first six months your account is open.
  • United Explorer Business Card — Earn up to 100,000 bonus miles; 50,000 miles after spending $5,000 on purchases in the first three months, plus an additional 50,000 miles after spending $25,000 total on purchases within the first six months of account opening.
  • United Club Card — Earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening.
  • United Club Business Card — Earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening.

The information for the United Club Card and the United Club Business Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Related: The 9 best credit cards for flying United

Finding award space

United tends to offer more saver award space than most other frequent flyer programs. But that’s not saying much these days, when most airlines offer few seats at the lowest mileage levels, even as they give out plenty of miles to travelers and those who use cobranded airline credit cards.

Meanwhile, United’s MileagePlus program has three things going for it. First, it has one of the best online award search engines, along with its intuitive mobile app. United generally shows every partner’s award space, but not always.

Second, it’s one of the only frequent flyer programs that never imposes fuel surcharges on awards, allowing you to book award seats on any partner carrier and only pay government-imposed taxes and fees.

Third, the United Explorer Card, the United Explorer Business Card and the United Club Card (as well as its business version) offer better saver-level availability. This is the same benefit it offers to its MileagePlus members with elite status, and it’s the primary reason why many people even have a MileagePlus credit card account.

United’s website hints at the benefits of having a United card.

Related: TPG Points Lab: How many miles do you really save with a United credit card?

An example of increased saver award availability

Let’s look for an award seat from Orlando to Denver. Without logging in, we find seats for the first flight listed at 16,000 miles each.

But once you log in as a United cardholder, you see the same flight, but at the Saver level of 12,500 miles.

How expanded saver availability works

United’s website is unique in that it offers an “Expert Mode” where you can reveal the fare classes offered. To enable Expert Mode, change your Search Preferences and check the corresponding box.

Once you’re logged in and have Expert Mode enabled, you can then see the fare codes, but only when searching for revenue fares (not awards).

The X fare class is the economy-class saver award space open to everyone; the XN fare class is only accessible to United credit card holders and United elites. You can see that UA2364 departing Orlando at 6:10 a.m. has at least nine saver award seats in the XN fare class offered to United credit card holders and elites, but zero seats in the X fare class offered to everyone else.

You can imagine how critical this feature can be, especially for family travelers. If you have a United credit card, always be sure to log in to your MileagePlus account when searching for award space, otherwise it won’t return results in the XN class, reserved for cardholders and those with elite status.

Related: Last-minute strategies for earning United Premier elite status

Using this benefit to get into first or business class

Since this expanded saver award availability only applies to economy-class awards, it might appear to be of limited interest to those looking for business-class or domestic first-class award space.

However, United offers a waitlist for saver awards in business class so long as there is also a saver award availability in economy. It turns out that a little-known clause in United’s Award Travel Rules says that you can call to book a coach award at the business saver level, and then be wait-listed for a business-class seat.

Once on the waitlist, you should be upgraded to a business-class (or domestic first-class) seat if it becomes available as a saver award. But even if it doesn’t, you’ll be at the top of the upgrade list at the airport, ahead of everyone else using miles to upgrade or those being upgraded due to their status. Technically, you aren’t even being upgraded, since you’ve already redeemed the miles needed for the higher fare class.

Your upgrade priority will only be behind those who paid for business-class upgrades and those who booked business class using the standard (non-saver) awards, so your chances of being cleared into the next class of service will have improved greatly. Plus, the additional mileage required to fly in business class will be refunded if you eventually end up flying in coach.

Related: The ultimate guide to getting upgraded on United Airlines

Other benefits of United credit cards

Beyond the increased award availability, the United Explorer Card has several other valuable features. The card is offering a limited time sign-up bonus of up to 65,000 bonus miles; 40,000 miles after you spend $2,000 in purchases in the first three months. Plus, an additional 25,000 bonus miles after you spend $10,000 total on purchases in the first six months your account is open (offer ends Jan. 9, 2020). You can read more in our review of the United Explorer current offer.

The United Explorer Business Card currently offers new applicants up to 100,000 bonus miles after qualifying purchases: 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open and 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $25,000 total on purchases in the first six months your account is open. Here’s our full review of the United Explorer Business Card.

Both versions of the Explorer card offer the first bag checked for free for the cardholder and a single companion — just note that you have to use your card to pay for the tickets or award taxes to get the free bag. Other benefits include a $100 application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck (only for the personal version), priority boarding and two United Club passes each year. Each card comes with a $95 annual fee (waived for the first year with the personal version of the card) and no foreign transaction fees.

If you want United Club access, you could also consider the United Club Card, which offers full membership to United’s airport lounges and two free checked bags for you and a companion. The card’s currently offering a sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles after you spend $3,000 in the first three months. It has a $450 annual fee and no foreign transaction fees.

Related: How to avoid checked baggage fees on major domestic airlines

Bottom line

Although award charts have gone away, discounted saver awards continue to be offered. Considering the increased saver award availability and the ability to be wait-listed into saver business class, United’s cobranded credit cards can be an essential tool for making the most of your miles.

Additional reporting by Carissa Rawson.

Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

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