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I get a question on this topic several times a week in one form or another, so instead of answering by email every time, I’ll make a post I can hopefully refer to in the future. The question I get is usually from United flyers that want to maximize the number of United miles they earn through credit card spend, and are wondering which credit card they’re best off using. The two most practical options are the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and United MileagePlus® Explorer Card.
- Earn 2X points on travel and dining
- Ability to transfer points instantly to virtually any Chase co-branded loyalty program
- No foreign transaction fees
- Access to the Ultimate Rewards Mall (don’t underestimate this benefit, as I learned last month)
- Sign up bonus: Earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 within three months
The current United credit card on the market is the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card, which comes with the following benefits:
- Earn double miles on tickets purchased from United, and 1 mile per $1 on all other purchases
- First checked bag free and priority boarding for non-elites
- Last seat award availability on standard awards for non-elites and upgrades on award tickets for elites (see this post from July)
- 30,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening
So as you can see, in terms of the ability to earn miles, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is better than the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card in almost every way. With the Chase Sapphire Preferred card you earn the equivalent of 1 point per mile, while on ALL travel and dining purchases (as opposed to just United purchases with the Explorer card) you earn 2 points per dollar. Beyond that, Ultimate Rewards points with the Chase Sapphire Preferred card are much more flexible and the card has no foreign transaction fees. The flexibility with the points isn’t just that you can transfer them to several loyalty programs, but also that you can transfer them to a frequent flyer account in someone else’s name.
That being said, the United Explorer card might be worth having in your drawer and not necessarily using, if you’re a non-elite that flies United enough to benefit from priority boarding, a free checked bag, or last seat award availability on standard awards, or if you’re a United elite that values upgrades on domestic segments. But those last two benefits don’t kick in until early next year.
But there’s a bit more to this question, since United once did offer a more rewarding credit card, the United Select Visa. The only problem is, they’re not accepting new members anymore as they’ve introduced the Explorer card, though for now claim they’ll continue to offer it for existing card members.
That card was actually very rewarding, and offered three points per dollar on United purchases, two points per dollar on gas, groceries, dining, and home improvement, and one point per dollar on everything else. Furthermore, if you spent $35,000 on the card annually you could get 5,000 bonus elite qualifying miles, plus one elite qualifying mile per dollar spent on United purchases, up to 5,000 elite qualifying miles annually.
There’s no doubt that’s a fantastic card, and it’s too bad they no longer offer it. The main benefit of that card was really triple points on airfare and double points on gas and groceries (much like the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express ), and double points on dining (much like the Chase Sapphire Preferred card). So you can still replicate the earnings ratio elsewhere, aside from the elite qualifying miles that could be earned through the card, which are valuable.
The advantages of the Chase Sapphire Preferred card over the United Select Visa remain the ability to earn double miles on ALL travel purchases (as opposed to triple only on United purchases with the United Select Visa) and no foreign transaction fees.
It really is a shame that United got rid of the United Select Visa in favor of the United Explorer card, though at least they’re introducing some useful benefits with the ability to upgrade award tickets and get last seat availability on standard awards (which United always allowed, previously).
Nonetheless, if you’re trying to earn United miles with your credit card spend, there’s absolutely no reason you should use the United Explorer Card over the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. But that’s not to say you shouldn’t have the Explorer card for the added benefits, even if it’s just collecting dust in your drawer.