Why You Shouldn’t Use a United Airlines Credit Card

Now that United’s MileagePlus program has decided to reduce the number of miles it awards to almost all its customers, the fastest way for many to earn more miles will be through a credit card. Today’s question: Does it have to be one of United’s?

Before we answer that, let’s start with the ultimate goal. You want to fly on United Airlines or one of its partners. You don’t need United miles to do this. And if you did want United miles, you could earn them with many cards that aren’t directly affiliated with the airline.

It’s interesting that the MileagePlus Explorer application page now lists a comparison chart, and yet I don’t think it makes the best choices for comparison. The Capital One Venture Rewards card is widely panned, at least in comparison to the Barclaycard Arrival+, and one of the best choices for comparison is another Chase product — but did you really think they’d include that? ;) It also chooses a lot of minor comparisons, like price protection, that matter less to me than a better flying experience.

Compare United Explorer to other cards

Earning United Miles

Chase offers at most 2 miles per dollar on United ticket purchases with each of its two cards, though its MileagePlus Club card also offers 1.5 miles per dollar on all other purchases (most cards offer only 1 mile per dollar).

Putting that 1.5X bonus aside for the moment, I think many of you know that the Sapphire Preferred is a better way to go for earning United miles in the form of Ultimate Rewards points. The annual fee is the same ($95) as the cheaper MileagePlus Explorer card, and includes a 7% annual dividend so that you actually earn 2.14 points per dollar. You’ll earn them faster because that same 2.14X bonus applies to all travel — United, other airlines, hotels, car rentals, etc. — and also restaurants.

You can transfer your Ultimate Rewards points to United at any time, and even choose to transfer them to your spouse’s account with no fee. If you decide you don’t want to fly United (maybe Alaska or American has award space), you can transfer them to another partner like British Airways. Singapore Airlines is another recent partner and also lets you book on Star Alliance carriers but with more award availability on its own flights than it offers to United customers. Or if flights are particularly cheap, pay for that and use the Ultimate Rewards points to book a hotel with Hyatt, Marriott, or IHG.

In short, more miles, more options, and at no extra cost.

But what about that 1.5X bonus if you have the MileagePlus Club card? First you need to use the United Club. This card is not worth it for most other people since the higher $450 annual fee will wipe out the extra miles earned. Second, take a look at what you actually buy. All travel and dining is pretty broad, and Sapphire Preferred gives you more miles there. You probably have other credit cards, too, and they have their own bonus categories. How much unbonused spend would you really put on the MileagePlus Club card?

Earning Partner Miles

You might decide to forgo earning miles with United altogether. This is my current approach after United announced it was drastically increasing the cost of awards on its partner carriers. I tend to earn my miles on domestic flights and redeem for international flights, and on those international flights I prefer to fly carriers with better service like Lufthansa, Singapore, and Asiana.

By earning miles with these loyalty programs I have access to more award space on their flights, as well as the same saver-level award space that exists on United and other Star Alliance partners. All that really changes are the award chart, the routing rules, and the fees. I tend to book simple round-trip itineraries, so the loss of United’s generous routing rules doesn’t bother me — but it may bother you.

I think that the added fees and fuel surcharges imposed by most foreign carriers are worth it when considering that I don’t have to pay out twice as many miles. And the award chart is often comparable — or in some cases better — by using a partner. For example, Lufthansa has cheaper awards between the U.S. and Europe in every cabin. ANA uses a distance-based award chart that works well in some cases.

You can earn these miles directly with their own co-branded credit cards — Barclays issues one for Lufthansa’s Miles & More — or indirectly by transferring from another program. American Express Membership Rewards will transfer to Air Canada’s Aeroplan and Singapore Airlines’ KrisFlyer. SPG Starpoints will transfer to almost any airline (incidentally, one of the worst transfer partners is United). Ultimate Rewards transfer to KrisFlyer.

There are fewer and fewer reasons to feel locked into MileagePlus just because you want access to some of the world’s greatest airlines.

