United Airlines Credit Cards: Here’s Our Top Pick

Susan Shain

Susan Shain | Blog

Apr 09, 2019 | Updated Aug 08, 2019

Credit Card Insider receives compensation from advertisers whose products may be mentioned on this page. Advertiser relationships do not affect card evaluations. Advertising partners do not edit or endorse our editorial content. Content is accurate to the best of our knowledge when it's published. Learn more in our Editorial Guidelines.

One of the first airline credit cards I ever got was the United℠ Explorer Card (Review). I remember loving the free checked bag, priority boarding, and two free lounge passes each year. (#Baller!)

If you fly United Airlines frequently, you’d probably enjoy those perks, too. But with all the different card options out there, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

That’s why I’m here to cut through the noise and tell you the very best United Airlines credit card. (For those of you who like your independence, I’ll share a few runners-up, as well.)

5 Must-Know Perks of United Airlines Credit Cards

First, though, a few notes about United Airlines’ “MileagePlus” frequent flyer program and the benefits of holding one of its co-branded cards.

United is part of the Star Alliance, which encompasses 28 airlines flying to 1,300 airports around the world. You can redeem United MileagePlus miles with any of these partners, usually booking your tickets right through United’s website.

Even better, United doesn’t charge fuel surcharges on its award tickets (unlike, say, British Airways), which can save you significant cash when you’re redeeming your miles. All you’ll have to pay are taxes and fees.

To earn United miles, you can shop through its online portal, make purchases on a co-branded credit card, or spend money with the airline. As an entry-level member of United’s MileagePlus program, you’ll earn 5X miles per dollar spent — so a $200 ticket would garner you 1,000 miles. If you purchased that ticket on a co-branded credit card, you’d earn an additional 2X miles per dollar, for a total of 1,400 miles.

That’s not all. Here are five more amazing cardholder perks you need to know about:

  • Increased Saver Award availability: When you’re redeeming MileagePlus miles for tickets, the cheapest fares are called “Saver Awards.” As a United cardholder, you’ll have access to more Saver Award availability than regular customers — which could save you thousands of miles every time you book a flight.
  • Supercharged earning with the MileagePlus X AppThis useful app allows you to earn points by purchasing electronic gift cards. When you’re standing in line at Macy’s, for example, you could pull up the app and buy a gift card to redeem at the register, therefore earning an extra 3X miles per dollar on your purchase. Or you could get an Airbnb gift card and earn an extra 2X miles per dollar. With a United card, you’ll earn 25% more miles on these gift card purchases — a fantastic boost.
  • Extra benefits on Basic Economy: Normally, United’s Basic Economy fares don’t allow passengers to bring a full-sized carry-on or checked bag. But if you purchase a Basic Economy ticket with your United card, that rule won’t apply. You’ll be able to bring a full-sized carry-on free of charge and check as many free bags as your card allows. Plus, when boarding, you’ll receive your card’s priority boarding privileges instead of being relegated to the last group.
  • Miles that don’t expire: When you hold one of United’s co-branded cards, your MileagePlus miles won’t expire. Even if you cancel the card, you’ll still get to keep your miles (though they will expire after 18 months of inactivity).
  • “Premier Qualifying Dollar” (PQD) waiver for elite status: If you’re trying to attain Premier status with United Airlines, you can use your credit card spending to make it easier. According to the United website, “the PQD requirement for Premier Silver, Premier Gold and Premier Platinum qualification is waived for primary Cardmembers” who spend at least $25,000 on co-branded United cards in a calendar year. Here are all of the requirements to achieve Premier status.

The Best United Airlines Credit Card

Now that you know about all those extra special perks, you’re probably salivating to learn about the United Airlines credit card options available to you.

While there are several, I’m going to do the legwork for you — and simply declare this card to be the best for most people.

Spending Rewards
  • 7X miles per dollar on United
    • 2X miles per dollar from the Explorer Card
    • 5X miles per dollar for being a MileagePlus member
  • 2X miles per dollar for:
    • Restaurants
    • Hotel accommodations purchased directly with the hotel
  • 1X mile per dollar on all other purchases
Introductory Bonus Offer
  • 40,000 bonus miles for spending $2,000 in the first 3 months
    • Value: $400–$600 (assuming 1–1.5 cents per point)
    • Return on spend: 20–30%

In addition to its high mileage-earning capability and generous introductory bonus, here are more features we love:

  • Two United Club passes per year
  • Free checked bag for you and one companion on United flights
  • $100 Global Entry or TSAPreCheck application fee credit
  • Priority boarding on United flights
  • 25% inflight purchase discount on United flights
  • Primary rental car coverage
  • $95 annual fee is waived the first year
  • No foreign transaction fees

As you can see, this card’s a winner — especially when it comes to co-branded airline cards.

You’ll earn a 40,000-mile introductory bonus after you spend $2,000 in the first three months, and won’t have to pay an annual fee the first year.

In 2018, United significantly boosted this card’s value by increasing its earning power to 2X miles per dollar at hotels and restaurants, adding the $100 Global Entry or TSAPreCheck statement credit, and offering a 25% inflight purchase discount.

Those new features are in addition to its already above-average perks: two one-time passes to the United Club lounge each year, primary rental car coverage (a rarity among travel credit cards), and special status through Chase’s Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection, including daily breakfast for two, free WiFi, room upgrades, and dining or spa credits.

While you’ll only get one free checked bag for you and a companion, you’ll also get priority boarding, which means there should be room for a carry-on in the overhead bin. And, given that bags cost $30 one-way on United, you’ll still make up for the annual fee with a single round-trip flight for two (a $120 value).

 

If you have a business, you could also consider the business version of the Explorer card. Right now, it’s offering a 50,000-mile introductory bonus after spending $5,000 in the first three months, and you can get another 50,000 bonus miles by spending $25,000 in the first six months.

Otherwise, its perks are almost identical: United Club passes, free checked bag, and priority boarding.

Unfortunately, the business card’s annual fee isn’t waived for the first year, so you’re paying $95 annually right off the bat. The other major difference lies in its bonus categories: You’ll get 2X miles per dollar on United purchases and at hotels (but not restaurants), plus gas stations and office supply stores.

More United Airlines Credit Cards

Though the Explorer is my favorite United Airlines credit card, there are three other co-branded personal and business cards — plus several other cards whose points transfer directly or indirectly to United.

United Cards

For true United loyalists, this premium card packs a decent punch. It has a solid introductory bonus of 50,000 miles after spending $3,000 within three months of account opening, and it earns a flat 1.5X miles per dollar for every purchase.

Its biggest perk, however, is in the name: It includes a United Club membership worth $550 per year, meaning lots of room to work or relax, plus free drinks and food, when you have a layover. At the airport, you’ll also have access to “Premier Access travel services” like designated check-in lines, priority security lanes, priority boarding, and priority baggage handling.

As another step up from the Explorer card, you’ll get two free checked bags (instead of one) for you and your companion, as well as elite status with Hyatt and Hertz. You also won’t pay a close-in booking fee ($75) when booking rewards.

All this comes at a fee of $550 per year, but if you’ll use the card enough and make good use of the benefits — especially lounge access — it could be worth the cost.

Alternatively, entrepreneurs could opt for the United MileagePlus® Club Business Card, but since it only offers a $100 statement credit instead of 50,000 bonus miles, we think the personal card is a better choice.

 

This card is United’s no-fee offering, and in my opinion, there are much better fee-free cards out there. Rather than earning miles, this card earns cash back toward the “United TravelBank,” which you can redeem for United purchases.

After spending $1,000 in the first three months, you’ll receive $150 in United TravelBank cash. You’ll earn 2% in TravelBank cash on United purchases, 1.5% on everything else, and will save 25% on inflight food and beverages. But that’s about it.

Since this card doesn’t come with other airline-specific perks like free bags or priority boarding, I’d recommend opting for a general cash back card like the Citi® Double Cash Card - 18 month BT offer (Review) instead. It earns 2% cash back on every purchase — not just United tickets — which you can use to reduce the amount owed on your statement. (You’ll earn 1% back when you make a purchase, and an additional 1% back when you pay for that purchase.)

Or, if you’re an international traveler who doesn’t want to pay foreign transaction fees, check out the Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card (Review), another great card with a $0 annual fee.

If you get the Explorer Card and don’t want to pay the annual fee after the first year, you can request a downgrade to the “Chase MileagePlus Card.” This card isn’t available for applications — only downgrades — and doesn’t charge an annual fee. While it doesn’t have many perks, it reportedly still allows you to see expanded Saver Award space, making it a good option for United flyers who want to avoid annual fees.

Chase Cards

Unless you fly United several times a year, and value airline-specific perks like a checked bag and priority boarding, the Chase Ultimate Rewards family of cards is also worth considering. 

These cards earn Ultimate Rewards points, which can be transferred to a dozen hotel and airline partners — including United — at a 1:1 ratio. They therefore offer much greater flexibility when it comes to redeeming rewards. They also all come with primary car rental insurance (with the Ink Preferred, it only applies to business rentals domestically; abroad, to both business and personal rentals).

