Best United credit card? It might not say United on the card

by on Mon March 10, 2014 • 45 Comments
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United ContinentalWith the merger of United Airlines and Continental Airlines we’re getting a lot of questions about which United credit card to apply for.

What might surprise you – a credit card with high earning power for United miles is actually the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card (read our review).

It lets you transfer points 1:1 instantly into any United Airlines mile account, as well as Southwest Airlines, British Airways, Amtrak, Hyatt, Marriott, and more. And, it earns double points on all dining and travel purchases (even things like fast food, parking, and taxis).

The annual fee of $95, waived the first year, is the same as United’s most popular card, the United Explorer Card, so if that’s the case why bother carrying a United branded credit card like the Explorer Card?

The Explorer Card’s value comes from travel benefits not available with the Sapphire Preferred, with a free first checked bag, priority boarding, and ability to waive the spending requirement for United Premier status.

We carry both - the Sapphire Preferred® Card as the ‘go to’ credit card for everyday spending, and a United Airlines branded card for the travel benefits.

You may also have the chance to rack up over 70,000 miles by getting both a Sapphire Preferred® Card and a United credit card.

There are three actively marketed personal credit cards that earn United MileagePlus® miles, which you can compare using our CardFinder tool:

  • United MileagePlus® Explorer Card - offering a free checked bag on United flights
  • United MileagePlus® Club Card  – offering lounge access and 2 free checked bags
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card – offering mile transfer to other programs, and higher earning
  • There are different versions of  the above three cards for business owners and you can review the options here.

Only Chase credit cards earn full value United Airlines miles, and we think United has one of the better programs for redeeming miles. An independent study found it had the most reward seats available among the global U.S. carriers. United miles are especially useful for getting to international destinations in Economy Class, tickets that normally cost $1,200 or more in cash, thanks to its easy online award search and lots of Star Alliance partners for international travel.

We’ll discuss the credit cards more below, but first, here’s a table comparing the three major United credit cards.

CardUnited Mileage Plus ExplorerUnited Mileage Plus Club CardChase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Earning power
Intro bonusStart with 30,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months$95 statement credit after first purchase40,000 points when you spend $3,000 within first 3 months
Base1 mile per dollar1.5 miles per dollar -- 50% more1 mile per dollar
United purchases2 miles per dollar2 miles per dollar2 miles per dollar (3 miles if purchased via UltimateRewards.com)
All other Travel purchases1 mile per dollar1.5 miles per dollar2 miles per dollar (3 miles if purchased via UltimateRewards.com)
Dining purchases1 mile per dollar1.5 miles per dollar2 miles per dollar
Elite qualifying milesNoNoNo
Annual bonus10,000 miles each calendar year you spend $25,000 or moreNone7% bonus on points earned during a calendar year
Supplemental benefits
Bag free on UnitedYes, first bag free for you and a companion.Yes, first and second bags free for you and a companionNo
Foreign transaction fees waivedYesYesYes
1:1 mile transfer to United, British Airways, Hyatt, Marriott, Amtrak, Priority Club, Korean AirlinesNo -- United miles onlyNo -- United miles onlyYes, instant online transfer for flexibility of points
Priority boardingYes, Group 2Yes, Group 2No
Priority security lanesNoYesNo
Travel delay insuranceNoNoYes, up to $300 per overnight or 12+ hour delay (even weather)
Hotel upgrades via lhrcollection.comYesYesNo
Lounge passesYes, 2 United Club single visit passes per yearYes, full United Club membership -- access all United Club lounges, and 970 Star Alliance business class loungesNo
Elite upgrades on reward ticketsYesYesNo
Avis First membershipNoYes, upgrade on car rentals when availableNo
Hyatt Platinum membershipNoYes, 2pm late checkout, free internet, preferred roomsNo
Annual fee$95$395$95
Secure application linkApply NowApply NowApply Now

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card: Most flexible United miles earning

Chase Sapphire PreferredIf you’re serious about the flexibility of the points you earn — this is the card for you as it offers unmatched flexibility and good earning power. The Sapphire Preferred Card earns points in a neutral currency — Chase Ultimate Rewards points — and these points are special because you can transfer them 1:1 online into United miles, as well as your point accounts with Southwest Airlines, British Airways, Hyatt, Marriott, IHG Hotels, Amtrak, Virgin Atlantic, and Korean Airlines. That way you’re not stuck if United doesn’t have award flights available on the dates you want to the places you want to go. There is no fee for the transfer and it’s usually instant so you can add to the miles you already have in your airline and hotel accounts at any time.

