The best credit cards for United Airlines flyers
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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.
United’s MileagePlus program made a major and largely negative shift in late 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. At the same time, it changed how its frequent flyers earn elite status by essentially removing “miles” from the equation at all.
Combine those recent changes with some further 2020 program adjustments and promotions due to the coronavirus, and it all may leave you wondering what credit cards are best for flying United.
Even with all of United’s recent changes to its MileagePlus program, United credit cards remain a good option for a number of key benefits to both frequent and less-frequent United flyers.
For example, the cobranded United credit cards unlock better award availability, open access to less expensive award prices, convey free checked bags, priority boarding, discounts on WiFi and onboard purchases, give you a way to spend your way to higher elite status levels and open up the network of United Clubs.
Today we’re considering all 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 that can be used to book United flights via other reward programs.
Best United Airlines credit cards of 2020
- United Explorer Card — Best for occasional United flyers
- United Business Card — Best for small business owners
- United Club Business Card — Best for small business owners who want lounge access
- Chase Sapphire Preferred Card — Best for flexible travel rewards
- Chase Sapphire Reserve — Best for frequent travelers
- Ink Business Preferred Credit Card — Best for high-spending businesses
- The Platinum Card® from American Express — Best for lounge access around the world
- Citi Prestige® Card — Best for booking United awards with other programs
- The Business Platinum Card® from American Express — Best for booking United flights directly
Best United cobranded credit cards
When it comes to choosing the best United cobranded credit card for your wallet, you’ve got four main options that come with annual fees ranging from $95 to $525 per year. There’s also a no-annual-fee version, but we aren’t going to really dwell on that one, as it typically isn’t the best choice due to limited benefits and earning opportunities.
Most travelers who fly on United at least a couple of times per year will be well-suited to have at least one of these cobranded United cards in their wallets:
|cREDIT Card||Welcome bonus||Annual fee||Earning capabilities|
|United Explorer Card||60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.||$95, waived the first year||2x miles on restaurants, hotels and United purchases; 1x mile per dollar elsewhere|
|United Business Card||60,000 miles after you spend $3,000 in the first three months after account opening.||$99, waived the first year||2x miles on United purchases, local transit and commuting, and at restaurants, gas stations and office supply stores; 1x elsewhere|
|United Club Business Card
|50,000 miles after you spend $3,000 in the first three months after account opening.||$450||2x miles on United purchases; 1.5x miles per dollar elsewhere|
Here’s a closer look at the top United cobranded credit cards and what type of United Airlines flyers they best serve.
Note: Bonus valuations below are based on TPG valuations and not provided by the issuer.
Sign-up offer: The personal United Explorer Card is offering a sign-up bonus of 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.
Bonus valuation: $780
Annual fee: $95 (waived the first year)
Reasons to get it: Like the business version (below), this credit card has some outstanding features not found with other airline cards at its annual fee 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 and less expensive award flights.
In normal times, the United Explorer Card allows you to earn up to 1,000 elite Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) on the card with $24,000 in annual spending on the card (500 points for each of the first $12,000 in annual spending). But for 2020, there is a promo that doubles the number of PQPs you can earn with the Explorer Card to 2,000 PQPs. United has already announced that current elite status levels will be extended an extra year, into early 2022, but if you find yourself pushing for a higher elite status level this year, your card spending can help you more than normal, especially since elite thresholds have been reduced by 50%.
Having a United co-branded credit card, such as the United Explorer, also makes you eligible for space-available elite upgrades when flying on United miles.
See TPG‘s full United Explorer Card review for more details.
APPLY HERE: United Explorer Card
Sign-up offer: The United Business Card is offering a bonus of 60,000 miles after you spend $3,000 in the first three months after account opening.
Bonus valuation: $780
Annual fee: $99, waived the first year
Reasons to get it: This card offers you 2x miles on United purchases, on local transit and commuting, and 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 you’ll get a rebate of 25% back of United inflight purchases (includes Wi-Fi, food and beverages).
The United Business Card elite perks mirror that of the United Explorer Card in that the normal 1,000 PQPs you can earn on the earn card with $24,000 in total spending are increased to up to 2,000 in 2020. Having this card also makes United elites eligible for space-available upgrades when flying on United miles.
See TPG‘s full United Business Card review for more details.
Sign-up offer: The United Club Business Card is offering a bonus of 50,000 miles after you spend $3,000 in the first three months after account opening.
Bonus valuation: $650
Annual fee: $450
Reasons to get it: This card is more closely aligned with the older now-unavailable version of the personal United Club Card. It awards 2x miles on United purchases and 1.5x miles per dollar spent on everything else. You’ll also get up to two free checked bags for you and one companion on the same reservation, priority boarding, United Club membership and access to additional award space on United-operated flights.
