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

by on Tue August 2, 2016 • 17 Comments

If you want to earn the most United miles, the best bet for you might not be a card that says United on the front.

What might surprise you — a credit card with high earning power for United MileagePlus® miles is actually the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

chasesapphirevisaIt earns Chase Ultimate Rewards points which you can transfer 1:1 instantly into any United MileagePlus account, as well as Southwest Airlines, British Airways, Hyatt, Marriott, and more. And, you earn 2x points on travel and dining (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 MileagePlus® Explorer Card. So if that’s the case why bother carrying 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 Premier status.

We carry both – the Sapphire Preferred® Card as the ‘go to’ credit card for everyday spending, and an Explorer Card for the travel benefits.

You may also have the chance to rack up over 80,000 miles by getting both a Sapphire Preferred® Card and an Explorer card.

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

  • MileagePlus® Explorer Card – offering a free checked bag
  • MileagePlus® Club Card – offering lounge access and 2 free checked bags
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card – offering mile transfer to other programs, and 2x points on dining and travel spending
  • Chase Sapphire Reserve® Card – offering mile transfer to other programs and 3x points on dining and travel spending

There are different versions of the above cards for business owners and you can review the options here.

Only Chase cards earn full value MileagePlus® miles, and we think it’s one of the better programs for redeeming miles.

An independent study found MileagePlus 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
Base1 mile per dollar1.5 miles per dollar -- 50% more1 points per dollar
United purchases2 miles per dollar2 miles per dollar spent on tickets purchased from United.2 points per dollar
All other Travel purchases1 mile per dollar1.5 miles per dollar2 points per dollar
Dining purchases1 mile per dollar1.5 miles per dollar2 points per dollar
Elite qualifying milesNoNoNo
Annual bonus10,000 miles each calendar year you spend $25,000 or moreNoneNone
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, Southwest, British Airways, Hyatt, Marriott, Priority Club, Korean Airlines, Air FranceNo -- 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)
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$0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95 $450$95 ($0 introductory annual fee the 1st year)
Secure application linkApply NowApply NowApply Now

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card: Most flexible United miles earning

chasesapphirepreferred170May2014If 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, Virgin Atlantic, Air France, 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 earn 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases worldwide.

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 award tickets of the United Explorer credit card.

To see how the Sapphire stacks up by the numbers, try the CardFinder calculator 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 intro bonus may be enough on its own to try the card — and you can read the review of the card here.

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

Note: If you spend more than $3,000 a year on travel or dining expenses, you might want to consider the Chase Sapphire Reserve instead. It has the same features as the Chase Sapphire Preferred, but adds 3x points on dining and travel, plus a $300 annual travel credit that can be used to cover airfare, and Priority Pass lounge access. The catch is a $450 upfront annual fee.

When you consider the $300 travel credit, holding the Sapphire Reserve costs about $55 more than holding the Sapphire Preferred each year. Basically, the math on the Sapphire Reserve works out better than the Preferred if you spend around $3,000 a year on travel and dining, thanks to the 3x points earned in those categories.

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

United MileagePlus® Explorer: Free bag and early boarding

mileage-plus-explorer-cardartThis 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 ($0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95). This benefit doesn’t matter much to Premier level 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.
  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 to your rental car, you don’t need to file a claim with your insurance first, this is a feature once reserved for only very high end credit cards.
  • Hotel upgrades and benefits. If you book a hotel via 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 the review of the Explorer card here, or see how it stacks up against other cards for your personal spending habits using the Card Finder calculator.

See more details about the card

United MileagePlus® Club Card: If you want lounge access

(The information related to the United MileagePlus Club Card has been collected by and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card.)

The biggest reason you’ll carry this card — you want full unlimited access to United Club lounges. The $450 per year can be cheaper than buying the lounge access on its own, which is as high as $550 per year.

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 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 status. Offers you late checkout and select room upgrades.

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.

Also, remember you can apply for both the Sapphire Preferred® Card and United Explorer, and receive 80,000+ bonus miles. That’s because Chase considers these separate products, so you can earn the bonus from both cards and  you can choose to transfer the points from a Sapphire Preferred Card into your United MileagePlus account at any time with instant online transfer.

The following two tabs change content below.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Miles dont expireas long as card is open
Learn more

Partner Offer

50,000 bonus points

Intro Offer

$0 introductory annual fee the first year, then $95

Annual Fee


Foreign Transaction Fee Waived

Yes - transfer to United MileagePlus, Southwest Rapid Rewards, Marriott Rewards, and more

Points Can Transfer to Airline Miles ?

Still confused? Have a question?

Leave a comment below -- we'll reply shortly -- no need to use your real name. Or, use the email form at the top of the page for private advice.

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

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

  1. Travel newb

    What about Amex? United flights are bookable through partners like ANA, where round trip economy tickets cost 20,000 points less depending where you are (my example is east coast),

  2. Brett

    This is an old thread – but going to give it a shot. Do you have to purchase your united flight on the explorer card to get the priority boarding?

    I have sapphire reserve @3x points vs. 2 so I really just want this card – or any card – that can help get to some of the premier benefits.

    For better or worse, I’ve lost all status – but have tons of miles and still fly a lot – just not enough in some years to get back to silver…. Thanks!


      @Brett – Not for the priority boarding – that is supposed to be tied to your MileagePlus number itself. Bags though, you need to pay with the card to get free.

  3. steve

    Nice article. Just a note – I have a club card and it does include trip delay insurance ($500) as well as primary insurance for car rentals for collision/theft/comprehensive, baggage delay insurance, lost luggage reimbursement, emergency evac and accidental death insurance of $500k.. Though I travel only for liesure, it really comes in handy when there is a problem like weather delay. The line inside the club has always been short and it is more comfortable than the gate areas for long delays. They now serve some nurishing food and espresso drinks, so if one travels several times a year through major airports it might be worth the money.

  4. Lynn

    With the United Club membership, can you bring a guest? If I allow a second user on the card, is there another fee and do they have club access or priority boarding, bag checkin-in, etc? Thanks!


      @Lynn – Yes you can bring 2 guests. Unfortunately second users don’t get the United flight / club benefits – there is no charge for them and the only benefit they get is the ability to earn miles in your account for spending.

  5. Sherri Becker

    What’s the difference between the Explorer card and the Mileage Plus AWARDS card? Is my card just old? I can’t find the Awards card benefits anywhere to compare.

  6. marcia

    Is the 10,000.00 bonus miles you get for spending 25,000.00 a calendar year means from Jan -dec ?

  7. Tim

    What are the benefit differences between the Chase United Mileage Plus Explorer VISA card and the Chased United Mileage Plus Explorer World Elite Mastercard? Is one better than the other in terms of benefits? Thanks!

  8. John

    What is not clear is another fact that if you do not purchase the ticket directly, you lose the priority boarding privilege as well as having to pay for your first checked bag.


      @John – Who is telling you this – United or Chase? The terms are clear you just have to buy a published fare with your card and input your MileagePlus number in the reservation. No stipulation it must be purchased via or a United agent.

      Unpublished fares like Priceline and Hotwire aren’t eligible, but if you buy a United ticket from say a travel agency or regular Expedia with your card you should get the benefit. Sounds like there may be some miscommunication in one of the chains to sort out.

      1. Curt

        Is there anyway to get the priority boarding if my company buys the ticket for me through our corporate travel department? I don’t personally care about the free bag as I only take one and never check it. Thanks!


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