Card Benefits

Where United manages to stand out with its two co-branded credit cards are in their cardholder benefits. However, these don’t always stand up to rigorous evaluation. Here are the most significant benefits of United’s two credit cards:

Both Cards

  • 2 miles per dollar on United ticket purchases
  • Group 2 priority boarding (after Premier 1K, Premier Platinum, and premium cabins)
  • Access to Standard Award inventory on any flight with seats available
  • Eligible for Complimentary Premier Upgrades on award tickets
  • Primary car rental insurance

MileagePlus Explorer Visa — $95 annual fee

  • 1 free checked bag for primary cardmember and one companion when ticket is booked with the card
  • 2 United Club passes each year

MileagePlus Club Visa — $395 annual fee

  • 1.5 miles per dollar on all other purchases
  • 1 free checked bags for primary cardmember and one companion when ticket is booked with the card
  • Priority Access for check-in and security
  • United Club membership
  • No fee for close-in award bookings

There are lots of benefits here, including a few you can’t get with most other credit cards. But don’t assume any of them are inviolate.

Alaska Airlines does not offer a free checked bag with their credit card. Some people still hold onto it for other valuable perks. US Airways did not offer a free checked bag until it began to align more closely with American Airlines. And conventional frequent flyer wisdom is that you shouldn’t check a bag — let alone two. (I’m probably inviting scrutiny from the Devil’s Advocate here!)

For similar reasons I don’t see much value in better access to Standard Awards, which cost twice as much as the Saver Awards that most people focus on. I didn’t even include in this list that your miles won’t expire; it’s just so easy to keep your miles by making a small 500-mile redemption for a free magazine subscription or similar account activity.

When criticizing the remaining benefits, I think the best approach is to consider your existing relationship with United as a frequent (or not so frequent) customer.

General Members Gain Most

Two United Club passes are ostensibly worth $100 ($50 each) and cover the annual fee. This is better for many people than paying the annual fee for the Sapphire Preferred card since you would need to spend over $70,000 to earn enough points of comparable value in the form of a 7% dividend. However, I don’t think these passes are actually worth $50 each. (Even after conceding that renovated lounges probably make up for downgraded booze.)

The priority boarding is also useful if you are going to be bringing a carry on bag. More and more often the overhead bins fill up, and no one enjoys gate checking a bag even if it’s free.

Other benefits are of little value. Elite members can’t get complimentary upgrades at all, so getting them on award flights doesn’t matter. And while priority check-in and security access sound nice (if you are willing to pay for the $450 Club card), this is another case where you should just check-in online and use the PreCheck line if you can.

Elite Members Gain Least (Absent Lounge Access)

Many of the cardmember benefits don’t apply to elite members. Free checked bag? Priority boarding and security? Already have ‘em. I suppose that access to complimentary upgrades on award bookings will make up for this, but keep in mind how hard it is for you to get upgraded on paid bookings. A Premier 1K member will get upgraded on an award after all other Premier 1Ks and before any Premier Platinum members, and so on for each tier after that. There were plenty of times when I still flew United and found that my upgraded didn’t clear as a Premier 1K. What do you think your odds will be as a Premier Gold or Silver on an award ticket?

Premier Platinum and Premier 1K members already get a waived close-in booking fee on award tickets. Again, this may be something they threw in to make the other tiers feel better. Gold and Silvers will rarely get upgraded on awards, but at least they avoid this fee. Just ask yourself: When was the last time you had a close-in award and had to pay it?

I really don’t see a reason for any elite member to get a United credit card unless that card is the MileagePlus Club card, and in that case only for the lounge access. (It’s cheaper than buying it separately.) All the other benefits are gravy. When I had this card, I never used it to buy anything; I just wanted lounge access.

Two Things Left

Having picked apart the other benefits, two are left. The first is primary insurance on car rentals. I can appreciate how unique this is (most cards offer secondary coverage that kicks in after your existing insurance), but I think it’s just been beaten to death by bloggers. I rent a car once every two months. I’m happy to pay $25 per rental to American Express so that they’ll offer me premium car rental insurance, or I can let the secondary coverage kick in for free since I sold my car and don’t have car insurance anymore.

If you’re renting every week for work, then maybe it makes sense. But it is not the holy grail of credit card benefits.

The second benefit isn’t widely touted on the credit card offer page, but United does offer a waiver from the Premier Qualifying Dollar requirement toward elite status if you spend $25,000 in a calendar year on one of their cards. This can only be used for Premier Silver, Gold, or Platinum status — not Premier 1K — and you still need to earn the Premier Qualifying Miles.

I think this is only worth it for Premier Platinum status to avoid the change fees on award tickets. But is that really worth spending $25,000 on this card and not some other one with a better category bonus? I think this approach is of more interest to those who do some serious manufactured spend and who have a lot of existing miles, and they can probably evaluate their options using individual circumstances better than I can in a single post.

