The best credit cards for flying United

Mar 20, 2020

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Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new card offers and information. 

At TPG, our top priority is providing our readers with the information you need to make educated decisions about travel and your rewards-earnings strategy. This is not the best time to travel, domestically or internationally, as airlines have cut major parts of their route network. But we are sharing these card offers because they could provide value to cardholders for future travel once coronavirus concerns have subsided.


Changes to frequent flyer programs are inevitable, and not always for the better. United’s MileagePlus program made a negative shift on Nov. 15, 2019, when the carrier removed its published award charts for travel on United-operated flights in favor of a dynamic pricing model for these awards. This move may leave you wondering what credit cards are best for flying United.

A United Airlines jet parked at Newark Liberty International Airport. (Photo by Shutterstock)
A United Airlines jet parked at Newark Liberty International Airport. (Photo by Shutterstock)

Cobranded United credit cards remain a good option for a number of key benefits, including unlocking better award availability, scoring free checked bags and taking advantage of priority boarding. And United miles are still very useful for partner awards, which will still follow published award charts (at least for now).

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With the new unpredictable award pricing, you may have better luck booking United-operated flights with rewards from other cards. For example, you could book through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, using fixed-value points or flexible points and miles that you have earned, or you could transfer flexible points and miles to Star Alliance partners for awards on United-operated flights.

Today we’re considering the best credit cards for United flyers. Some of these cards unlock benefits that are useful when flying on United and using United miles, while others earn valuable transferable points. The cards are presented in no particular order, because the best card for you will depend on your spending habits, travel needs and redemption goals.

The best United Airlines credit cards of 2020

In This Post

Best credit cards for flying United

United Explorer Card

(Photo by Isabelle Raphael / The Points Guy)
(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)

Annual fee: $95 (waived the first year)

Sign-up offer: The personal United Explorer Card is offering a limited-time sign-up bonus of 60,00 bonus miles after $3,000 in purchases in the first three months from account opening.

Reasons to get it: Like the business version (below), this credit card has some outstanding features not found with other airline cards at this price point. The United personal card earns 2x miles per dollar spent on restaurants, hotels and United purchases, and offers 1x mile per dollar spent on everything else. Other perks include a free checked bag for you and one companion on the same reservation, as long as you purchase your ticket (or pay taxes and fees on an award ticket) from United using the Explorer Card. You’ll also get priority boarding, two one-time United Club passes each year, a 25% discount on inflight United purchases — including Wi-Fi, food and beverages — and access to additional award space.

See TPG‘s full United Explorer Card review for more details.

APPLY HERE: United Explorer Card

United Business Card

(Photo by Eric Helgas for The Points Guy)
(Photo by Eric Helgas for The Points Guy)

Annual fee: $95

Sign-up offer: The new United Business Card is offering a bonus of 100,000 miles after spending $10,000 in the first three months after account opening.

Reasons to get it: This newly launched card features a limited-time increased sign-up offer, which makes it a great time to grab it for your business travel. This card offers you 2x miles on United purchases, on local transit and commuting, at restaurants, gas stations and office supply stores, and 1x mile per dollar spent on everything else. You’ll also get a free checked bag for you and one companion on the same reservation, priority boarding, two one-time United Club passes each year and additional award space on United-operated flights. Even better, if you hold both the business card and a personal United card, you’ll receive 5,000 bonus miles each anniversary. Finally, you have the ability to earn an annual $100 United travel credit after seven United flight purchases of $100 or more and a rebate of 25% back of United inflight purchases (includes Wi-Fi, food and beverages).

See TPG‘s full United Business Card review for more details.

APPLY HERE: United Business Card

United Club Infinite Card

(Photo by Eric Helgas for The Points Guy)
(Photo by Eric Helgas for The Points Guy)

Annual fee: $525

Sign-up offer: Limited-time increased offer of 100,000 miles after spending $5,000 in the first three months from account opening.

Reasons to get it: The new United Club Infinite Card is a step above the existing United Club Card. As the card’s name implies, cardholders enjoy United Club membership, including two guests or one adult and dependent children under the age of 21. It also offers the first and second checked bag free for the primary cardholder and one companion traveling on the same reservation on United-operated flights when the flights are purchased with the card. Other perks include a $100 TSA PreCheck/Global Entry application fee credit every four years, Premier Access travel services and expanded award availability.

The United Club Infinite Card earns 4x on United purchases, 2x on all other travel and dining purchases and 1x on all other purchases. Although you will likely get more value by using another card for everyday spending, the United Infinite Club Card is a great way to rack up additional United miles when you fly with the airline.

See TPG‘s full United Club Infinite Card review for more details.

APPLY HERE: United Club Infinite Card

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

(Photo by Riley Arthur for The Points Guy)
(Photo by Riley Arthur for The Points Guy)

Annual fee: $95

Sign-up offer: The current sign-up bonus is 60,000 points after $4,000 of spending within three months of account opening.

Reasons to get it: This card offers double points on all travel and dining purchases (not just United tickets), which is lower than its more-premium sibling (the Chase Sapphire Reserve) but comes with a much lower annual fee. You can then transfer your Chase points to United but have a dozen other other airline and hotel programs from which to choose. You can also book flights and other travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, but you’ll only get a value of 1.25 cents each for your points. The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card also features primary rental car insurance and some solid purchase-protection benefits.

See TPG‘s full Chase Sapphire Preferred review for more details.

APPLY HERE: Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

Chase Sapphire Reserve

(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)

Annual fee: $550

Sign-up offer: 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months

Reasons to get it: Since Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer to United at a 1:1 ratio, this card can be a great choice if you’re eyeing future award travel with United. Or, if you prefer the simplicity of cash fares, you can redeem your points for 1.5 cents each when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals or cruises through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal.

The Sapphire Reserve earns 3x points on all travel (excluding the $300 travel credit) and dining purchases, and 1 point per dollar on everything else. If you spend a lot in these two categories, you could be ready to book a flight in no time. The card has a high $550 annual fee, but that’s offset by a $300 annual travel credit that will automatically be applied to any eligible purchases — from airfare to hotel stays to sightseeing tours. You’ll get lounge access through Priority Pass Select membership, and the card’s excellent travel protections will cover you when you put the airfare — or the taxes and fees on award flights — on your card.

See TPG‘s full review of Chase Sapphire Reserve for more details.

APPLY HERE: Chase Sapphire Reserve

Ink Business Preferred Credit Card

(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy.)

Annual fee: $95

Sign-up offer: 100,000 bonus points after you spend $15,000 on purchases in the first three months.

Reasons to get it: This business card is extremely popular among award travel enthusiasts, as it offers 3x Ultimate Rewards points on the first $150,000 spent in combined purchases in certain categories like travel, shipping, internet, cable and phone services and advertising purchases made with social media sites, and 1x points on everything else. There are no foreign transaction fees with this card.

You can book flights and other travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, but you’ll only get a value of 1.25 cents each for your points. So, you may get better value by transferring your points to United or Star Alliance partner Singapore KrisFlyer if you want to use your Ultimate Rewards points to book a United-operated flight.

See TPG‘s full review of the Ink Business Preferred Card for more details.

APPLY HERE: Ink Business Preferred Credit Card

The Platinum Card® from American Express

(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy.)

Annual fee: $550 (see rates and fees)

Welcome offer: 60,000 points after new cardholders spend $5,000 within three months of account opening, although you may be targeted for a 100,000-point bonus offer through CardMatch (offers subject to change at anytime)

Reasons to get it: Although the Membership Rewards points earned by this card can’t be transferred to United MileagePlus, they can be transferred to Star Alliance partners Air Canada AeroplanSingapore KrisFlyer and Avianca LifeMiles. You can then use points in any of these programs to book award tickets on United-operated flights.

The Platinum Card earns 5x Membership Rewards points on all flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel, as well as prepaid hotels booked through amextravel.com. Other cardholder benefits include a $200 annual statement credit toward incidental airline fees (although not actual airfare), monthly Uber credits, biannual Saks Fifth Avenue credits, Marriott elite status, Hilton elite status, Centurion Lounge accessPriority Pass Select membership.

See TPG‘s full Amex Platinum review for more details.

