What credit card should I get if I’m moving to a United hub?

Apr 23, 2020

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Reader Questions are answered twice a week by TPG  Senior Points & Miles Contributor Ethan Steinberg.

There’s a lot of home bias involved in picking an airline and hotel chain to be loyal to, as most people will gravitate towards the brands with the most flight options out of their home airport or nearby hotels (although TPG’s Richard Kerr makes a strong case for holding elite status while living at a different airline’s hub). This means that if you end up moving you may need to take a good hard look at your loyalty moving forward. TPG reader Alex wants to know what credit cards he should pick up if he’s planning on moving to Denver (DEN), a United Airlines hub city …

I currently live in Charlotte, North Carolina, so I have airline credit cards for both American and Delta. I plan on moving to Denver in 2021 which is a United hub. Should I look at starting a MileagePlus account? If so, should I do that through a credit card or start to fly them?

TPG READER ALEX

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Moving to Denver means that Alex is much more likely to be flying United when he travels, but before he jumps right into the MileagePlus program he should take a look at his travel patterns and make sure United actually offers the best flight schedules on those routes. For example, if he plans on traveling frequently to Seattle (SEA) he might be happier flying with Southwest or Alaska, or even forgoing loyalty to a single airline and just picking the routes with the cheapest price. Which brings me to my next point …

Flexible points versus a cobranded airline credit card

Assuming Alex chooses to become loyal to United, he’ll want to rack up as many MileagePlus miles as possible to earn some free flights. He mentioned he only travels six to eight times a year, so it’s likely that the bulk of his earning will be coming from credit card welcome bonuses and spending and not from actual flights. In this case, Alex would be much better off sticking with a transferable points card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve instead of a United credit card like the United Explorer Card.

Related: The best credit cards for flying United

Not only does the Sapphire family of cards come with better bonus categories and travel benefits all around, but the Chase Ultimate Rewards points they earn are incredibly valuable and flexible. If Alex wants to book an award ticket with United he can transfer his points instantly at a 1:1 rate to MileagePlus, but if Southwest has cheaper flights he can transfer them to Rapid Rewards instead. If he wants to take a short trip around the West Coast, he could also transfer his points to British Airways Executive Club to book flights with soon to be Oneworld member and current BA partner Alaska Airlines. Of course these options are in addition to the bonus Sapphire cardholders receive (25% with the Preferred and 50% with the Reserve) when they pay with points for flights through the Chase Travel Portal, allowing them to book any flight that’s for sale regardless of whether there’s award space.

Related: How to maximize your Chase Ultimate Rewards points

If Alex were to choose a United credit card instead, he’d be sacrificing all this flexibility and locking himself into a single program. Flexibility is one of the most important things you can have when it comes to award travel, but United credit cards like the United Explorer Card have one benefit that might still make it worth it for less frequent travelers: a free checked bag. When you use your Explorer card to book your ticket, you and one companion can enjoy a first checked bag free on United-operated flights. This represents a savings of about $30 per one-way trip, and if you don’t fly enough to get free checked bags as an elite benefit this might add up to some significant savings for you.

Of course, if you have enough slots left with Chase’s 5/24 rule you don’t have to pick one or the other. You can get a United card for free checked bags but build the majority of your points strategy around a flexible currency like Chase Ultimate Rewards.

Bottom line

Moving to a new city means a chance for a fresh start and it also serves as a great excuse to revisit your points and miles strategy. Whenever possible you should try and focus on earning flexible points like Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards or Capital One Miles. Not only do these transferable points give you more options when you find the flights you want to book, but if you end up moving again they’ll follow you from city to city even if your primary airline changes.

Thanks for the question, Alex, and if you’re a TPG reader who’d like us to answer a question of your own, tweet us @thepointsguy, message us on Facebook or email us at info@thepointsguy.com.

Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

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