You also get double points on all travel and dining purchases– and triple points on travel purchases if you use the UltimateRewards.com search engine to book flights, hotels, or rental cars.

No foreign transaction fee is another benefit.

What you sacrifice with the Sapphire Preferred is the free checked bag, priority boarding, and elite upgrade eligibility on mile tickets of the United Explorer credit card. You also don’t get the primary auto collision insurance protection of the United Explorer as the Sapphire Preferred offers secondary coverage, as with most credit cards, which means your own auto insurance kicks in before your card will pick up the tab.

To see how the card stacks up by the numbers, try our CardFinder tool for cards that earn United miles– it lets you input your spending habits and will factor in earning bonuses to give a sense of which card has the highest earning power for you.

Right now, the 40,000 point intro bonus may be enough on its own to try the card — it’s almost enough for 2 domestic round trip reward tickets and you can read our full review of the card here.

Click here for the secure link to Chase to read details and apply.

What about the other United credit cards? Here’s a rundown of how they work…

United MileagePlus® Explorer

Explorer CardThis card is good if you are not quite an elite member flyer with United but plan to fly them a couple times per year or more while checking baggage. The biggest benefit for you will be the free checked first bag for you and a companion — which can save each of you $50 round trip. So in one trip for two that involves a checked bag, you’ve saved the annual fee of $95. This benefit doesn’t matter much to elite member flyers (people who fly 25,000 or more miles per year on United), as they already receive a baggage fee waiver.

Also keep in mind in order to get the free bag benefit you have to buy your United ticket with your Explorer Card, and you have to be flying on the ticket to qualify. You can’t buy a ticket for someone else to fly and give that person the free bag benefit.

The other benefit for the non-elite flyer is priority boarding. Again, elite flyers already enjoy this benefit, but if you travel several times per year this can give you a chance to get your bag in the overhead bin before general travelers board. You’ll board in Group 2, which puts you in the same group as some of United’s frequent flyers, but behind people in First Class and its most frequent flyers.

If you are an elite Premier level member of MileagePlus there are two benefits you will want to consider:

1) if you spend $25,000 on this or another United branded card each year you don’t have to meet the minimum ticket spending requirements on United flights to reach Premier status  up to Platinum (new for 2014).

2) You’ll be able to qualify for your usual Premier complimentary upgrades on miles tickets when holding this card. Normally, when you buy a ticket with miles you aren’t eligible for the free upgrades they receive on paid tickets as a Premier member, but United lets holders of the Explorer Card get around that rule as a benefit of being a cardmember. Just remember if you are not an elite flyer, having this card will not make you eligible for free upgrades.

There are also other benefits to consider:

10,000 mile bonus after $25,000 in spending each year. If you are diligent about using this card, this works out to about 1.4 miles per dollar earned on your spending if you spend right around $25,000 per year (just over $2,000 per month), which is a very good earning rate.

Primary car rental insurance. if you have damage you don’t need to file with your insurance first, this is a feature once reserved for only very high end credit cards. Check with Chase for eligibility for this feature before renting a vehicle.

Hotel upgrades and benefits. If you book a hotel via www.lhrcollection.com you receive 1) daily breakfast for two, 2) a room upgrade, 3) early/late check-in and check-out, and 4) a special amenity like spa credit. This is similar to a program offered on the $450 per year American Express Platinum Card.

Lounge club passes. You receive two single use United Club lounge passes with the card, letting you use the lounge while on a future trip.

You can read our full review of the Explorer card here, or see how it stacks up against other cards for your personal spending habits using the Card Finder tool.

Click here for a secure link to Chase for more details or to apply.