APPLY HERE: The Platinum Card® from American Express

Citi Prestige® Card

(Photo by Eric Helgas/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Eric Helgas/The Points Guy)

Annual fee: $495

Sign-up bonus: 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 within three months of account opening

Reasons to get It: This card earns 5 Citi ThankYou points per dollar spent on air travel and dining as well as 3 points per dollar spent on hotels and cruise lines and 1 point per dollar spent on everything else. You’ll get a fourth night free on paid hotel stays, although you’ll be capped to two bookings per year and bookings will need to be made through ThankYou.com instead of through the concierge.

Citi ThankYou points can be transferred to Star Alliance partners like Avianca LifeMiles and Singapore KrisFlyer for booking United-operated flights. You’ll also have lounge access through the Priority Pass Select membership that is provided as a cardmember benefit. However, the big downside is that the excellent travel protections that came with the Citi Prestige were discontinued as of Sept. 22, 2019.

See TPG‘s full Citi Prestige review for more details.

The information for the Citi Prestige 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.

The Business Platinum Card from American Express

(Photo by Isabelle Raphael / The Points Guy)
(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)

Annual fee: $595 (see rates and fees)

Welcome bonus: Earn 75,000 points after you spend $15,000 on qualifying purchases within the first 3 months of account opening.

Reasons to get It: This might not seem like a great card for United flyers, but hear me out. This card offers you 5x Membership Rewards points on all flights from United or any other airline, and on all prepaid hotels booked on amextravel.com. You can then transfer these points to Star Alliance partners Singapore or Avianca to book award flights. In particular, Avianca LifeMiles is the only other Star Alliance program besides United that doesn’t impose fuel surcharges on awards.

Better yet, you can designate United as your carrier of choice to receive a $200 annual credit for air travel fees. When you do that, you’ll be able to use the Pay with Points redemption option to use your Membership Rewards points for any United flights and receive a 35% rebate. This allows you to realize just over 1.5 cents per point, which isn’t too bad, considering you don’t have to worry about finding available award space.

You’ll also receive the 35% points rebate when you book a flight on any airline in business or first class using amextravel.com. Because these are revenue flights, you’ll earn miles and credit toward MileagePlus Premier status and have the opportunity to receive upgrades not afforded by award flights.

See TPG‘s full Amex Business Platinum review for more details.

APPLY HERE: The Business Platinum Card from American Express

Choosing the best United credit card for you

As always, the best credit card 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 Explorer Card and the United Explorer Business Card are great choices with valuable perks like a free checked bag, priority boarding and a couple of United Club passes each year. I have the personal Explorer 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 features outlined above are redundant and you’d be better off with a card like Chase Sapphire Preferred, which has the same $95 annual fee but offers double points not only on United tickets, but also on all travel and dining purchases. Or, if you’re able to use the Chase Sapphire Reserve $300 annual travel credit, the Sapphire Reserve will likely be a better choice because it offers 3x points on travel and dining and better travel protections. The Ink Business Preferred could also be a no-brainer for any small-business owner who wants to earn a lot of points on common business purchases and then transfer those earnings to United at a 1:1 ratio.

Another alternative for those with or without elite status is the United Club Card, which offers 2x miles per dollar spent with United and 1.5x miles per dollar spent on all other purchases as well as some premium travel perks with United. If you aren’t interested in access to United Clubs, you can replicate the same 1.5 miles per dollar by earning 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar with the no-fee Chase Freedom Unlimited or Ink Business Unlimited Credit Card — as long as you have a card like the Sapphire Preferred or Sapphire Reserve that lets you transfer your points into miles.

Related reading: How to transfer Ultimate Rewards points between accounts

Finally, the Amex Platinum and Business Platinum or Citi Prestige could be ideal for those who are able to charge large airfare purchases to their credit card. For example, a person who purchases primarily business-class and first-class tickets won’t have much need for the perks offered by the United cards and can earn more valuable rewards using one of these cards. Although the Amex Platinum and Business Platinum cards offer a massive 10% return (based on TPG’s most recent valuations), the 8.5% return from the Citi Prestige is still solid. However, you have essentially no travel protections with the Citi Prestige anymore — while Amex just added new coverage as of Jan. 1, 2020.

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 guide has given you some ideas on how to maximize your United purchases while earning more points and miles that can be used to book flights on United.

Additional reporting by Carissa Rawson.

For rates and fees of the Platinum Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Amex Business Platinum, please click here.  

Featured photo by Zach Griff. 

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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.