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United Airlines Credit Cards: Here’s Our Top Pick

9 min read
Susan Shain By Susan Shain Apr 09, 2019 | Updated Sep 17, 2020

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 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.)

The Best United Airlines Credit Card

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.

United℠ Explorer Card

Our rating
Min. credit levelGood
Annual Fee$0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95.
Regular APR16.49% to 23.49% Variable
Spending Rewards
  • 7X miles per dollar on United
    • 2X miles per dollar from the Explorer Card
    • 5X miles per dollar for being a Basic 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
  • 60,000 bonus miles for spending $3,000 in the first 3 months

In addition to its high mileage-earning capability and generous intro 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, 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).


United℠ Business Card

Min. credit levelExcellent
Annual Fee$0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $99.
Regular APR16.49% - 23.49% Variable

If you’re a business owner, you could also consider the basic United business card. Right now, it’s offering 60,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months.

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

The 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.

What Benefits Do United Airlines Credit Cards Provide?

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:

  • 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.

What’s the Value of a United Mile?

The MileagePlus program makes it easy to rack up rewards, and it’s even easier if you add a United credit card into the mix. But remember that the value of a mile tends to vary quite a bit from one airline rewards program to the next.

This begs an important question — what’s the value of a United MileagePlus mile?

There’s no exact answer, but United’s miles are generally quite valuable. You can often get upwards of 1.5 cents per mile with a typical flight redemption, but if you redeem wisely, the value of your miles can climb even higher, sometimes reaching or exceeding 2 cents.

Here are a few examples we found through the United flight reservation portal. They’re all round-trip, and we chose several classes of airfare to give you an idea of just how much the redemption value can bounce around.

Round Trip Route Class Cash Price Points Price Value Per Point
JFK to LAX Economy $317 17,500 miles + $5.60 1.81 cents
IAD to LHR Premium Economy $531 35,000 miles + $5.60 1.52 cents
ORD to ATL First (Saver) $1,408 58,400 miles + $5.60 2.4 cents
LAX to DEN First (Everyday) $489 27,500 miles + $5.60 1.78 cents

More United Airlines Credit Cards

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.

United Cards

United Club℠ Infinite Card

Our rating
Min. credit levelGood
Annual Fee$525
Regular APR16.49% - 23.49% Variable

For true United loyalists, this premium card packs a decent punch, and it earns 4X miles per dollar for all United purchases. You can also earn 100,000 bonus miles for spending $5,000 in the first 3 months.

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 with a high annual fee, 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.

Insider tip

Alternatively, entrepreneurs could opt for the United Club℠ Business Card, which is pretty similar.

United TravelBank Card

Our rating
Min. credit levelFair
Annual Fee$0
Regular APR17.49%–24.49% Variable
Apply Now

securely on the issuer's website

  • 2% TravelBank cash back on tickets purchased from United
  • 1.5% TravelBank cash back on all other purchases
  • $1 in TravelBank cash = $1 when used toward the purchase of a United ticket
  • $150 TravelBank cash back bonus when you spend $1,000 with your card in the first 3 months
  • 25% inflight savings on food, beverages and Wi-Fi
  • No foreign transaction fee
  • No annual fee

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 as long as you pay at least the minimum due on time.)

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.

Insider tip

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).

Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card

Our rating
Min. credit levelExcellent
Annual Fee$95
Regular APR15.99%-20.99% Variable

If you’re interested in a slew of points, the Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card (Review) is currently offering 100,000 bonus points for spending $15,000 in the first 3 months after account opening (which you could then transfer to the same number of United miles). It offers 5X Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on Lyft rides, 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.)


Chase Sapphire Reserve®

Our rating
Min. credit levelExcellent
Annual Fee$550
Regular APR16.99%-23.99% Variable

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, 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.


Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Our rating
Min. credit levelGood
Annual Fee$95
Regular APR15.99% - 22.99% Variable
Apply Now

securely on the issuer's website

  • 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(R).
  • 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.

If you’re seeking simplicity and a lower annual fee, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card (Review) is a good bet. It offers 80,000 bonus points for spending $4,000 in the first 3 months and earns 5X Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on Lyft rides 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 airfare.

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 (Rates & Fees), 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, 2X miles per dollar on everything, and comes with a $95 annual fee. United partners include Avianca, Air Canada, and Singapore Air.
  • Citi Premier Card (Review): With this card, you’ll earn 60,000 bonus points for spending $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months of account opening, plus 3X points per dollar spent for restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, air travel, and hotels; it comes in at $95 per year. United partners include Avianca, Singapore Air, Thai Airways, and Turkish Airlines.

Which United Airlines Credit Card Is Best 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 Club℠ Infinite 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.

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At a glance

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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The information related to Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card, Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card, and Citi Premier Card have been collected by Credit Card Insider and have not been reviewed or provided by the issuer or provider of these products.

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