Having the card allows you to utilize Premier Access lines in the airport and conveys some solid travel protections if you use the card to purchase your United Airlines tickets.
Having this card also makes United elite travelers eligible for space-available upgrades when flying on United miles.
The information for 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.
See TPG‘s full United Business Club Card review for more details.
Good cards for buying United Airlines tickets
You’ll earn United Airlines redeemable miles and Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) toward elite status, calculated mostly on the base price of your ticket, minus taxes and fees. The number of redeemable miles you earn also varies based on your United elite status level. And while it can make a lot of sense to have and use a United Airlines cobranded credit card for your United ticket purchases, especially if you fly United more than once a year, there are also situations where other credit cards may be solid choices.
For example, if you want to earn more flexible transferable points on the purchase, you could pay for your United Airlines ticket with a general travel card that earns American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards or Citi ThankYou Rewards Points. Consider the following cards for your United Airlines tickets, some of which carry generous built-in travel protections.
|CREDIT CARD||WELCOME BONUS||ANNUAL FEE||EARNING CAPABILITIES|
|Chase Sapphire Reserve||50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months||$550||3x Ultimate Rewards points on travel and dining; 1x elsewhere (10x on Lyft until 2022 and 5x on DoorDash until May 31, 2020.)|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred Card||80,000 Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months||$95||2x Ultimate Rewards points on travel and dining; 1x elsewhere|
|Ink Business Preferred Credit Card||100,000 bonus points after you spend $15,000 on purchases in the first three months.||$95||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; 1x elsewhere|
|The Platinum Card from American Express||60,000 Membership Rewards points after new cardholders spend $5,000 on purchases within three months of account opening. Terms apply.||$550 (see rates and fees)||5x points on airfare booked through Amex or directly with the airlines; 5x on prepaid hotels booked directly with Amex; 1x elsewhere. Terms apply.|
|Citi Prestige® Card||50,000 Citi ThankYou Points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months of account opening.||$495||5x Citi ThankYou points on air travel and restaurants; 3x points per dollar spent on hotels and cruise lines; 1x elsewhere|
|The Business Platinum Card from American Express||75,000 points after you spend $15,000 on qualifying purchases within the first three months of account opening.||$595 (see rates and fees)||5x Membership Rewards points on all flights from United or any other airline, and on all prepaid hotels booked on amextravel.com; 1.5x on purchases of $5,000 or more (up to an additional 1 million points per calendar year); 1x elsewhere. Terms apply.|
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.
Sign-up offer: The current sign-up bonus is 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 within three months of account opening.
Bonus valuation: $1,600
Annual fee: $95
Reasons to get it: This card offers 2x points per dollar 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 and have a dozen 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
Sign-up offer: 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months.
Bonus valuation: $1,000
Annual fee: $550
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 United flights you book through the Chase portal should count for getting you closer to United elite status and also earn redeemable miles.
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
Sign-up offer: 100,000 bonus points after you spend $15,000 on purchases in the first three months.
Bonus valuation: $2,000
Annual fee: $95
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
Welcome offer: 60,000 points after you 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).
Bonus valuation: $1,200 (more with targeted offers)
Annual fee: $550 (see rates and fees)
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 with airlines or with American Express Travel, as well as prepaid hotels booked through . 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 access and Priority Pass Select membership.
See TPG‘s full Amex Platinum review for more details.
APPLY HERE: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Sign-up bonus: 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 within three months of account opening.
Bonus valuation: $850
Annual fee: $495
Reasons to get it: This card earns 5 Citi ThankYou points per dollar spent on air travel and dining, 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 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. Best of all might be the opportunity to transfer your Citi points to Turkish Airlines, which has some tremendous award chart sweet spots for United-operated flights. (Hint: This includes a 7,500-mile award to Hawaii.) You’ll also have lounge access through the Priority Pass Select membership that is a cardmember benefit. However, the big downside is that the excellent travel protections that came with the Citi Prestige were discontinued in 2019.
See TPG‘s full Citi Prestige review for more details.
Welcome bonus: Earn 75,000 points after you spend $15,000 on qualifying purchases within the first three months of account opening.
Bonus valuation: $1,500
Annual fee: $595 (see rates and fees)
Reasons to get it: This might not seem like a great card for United flyers, but hear us 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 an up to $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 (up to 500,000 additional points back per calendar year). 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. When making large purchases of $5,000 or more, this card awards 1.5 points per dollar.
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
Who should get a United Airlines credit card?
If you are only going to have one rewards credit card in the whole wide world, it’s unlikely that the one and only card you have should be a United card. If you are only going to have one, I’d recommend a more flexible card, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, that earns points that can be used for United without locking you into one program.
But, if you fly United at least once or twice per year, then having a United card in your wallet likely makes sense, as it can save you money on bag fees and inflight purchases, as well as open up access to less expensive awards. In fact, we think that having a United card in your family is a really good strategy.
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. The access to increased Saver Award space is another tangible perk.
If you have any level of elite status with United, the features outlined above are redundant, and if you are really being choosy about what’s in your wallet, you’d probably be better off with a card like Chase Sapphire Preferred, which has the same $95 annual fee but offers two points per dollar 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.
Related reading: How to transfer Ultimate Rewards points between accounts
How much are United miles worth?
TPG values United miles at 1.3 cents each, down a bit from 1.4 cents about a year ago. That’s about an average valuation for a major U.S. airline mileage currency. When United switched to more dynamic award prices, some awards got more expensive while others during less popular periods got less expensive. On the whole, this made the miles a bit less valuable, especially for those who like to use miles during peak travel periods or fly in the fancy seats upfront.
However, there are still award tremendous values to be had with United miles. For example, we recently locked in 7,000-mile United awards from Houston (IAH) to Orange County (SNA) for 7,000 miles each way and lie-flat seats to Hawaii for 60,000 miles each. Partner award flights, even in the good seats, are still priced at relatively fixed amounts, so you can fly to Europe, Asia, Australia and beyond in first or business class on partners for pretty static numbers of United miles.
For inspiration, here are some of the best ways to use United miles.
Which card is best for United elite flyers?
While you might want one for the welcome bonus or the everyday earning capabilities, the honest truth is that the entry-level United cards, such as the United Explorer Card, don’t offer a ton of unique benefits that United elite flyers won’t already have due to their elite status. Early boarding, free checked bags, expanded saver award access, etc. are all pretty useless card perks for those with United elite status.
However, there are a few reasons for elites to consider the entry-level United cards. For example, having even an entry-level United card makes you eligible for complimentary upgrades when flying on United miles. The card can also save you money on onboard purchases such as Wi-Fi and snack boxes. Elites are also pretty likely to be able to put the two annual one-time United Club passes to easy use. The United Business Card is also pretty unique in that it provides a $100 United travel credit after seven United flight purchases of $100 or more per account anniversary year.
The ability to charge your way to 1,000 PQPs on the United Explorer and United Business Card in a normal year — and 2,000 in 2020 — is also a tangible perk for United elites. Just keep in mind that those PQPs only help you up to the Platinum elite level. If you want 1K status, you’re going to have to earn that without the help of this United card.
Truly frequent United flyers could arguably be better served with a premium United card. Having that card, or the small business equivalent, gets you into the network of United Clubs as you crisscross the globe when you are flying United. It also awards the most miles per dollar (4x) on United ticket purchases of all United cards, which presumably helps United elites the most. This year, you can also earn up to 4,000 PQPs with the premium Club cards based on your card spending, which could put a higher elite status tier within reach. As with the $95-per-year cards, these PQPs only help up to the Platinum elite level and do not get you closer to top-tier 1K status.
Can you have more than one United Airlines credit card?
Not only can you have more when one United Airlines credit card, but you’re actually incentivized to have a United consumer card and the small business United Business Card to get 5,000 bonus United miles each year. Each United credit card has its own terms and conditions, but typically having one United card doesn’t automatically exclude you from having another. For example, the United Explorer Card terms exclude current cardholders and previous cardholders who received a new bonus in the last 24 months, but it doesn’t mention the business cards or the Club-level cards.
That said, if you’re considering more than one United credit card, factor in the Chase 5/24 restrictions, which can play a role in how many total cards you can open within two years.
By examining your travel needs, elite status goals, spending habits and preferences, United flyers can choose the credit card (or cards) that offers the best combination of rewards and benefits. You have lots of options when it comes to choosing the best card for you as a United flyer.
For most occasional United Airlines flyers, the United Explorer Card will be the way to go to save miles on United awards, save on bag fees, ensure some early boarding and give a nice boost to your MileagePlus account balance with its 40,000 mile welcome bonus.
If you have a small business, the answer for which is best will be different.
Then there’s also option B: Get a more flexible travel credit card. For example, The Platinum Card from American Express awards 5x Membership Reward points per dollar on United Airlines ticket purchases (made directly with the airline) and includes Priority Pass access. The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is another great choice for travelers who want some built-in travel protections and bonus points that can be transferred to United Airlines without being locked into one airline.
Featured photo courtesy of United Airlines.
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WELCOME OFFER: 80,000 Points
TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,600
CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners
*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.
- Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,000 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
- 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide, eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
- Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,000 toward travel.
- Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on orders over $12 for a minimum of one year on qualifying food purchases with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
- Earn 5X points on Lyft rides through March 2022. That’s 3X points in addition to the 2X points you already earn on travel.