United Airlines Credit Cards: Here’s Our Top Pick
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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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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.
|Introductory Bonus Offer|
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).
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.
If you’re a business owner, you could also consider the basic United business card. Right now, it’s offering 75,000 bonus miles for spending $5,000 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 App: This 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.
For true United loyalists, this premium card packs a decent punch, and it earns 4X miles per dollar for all United purchases.
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.
Alternatively, entrepreneurs could opt for the United Club℠ Business Card, which is pretty similar.
This card is United’s no-fee offering, and in my opinion, there are much better fee-free cards out there. You’ll earn 2X miles at United, and also for local transit and gas.
There’s also a decent intro bonus: 15,000 bonus miles for spending $1,000 in the first 3 months. But that’s about it.
Since this card doesn’t come with many other airline-specific perks like free bags or priority boarding, I’d recommend opting for one of the other United cards or 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, 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.)
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 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.)
If you’re interested in perks, consider the Chase Sapphire Reserve® (Review), which offers a nice intro bonus: 50,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 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.
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 on purchases in the first 3 months and earns 5X Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on Lyft rides and 3X points on dining, 2X on travel — 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:
- The Platinum Card® from American Express (Review): It offers 100,000 bonus points for spending $6,000 in the first 6 months; 10X points on eligible purchases at restaurants worldwide and when you Shop Small in the U.S., on up to $25,000 in combined purchases, during the first 6 months. You’ll earn 5X points per dollar on flights and prepaid hotels booked through Amex Travel, and on flights purchased directly from airlines (starting 1/1/21, on up to $500,000 spent per calendar year). While the card has a steep $695 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 60,000 bonus miles for 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 80,000 ThankYou points for spending $4,000 in first 3 months (worth $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com), 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.
For rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, please click here.
Susan is a freelance writer who specializes in turning complex financial topics into engaging and accessible articles. She's been writing about personal finance for six years, and was previously the senior writer at The Penny Hoarder and a staff writer at Student Loan Hero. Her personal finance writing has also appeared in publications like MarketWatch and Lifehacker.
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