If you’re interested in a slew of points, the Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card (Review) is currently offering 80,000 bonus points after spending $5,000 in the first three months (which you could then transfer to 80,000 United miles). It offers 3X points on travel, including United Airlines purchases, and has an annual fee of $95. (Don’t think you can get a biz card? You might be wrong.)

 

If you’re interested in perks, consider the Chase Sapphire Reserve® (Review), which offers 50,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first three months. It comes with a Priority Pass Select membership, which gets you access to more than 1,200 airport lounges around the world, 3X points on travel (after using the travel credit) and dining, and a $100 Global Entry or TSA PreCheck fee credit. There’s a bunch of other valuable benefits, too. While its annual fee is $450, you’ll receive a $300 travel credit that essentially brings it down to $150.

 

If you’re seeking simplicity and a lower annual fee, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card (Review) is a good bet. It offers 60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first three months and 2X points on travel and dining — all for an affordable annual fee of $95.

Other Cards

Before applying for one of the Chase cards above, make sure you understand Chase’s “5/24 rule,” which automatically denies your application if you’ve opened five or more new credit cards in the past 24 months (in most cases).

(Since Chase looks at personal credit reports for this rule, you usually don’t have to worry about having opened business cards — unless, like Discover and Capital One’s business cards, they appear on your personal credit reports.)

There’s also a “2/30 rule.” This means you can usually only open two personal Chase cards in a 30-day period. Business cards have a “1/30 rule,” meaning you can only apply for one Chase business card every 30 days.

If these rules disqualify you from getting a Chase card for your United travels, you still have several options. While other travel rewards programs might not allow you to transfer points directly to United, they do allow you to transfer to United’s partners — and then you can use the points for United flights.

Here are a few cards to consider:

  • The Platinum Card® from American Express (Review): It offers 60,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $5,000 in the first 3 months. You’ll earn 5X points per dollar on flights and prepaid hotels booked through Amex Travel, and on flights purchased directly from airlines. While the card has a steep $550 annual fee, it comes with extensive travel credits and lounge access. United partners include Avianca, Air Canada, Singapore Air, Etihad, Virgin Atlantic, and All Nippon Airways.
  • Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card (Review): This solid all-around card offers 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months and 2X miles per dollar on everything. Its $95 annual fee is waived the first year. United partners include Avianca, Air Canada, and Singapore Air.
  • Citi Premier Card (Review): With this card, you’ll earn 60,000 ThankYou points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months, plus 3X points per dollar spent on travel (including gas stations!) and 2X points on dining and entertainment. It comes in at $95 per year. United partners include Avianca, Singapore Air, Thai Airways, and Turkish Airlines.

Which United Airlines Credit Card Is Right for You?

If you’re a frequent flyer on United, the United℠ Explorer Card (Review) is a fantastic choice. With a healthy signup bonus, increased Saver Award space, lounge passes, and 2X miles on restaurants and hotel stays, it stands out among co-branded airline credit cards.

On the other hand, the United MileagePlus® Club Card (Review) is probably only worth it if you’re super devoted to United Airlines, and will make good use of the United Club access. (For all-around lounge access, The Platinum Card® from American Express (Review) is a better choice.)

If you’re just hoping to earn a lot of miles for United flights, consider the Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card (Review) or Chase Sapphire Reserve® (Review). They both feature big introductory bonuses, 3X points per dollar on travel and dining (including United flights), and ample perks. (The Reserve’s 3X rate for travel begins after you use the full travel credit).

If you travel regularly, credit cards have the potential to help you save quite a bit of money and make your trips more pleasant. But the right card for you will depend on your particular spending and travel habits.

Just in case you’re still not convinced about any United Airlines credit cards, check out our picks for the Best Travel Credit Cards on the market.
Was this helpful?

The responses below are not provided or commissioned by bank advertisers. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by bank advertisers. It is not the bank advertisers' responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

The Insider

Susan Shain
6 Best Credit Cards for International Travel
Susan Shain | Aug 16, 2019

Heading abroad soon? Then check out this list of the six best credit cards for international travel — they'll have you traveling in style in no time.

Read More
Sean Messier
How to Build Credit: 5 Ways to Increase Your Credit Scores
Sean Messier | Aug 15, 2019

Using a credit card is far from the only way to build credit. Here, we explore several ways to establish, repair, and improve your credit scores.

Read More
Sean Messier
What Happens If You Don’t Activate a Credit Card?
Sean Messier | Aug 12, 2019

Even if you didn't activate a new credit card, the account is probably open and affecting your credit scores. Read this to learn what to do next.

Read More