The 9 best credit cards for flying United
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United has made some big changes in the last few months by removing its award charts for travel on United-operated flights, going to a dynamic pricing model for the awards on flights that it operates and shifting how travelers earn elite status. All of this means that the price for any given award flight may vary from day to day and hour to hour — just as prices vary when paying with cash. All these recent shifts may leave you wondering what credit cards are truly best for flying United.
Related reading: The day has arrived: United award charts are no more
Thankfully, while many things have changed at United, the cobranded United credit cards remain a good option for unlocking better award availability, free checked bags and priority boarding. For those who like to know in advance what a premium cabin award ticket will cost, partner awards also still follow published award charts (at least for now).
With the new variable award pricing, there are some United award flights that are cheaper than ever before. But, in other cases, you will have better luck (or, at least better pricing options) booking United-operated flights with rewards from other cards. For example, you could book United flights through the Ultimate Rewards portal using fixed-value points. When paying cash, you can also book your United lights using a card that earns transferable points and miles that you can transfer to Star Alliance partners to book awards on United-operated flights. In some cases, that will result in more points than using the United cards themselves.
So today we’re taking all that into consideration when looking at the best overall credit card choices for United flyers. Some of these cards unlock benefits that are useful when flying on United using United miles, while others earn valuable transferable points you can use in a number of ways. 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. Let’s dive in!
The best United Airlines credit cards of 2020
- United Explorer Card
- United Business 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
- The Business Platinum® Card from American Express
Best credit cards for flying United
Annual fee: $95 (waived the first year)
Sign-up offer: The personal United Explorer Card is offering a limited-time sign-up bonus of 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months
Reasons to get it: This entry-level United credit card 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, 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
Annual fee: $99
Sign-up offer: The all-new United Business Card is offering a limited-time sign-up bonus of 100,000 bonus miles after you spend $10,000 on purchases in the first three months
Reasons to get it: The United Business Card is a new card option for small business owners that builds upon the benefits and features of the United Explorer Business Card (now closed for new applications). You’ll earn 2x miles on United purchases, gas stations, office supply stores, restaurants and local transit and commuting. You’ll also get a number of elite-like perks, including a free checked bag for you and one companion on the same reservation, 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.
But the new card also comes with brand new benefits. You’ll have the chance to earn a $100 United travel credit after purchasing seven flights (flights must be $100 or more in value), and cardholders who have both the United Business Card and a personal United credit card will receive a 5,000-mile anniversary bonus each year. See TPG‘s United Business Card announcement for more details.
APPLY HERE: United Business Card
Annual fee: $450
Sign-up offer: 75,000 miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months
Reasons to get it: As this card’s name implies, cardholders 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 United Club Card. Other perks include Premier Access travel services 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 versus 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 still 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 as opposed to the 1.5 on the Reserve. The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card 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
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-based 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, 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, 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 review of Chase Sapphire Reserve for more details.
APPLY HERE: Chase Sapphire Reserve
Annual fee: $95
Sign-up offer: 80,000 bonus points after you spend $5,000 on 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 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
Annual fee: $550 (see rates and fees)
Welcome offer: 60,000 points after new cardholders 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, but those offers are 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 with airlines or with American Express Travel, as well as prepaid hotels booked through monthly Uber credits, biannual Saks Fifth Avenue credits, Marriott elite status, Hilton elite status, Centurion Lounge access, Priority Pass Select membership. See TPG‘s full Amex Platinum review for more details.. Other cardholder benefits include an up to $200 annual statement credit toward incidental airline fees (although not actual airfare),
APPLY HERE: The Platinum Card® from American Express
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 that is now capped at two bookings per year and bookings will need to be made through
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 Citi Prestige’s excellent travel protections were discontinued in 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.
APPLY HERE: Citi® Prestige Card
Annual fee: $595 (see rates and fees)
Welcome bonus: Earn up to 75,000 bonus points: 50,000 bonus points after you spend $10,000 and an extra 25,000 bonus points after you spend an additional $10,000 all on qualifying purchases within your first 3 months of card membership.
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 to receive an up to $200 annual credit for incidental air travel fees. When you do that, you’ll be able to redeem your Membership Rewards points for any United flights at a fixed value based on the cash selling cost and receive a 35% rebate on the points redeemed (up to 500,000 points 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.
You’ll also receive the 35% points rebate when you book any 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 while enjoying the opportunity to receive upgrades not afforded by award flights.
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 Business Card are great choices with valuable perks like a free checked bag, priority boarding and a couple of one-time United Club passes each year. I have the United Explorer Card primarily for the increased Saver Award space, which makes my United miles much more valuable since award prices ring in cheaper for cardholders, on average.
If you have any level of elite status with United, the features outlined above are mostly redundant. However, note that having those cards does make you eligible for complimentary upgrades on United based on your elite status when flying on award tickets. Without a United credit card, elites are not eligible for upgrades when on award tickets.
However, some infrequent United travelers will be better off with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, 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.
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 want a United Club membership, this is the card for you. If you aren’t interested in access to United Clubs, then 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 another card that lets you transfer your points into miles.
Finally, the Ink Business Preferred is a no-brainer for any small-business owner who wants to earn points, which can be transferred to United. The Amex Platinum and Business Platinum or Citi Prestige are also 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, the Citi Prestige 8.5% return is still solid, but you now essentially have no built-in travel protections with the Citi Prestige.
By examining both spending habits and travel needs, United flyers can choose the cards that offer the best combination of rewards and benefits. There are a variety of card approaches and options for United travelers, and the good news is that in many cases you can hold more than one of these cards if your needs cross different categories.
Featured image by The Points Guy staff.
Additional reporting by Madison Blancaflor.
The United Explorer card recently got some enhancements like 2 miles per dollar spent at restaurants and on hotel stays and a Global Entry or TSA Pre-Check Fee credit (up to $100). The $95 annual fee is waived for the first year.
- Limited-time offer! Earn 60,000 Bonus Miles.
- $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95.
- Earn 2 miles per $1 spent at restaurants and on hotel stays
- Up to $100 Global Entry or TSA Pre✓® Fee Credit
- 25% back on United inflight purchases
- Check your first bag for free (a savings of up to $120 per roundtrip) when you use your Card to purchase your ticket
- Enjoy priority boarding privileges and visit the United Club℠ with 2 one-time passes each year for your anniversary
- Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on purchases from United, and 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases