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If you fly United Airlines frequently, you’d probably enjoy those perks, too. But with all the different rewards card options out there, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
That’s why I’m here to cut through the noise and tell you why the very best United Airlines credit card is the United℠ Explorer Card (Review). (For those of you who like your independence, I’ll share a few runners up, as well.)
While there are several great United cards, I’m going to do the legwork for you — and simply declare this card to be the best for most people.
|Introductory Bonus Offer|
In addition to its high mileage-earning capability and generous intro bonus, here are more features we love:
As you can see, the United Explorer Card’s a winner — especially when it comes to co-branded airline cards.
You can earn a nice introductory bonus in the first few 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 travel benefits: 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 travel 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’re a business owner, you could also consider the basic United business card. Right now, it’s offering a 100,000-mile introductory bonus after spending $10,000 in the first three months.
Otherwise, its perks are almost identical: United Club passes, first checked bag free, and priority boarding.
Unfortunately, the business card’s annual fee isn’t waived for the first year, so you’re paying $99 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 restaurants, plus local transit, gas stations, and office supply stores.
Before digging into the rest of the United Airlines credit cards, 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:
Though the Explorer is my favorite United credit card, there are four other co-branded personal and business cards — plus several other cards whose points transfer directly or indirectly to United.
For true United loyalists, this premium card packs a decent punch. It has a solid welcome bonus of 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months after 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 $650 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 $450 per year, but if you’ll use the card enough and make good use of the card benefits — especially lounge access — it could be worth the cost.
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.)
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 5X Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on Lyft rides (through March 2020), 3X points per dollar 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, 10X Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on Lyft rides (through March 2020), 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 $550, you’ll receive a $300 travel credit that essentially brings it down to $250.
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 earns 5X Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on Lyft rides (through March 2020) and 2X points on travel and dining — all for an affordable annual fee of $95.
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 airfare.
Here are a few cards to consider:
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.
For rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, please click here.
United Airlines credit card perks include added benefits on Basic Economy fares, increased access to Saver Award fares, and miles that don’t expire. Our favorite United card ups the ante with free United Club passes, a Global Entry/TSA PreCheck fee credit, and more.
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