United MileagePlus® Club Card: If you want lounge access

The biggest reason you’ll carry this card — you want full unlimited access to United Club lounges. The $395 per year is cheaper than buying the lounge access on its own, which can be as high as $500 per year. Top level 1K flyers get a $60 annual rebate on United credit card annual fees. We think it is a good choice for regular business travelers who may or may not have elite status with United — basically someone flying 10,000 up to 50,000 miles per year. If you’re not yet elite, you’ll value the ‘PremierAccess’ early boarding and security lanes (things elites already enjoy).

It also earns 1.5 miles per dollar spent on the card – a 50% bonus – in all categories with no limits. That makes it the most powerful credit card now available for earning United miles.

The United MileagePlus® Club Card also carries these fringe benefits:

Hotel upgrades and benefits. If you book a hotel via www.lhrcollection.com you receive 1) daily breakfast for two, 2) a room upgrade, 3) early/late check-in and check-out, and 4) a special amenity like spa credit. This is similar to a program offered on the $450 per year American Express Platinum Card.
Hyatt Platinum status. Offers you late checkout and select room upgrades.

Avis First status. For upgrades when renting cars.

Click here to read our review of the Mileage Plus Club Card.

So what do we use?

We personally use the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card most often because we value maximizing mile opportunities — and we’re elite flyers who already get free bags and priority boarding. But we also carry the United MileagePlus® Club Card for the lounge access.

If you want to dig deeper, we’ve created a calculator that lets you see whether carrying both the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and a United branded card is worthwhile every year. It factors in the number of times you fly and the kind of purchases you make each month.

Also, remember you can apply for both the Sapphire Preferred® Card and United Explorer, and receive up to 70,000+ bonus miles.

 


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45 thoughts on “Best United credit card? It might not say United on the card

  1. Panamaflyer

    I am looking for the fastest way I can accumulate 80,000 (160,000 with husband) miles to travel to Asia on United or any star Alliance partner. My main question is, once you apply for a card, meet the spending requirement and get the bonus, can I cancel the card and reapply afterwards? Anyone have experience “churning” cards and getting the bonuses a second time?
    Would you suggest that each of us as apply for two bonus cards simultaneously (Sapphire and Explorer) and get 70,000 miles and move them to united?

    Reply
    1. MileCards

      @Panamaflyer – With Chase cards they won’t let you get the bonus a second time for the same product. However, Business and Personal cards are considered separate products, so if you have a small business / or are starting something you may be eligible for those bonuses. The Ink Plus and Bold are also Ultimate Rewards cards that can transfer to United. They are considered separate products and each currently has a 50,000 point intro offer.

      And as for the two of you applying – worth a shot.

      Reply
  2. Jeremy

    Hi – Do you get travel delay coverage with the United Club Card. I figured it would since it’s so expensive but not clear for me.

    Reply
  3. Dan

    My job is about to require me to travel to/from Calgary once a month for the next 12+ months. My wife will be with me on all trips and we will be traveling United.

    By my count, that’s 3,500 miles per round trip for each of us with about 12 round trips in a calendar year. This comes to ~42,000 miles each in a calendar year.

    The baggage fees will be picked up by my company, so that’s not a big driver for me. I’m interested in lounge access, but it’s not a HUGE deal to me.

    Any thoughts on which card I should go with?

    Reply
    1. MileCards

      @Dan – If you plan to spend more than $50000 a year on the card then get the Club card as the 1.5 miles per dollar earned more offsets much of the higher annual fee. Otherwise try the Explorer if you can spend $25000 per year on it and get a 10000 mile bonus each year for that.

      Reply
  4. mainer

    hi,
    I only travel twice a year. one travel includes me having to bring my 2 kids. I have been researching travel cards and I am choosing between – united explorer card, capital one or the chase sapphire. what do you suggest I get? do I lose the mileage I get from the united explorer if I cancel after the first year? any suggestions would be appreciated. is it worth paying the $95 annual fee? thanks

    Reply
    1. MileCards

      @Mainer- You won’t lose the miles if you cancel your United Explorer before the fee is due. I’d say get the Explorer and Sapphire to earn the bonus miles first before having to pay an annual fee.

      If you travel Southwest for your trips, then keep the Sapphire as it’s very helpful for getting free travel there.

      If not, consider the Barclaycard Arrival. A key feature it has that the Capital One doesn’t is the ability to use points to pay for just part of ticket’s cost. With the Capital One card you’re required to have enough points for the full cost of a ticket, which means it takes longer before you can get savings off travel.

      http://milecards.com/5317/barclaycard-arrival-double-miles-review-worth-it-if-you-spend-1250-per-month/

      Reply
  5. SuperKirby

    Hi milecards, If i only access the Star Alliance international lounges about 8 times (with companion) which equals 16 “passes” a year, do you think the United Club Visa is worth it?

    Reply
    1. MileCards

      @SuperKirby – Well that works out to about $26 per visit, which compare to the $50 cost of a one time pass to the United Club. Would also say consider other benefits like earning 1.5 miles per dollar on all spending and Hyatt Platinum status.

      Reply
    1. MileCards

      @Robert – You won’t lose your miles if you cancel the card. However they will expire after 18 months unless you have some sort of activity in your account – either earning or spending miles. Each time you have activity, the expiration for all the miles in your account resets for another 18 months.

      Reply
    1. MileCards

      @EL – That’s right, it has a waiver of foreign transaction fees like the Sapphire Preferred. We list that feature as a ‘yes’ in the table.

      Reply
  6. Gary

    I have the Chase Freedom Card and plan to add the United Explorer, do I get the same benefits as having the Sapphire card?

    Reply
    1. MileCards

      @Gary- Unfortunately you’ll need the Sapphire Preferred if you want to transfer those points from the Freedom card into your United account.

      Reply
  7. PHYLLIS

    I HAVE AN OLD MILEAGEPLUS CARD THAT I USE. i CANNOT FIND ANY INFORMATION OF THIS CARD. IS IT BEING FAZED OUT? pHYLLIS

    Reply
    1. MileCards

      @Phyllis – They are not being phased out – all old United cards are still being honored with their prior benefits.

      Reply
          1. patrick

            What did you mean, ‘new applicants.’ I was a former Continental Gold Elite member and have a Chase MileagePlus MasterCard, and an AMEX Platinum Business card. Can I move to any card where PQM miles will accrue with my purchases on the card? I have SOOO many miles now with United but every time I look for tickets they are only available at very high exchanges, like 70,000. Also, I fly less than 30 qualifying segments each year and less than 25,000 qualifying miles. Looking for some way to get the ‘deals’ it seems many other people are getting for good, fair ticket rates for their mileage, and maybe upgrades. The Gold Elite was really nice, but good old United cancelled it as soon as they took over Continental. Thanks.

          2. MileCards

            @Patrick- Unfortunately there are no cards that earn PQMs for United available any more. Since you have the MileagePlus Explorer card you should be getting access to the extra elite level mileage reward seats, which can sometimes mean awards at the lower exchanges. It’s not an official benefit, but has been a bug in the United system. Basically the mechanic that gives you priority boarding and free bags seems to be linked to the same mechanic that offers extra reward seats. Not sure how long that will last, as it’s not an intended benefit. Where are you trying to use your miles for travel?

  8. Bobby C.

    Sorry but I am new to mileage “game”… If I have a United Plus card and I paid for my parents airline tickets to see me with the credit card.

    1) Do they get get same benefits I would? 2) Do I get the miles added to my MileagePlus account ? 3) Do I get the PQM credit to my account?

    Thanks

    Bobby

    Reply
    1. MileCards

      @Bobby – Unfortunately no you don’t earn miles or PQMs for tickets purchased for other people. The only mile you get are those earned for the cost of the ticket. As for them receiving the same benefits, it’s only when they travel with you. The only exception is that some times when you buy a ticket using miles from your account the benefits could get linked.

      Reply
  9. Shelley C

    I have Presidential Plus credit card (formerly from Continental). I no longer seem to be getting Elite Qualifying Miles. Has this benefit been dropped?

    Reply
    1. MileCards

      Shelley C – You are still eligible to earn elite qualifying miles as a holder of the old Presidential Plus card and, this benefit will continue with the new United. Their computer system for reporting has been having hiccups, so would give it a month or so before calling in to check up.

      Reply
  10. wch

    For the United Club card, do the benefits extend to someone holding a companion card in their name? When I signed up for the card, I was offered the opportunity to order a second card – still under my credit – in another person’s name. If they are traveling separately from me, does this person get Premier access and so forth?

    Reply
    1. MileCards

      @wch – If they are travelling separately they will not get Premier Access. You can however buy a discounted United Club membership for a spouse cardholder, but that only includes lounge access, no Premier Access benefits.

      Reply
  11. David

    For the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card do miles expire? Is there a limit to the number of miles I can earn?

    Reply
  12. dan

    The recently announced Club card. Will this card carry Primary Car rental coverage like the Explore card?

    Reply
    1. MileCards

      @Dan – Haven’t been able to get a straight answer from Chase on this. In fact, for even the Explorer have noticed they stopped listing primary car rental insurance coverage in their marketing materials. When you call agents to ask they say “it’s up to Visa” so we’ll have to wait for someone to get the card and look through their full benefits guide.

      Reply
  13. Billy

    For the Mileage Plus Explorer Card, do I need to use the card to purchase the ticket in order to take advantage of the Priority Boarding and Free Checked bag. Usually, my business flights need to be booked through my employer’s travel agent, so I would not be able to purchase the actual plane ticket with my Explorer Card — can I still get priority boarding and my first checked bag free or is that only the case for tickets bought with the card itself? Thanks!

    Reply
    1. MileCards

      @Billy- For the checked bag benefit you officially have to use the card to purchase the ticket. The thought is, most folks who are travelling on business get reimbursed for fees by their employer.

      For the priority boarding, it is tied to your Mileage Plus number so should show up regardless of how you purchase the ticket.

      Reply
  14. Ella

    If I have a Continental Presidential Pass, can I use the United club access when I am either flying a different airline (non-Star Alliance) or if I purchased my ticket with a different credit card?

    Reply
    1. MileCards

      @Ella – Yes, if you have the Presidential Plus card you receive a full United Club membership card separately. That lets you access the club as if you paid for it on its own, and allows you to access regardless of the airline you are flying or how you purchased your ticket.

      Reply
  15. Ian

    How does this benefit work? Having used United Miles to “buy” a ticket, how would I take advantage of this benefit:
    United is trying to entice elite flyers to the card with one key benefit — the ability to get free upgrades on miles tickets when holding this card. Normally, elites who book with miles aren’t eligible for the free upgrades they receive on paid tickets.

    Reply
    1. MileCards

      @Ian – If you are a Silver, Gold, or Platinum Elite with Continental, or Premier, Premier Executive, or 1K / Global Services with United you will be eligible for the same complimentary upgrade opportunity you would receive when traveling on a normal cash ticket. By holding the credit card, their system allows you to be added to the upgrade list when flying on a mile ticket, so your upgrade is eligible to clear at the same advance windows as if you had paid for the ticket with cash. Just note that right now the feature is only activated on flights flown by Continental. This will change early next year to include fights flown by United.

      Reply
  16. Matt

    When is Chase expected to offer a card that provides all the Continental Presidential Plus MasterCard benefits but for United? I primarily fly United and would like the priority boarding, priortity security line, lounge passes, etc. My understanding is that the Pres Plus card benefits (with the excpetion of lounge access) only apply to Continental operated flights.

    Reply
    1. MileCards

      Matt-

      The Presidential Plus already has the access benefits on United operated flights. They will probably rename it early next year. Here’s the fine print from Chase:

      PREMIER ACCESS: All Premier Access terms and conditions apply. Benefits apply to the primary Cardmember on the Continental Airlines Presidential PlusSM Card account and anyone traveling on the same reservation. Benefits are available as long as the credit card account is open and not in default. Upon cancellation of the credit card account, all benefits will be cancelled. Benefits include Premier Access check-in, Premier Access security screening (where available), Premier Access priority boarding, and Premier Access baggage handling when traveling on Continental- or United-operated and -marketed flights.

      Reply

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