The 8 best credit cards for flying United
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In April, United announced that it’s removing the award charts for travel on United-operated flights that depart on or after Nov. 15, 2019. This shift from award charts to dynamic pricing may leave you wondering what credit cards are best for flying United. Cobranded United credit cards are still a good option for unlocking better award availability, free checked bags and priority boarding. But, United miles may become more useful for partner awards — which will still follow published award charts (at least for now). So, if you want to fly United-operated flights, you may have better luck booking through the Ultimate Rewards portal, earning fixed-value points or earning transferable points and miles that you can transfer to Star Alliance partners to book awards on United-operated flights.
So, today we’re considering the best credit card choices 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, as the best card for you will depend on your spending habits, travel needs and redemption goals. Let’s dive in!
The best United Airlines credit cards of 2019
- United Explorer Business Card
- United Explorer Card
- United Club Card
- Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
- Chase Sapphire Reserve
- Ink Business Preferred Credit Card
- The Platinum Card® from American Express
- Citi Prestige® Card
Best credit cards for flying United
Annual Fee: $95
Sign-Up Offers: The United Explorer Business Card is offering a tiered bonus of 50,000 miles after spending $5,000 in the first three months, plus an additional 50,000 miles after spending $25,000 total within the first six months of account opening.
Reasons to Get It: This is the highest sign-up bonus we’ve ever seen on this United card, which makes it a great time to grab it for your business travel. As the entry-level United business card, the United Explorer Business earns 2x miles at restaurants, gas stations and office supply stores, and 1 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for you and one companion on the same reservation, priority boarding, two one-time United Club passes each year and the unpublished benefit of additional award space. See TPG‘s full United Explorer Business Card Review or more details.
Annual Fee: $95 (waived the first year)
Sign-Up Offer: The personal United Explorer Card is offering 40,000 miles after you spend $2,000 in the first three months.
Reasons to Get It: Like the business version above, this is an entry-level United credit card, but it has some outstanding features not found with other airline cards at this price point. The United personal card earns 2 miles per dollar spent on restaurants, hotels and United purchases, and offers 1 mile per dollar spent on everything else. Other perks include a free checked bag for you and one companion on the same reservation, so long as you purchase your ticket (or any 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.
Annual Fee: $450
Sign-Up Offer: 50,000 miles after you spend $3,000 in the first three months
Reasons to Get It: As this card’s name implies, card holders enjoy United Club membership along with eligible travel companions. 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 Club Card. Other perks include Premier Access travel services, no close-in booking fees on award tickets and expanded award availability.
The United Club Card offers a better rate of return on everyday spending than the United Explorer Card (1.5 miles per dollar spent vs. 1 mile per dollar), although it earns just the standard 2x miles on United purchases. See TPG ‘s full United Club Card Review for more details.
The information for the United Club 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.
Annual Fee: $95
Sign-up Offer: The current sign-up bonus is 60,000 points after new applicants spend $4,000 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 1 point per dollar fewer than the more premium Chase Sapphire Reserve, but it comes with a much lower annual fee and the points can be transferred to United as well as other airline and hotel programs. 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.
Annual Fee: $450
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 of value 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 $300 travel credit) and dining purchases (and 1 point per dollar on everything else), so if you spend a lot in these two categories you could be ready to book a flight in no time. The card does have a high ($450) 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, plus 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 Chase Sapphire Reserve Review for more details.
Annual Fee: $95
Sign-Up Offer: 80,000 bonus points after you spend $5,000 in purchases within three months of account opening
Reasons to Get It: This business card is extremely popular among award travel enthusiasts, as it offers 3x Ultimate Rewards points on your 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. Earn 1x points elsewhere. There’s a $95 annual fee for this card, and no foreign transaction fees.
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 Ink Business Preferred Card Review for more details.
Annual Fee: $550 (see rates & fees)
Welcome Bonus: 60,000 points after new card holders spend $5,000 within three months of account opening. Keep in mind that you may be targeted for a 100,000-point bonus offer through CardMatch (offer 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 Aeroplan, Singapore 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 from airlines or with American Express Travel, as well as prepaid hotels booked through amextravel.com. Other card holder benefits include a $200 annual statement credit toward incidental airline fees (though not actual airfare), monthly Uber credits, bi-annual Saks credits, Marriott elite status, Hilton elite status, Centurion Lounge access, Priority Pass Select membership and much more. See TPG‘s full Amex Platinum Review for more details.
Annual Fee: $495
Welcome 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 starting this September 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 card member benefit. However, the big downside is that the the Citi Prestige’s excellent travel protections are being discontinued as of September 22. See TPG‘s full Citi Prestige Review for more details.
Choosing the best United credit card for you
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 Explorer Card and the United Explorer Business Card are great options due to 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 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. Or, if you’re able to use the Chase Sapphire Reserve‘s $300 annual travel credit, the Sapphire Reserve will likely be a better choice since it offers 3x points on travel and dining as well as better travel protections.
Another alternative for those with or without elite status is the United Club Card, which offers 2 miles per dollar spent with United and 1.5 miles per dollar spent on all other purchases as well as some premium travel perks with United.
Finally, the Ink Business Preferred is a no-brainer for any small business owner who wants to earn points that can be transferred to United, while the Amex Platinum or Citi Prestige are 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 United cards, and can earn more valuable rewards using one of these cards. Although the Amex Platinum gets a massive 10% return, the Citi Prestige’s 8.5% return is still solid, but you’ll have essentially no travel protections with the Citi Prestige beginning September 22.
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, earn miles that can be used to book flights on United.
- Star Alliance Booking Showdown: Which Loyalty Program Should I Use?
- Maximizing Redemptions With United MileagePlus
- Best Sweet Spots With United MileagePlus
- Maximizing United’s Award Routing Rules
And if you’re new to The Points Guy, check out our points and miles guide for beginners.
For rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, please click here.
- Earn up to 100,000 after qualifying purchases.
- Earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open
- Plus, 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $25,000 total on purchases in the first 6 months your account is open
- Earn 2 miles per $1 at restaurants, gas stations and office supply stores.
- Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on United purchases. And 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases.
- Free checked bag - save up to $120 per roundtrip (terms apply)
- Two one-time United Club℠ passes each year — Over $100 in value per year
- Employee cards at no additional cost - miles earned from their purchases accrue in your account. Plus, you can set individual spending limits for each card.