Conclusion

I titled this post “Why You Shouldn’t Use a United Credit Card” and in the process listed many arguments against the value of these two cards’ various benefits. However, I don’t pretend this is an ironclad case against the cards in all circumstances. In fact, I point out here and there why certain people may still find them useful.

My goal was to break down any false beliefs some people have that an endless list of benefits makes one of these cards a great deal. You can earn United miles with other cards. You may want to earn some other kind of miles and avoid United. You may already have the benefits listed here due to elite status. Or, because you lack elite status, you may not have access to them with or without the card.

I hope one day that United Airlines and Chase sit down to discuss how they can create a credit card that rewards their customers — both elite members and non-elites. One Mile at a Time and I have pointed out that people in Seattle and Portland have an almost fanatical devotion to the Alaska Airlines Visa. I think Delta has some pretty good offers even if their fees are on the high side. I’m prepared to wait for American and US Airways to figure something out.

But United used to have some great cards, including the Presidential Plus card and the Mileage Plus Select card. I was sad to see them go since they offered some unique ways to accelerate your path to elite status as well as higher earning rates (as much as 3X miles on United purchases). We don’t see that anymore. Like much of MileagePlus, these credit cards are additional casualties of the new United Airlines.

Scott created Travel Codex after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • Lumpy

    Using the card just for Car rentals is worth it. If your rental cost you $150 bucks, paying $25 extra for AmEx insurance means you just paid $25 for 150 extra UR/UA points. If you had taken advantage of one of the numerous bonus points deal, you could have gotten an extra thousand AA or UA miles for that rental anyway.

    Other than car rental, the UA MP card stays in the wallet, except for refreshing the expiration date of the UA miles.

    Still wondering if all that is worth the AF though. $40 a year isn’t that bad for a little peace of mind.

    • Scottrick

      As I said, it depends on how often you book a rental and whether you even need that primary insurance. I presented the AmEx insurance as another option for someone who wants to purchase extra insurance as needed.

  • mjdth

    Your annual fee for the club card is all over the place. You have it listed as $450 and then $495. It’s $395 on the site and everywhere else I’ve seen.

    Also the value of using the United Club varies widely from person to person. For us, having club access alone is worth the annual fee because of how much I’d generally spend at the airport for me and a guest to have drinks/snacks (we like to have some drinks before flights if we aren’t going directly to a client meeting).

    Instead of having to go to a an airport Chilis and spend easily $80+ on drinks and food, we can get drinks and snacks for free and buy a <$10 sandwich at the airport if we want a real meal.

    It is true, though, that there's almost no benefit to having your CC spend directly credited into United instead of into Chase UR where you have more options of what to do with them.

    • Scottrick

      The fee is wrong; sorry about that.

      I think I can give my opinion about whether the club is worth $50 a visit. I said was an opinion. Others have taken your same argument and said they only need one cocktail, or two cheap beers, so they can go to Chili’s and get a hot meal and that one drink for $30.

      • mjdth

        Right I definitely agree that the value of a club visit varies from person to person. You can get passes on ebay for $15-20, so obviously for some people it’s not worth as much.

        There are other less tangible benefits to the clubs such as comfort, easy access to united agents, less disgusting bathrooms, etc. For me and it seems many others, the Club card was worth it alone for just the club access. The 50% points bonus for misc categories is nice but not really the reason why most people (that play the points game) would get it.

  • MrChu

    You forgot one additional benefit of MP Explorer. 10000 bonus miles with $25000 spend/year.

  • HikerT

    The 10K spend bonus on the MileagePlus Explorer Visa transforms it into a 1.5x card if you spend just over 25K each year. Last year I got the AF waived so I kept it – I’m glad I did for the extra MS capacity to buy AMEX GCs with the portals offering 4%. I value the 2 lounge passes at $25 (you can sell them on ebay for at least that), so the AF is closer to ~$70.

    • Scottrick

      For that first $25K only. I think my same argument regarding the 1.5X bonus for the MP Club card applies. It’s nice that it’s better than the 1X most cards provide. But do you really have $25K in purchases that don’t fall into any other category bonuses covered by your other cards?

      This isn’t an issue for people who do a serious amount of manufactured spend, and I said as much in the context of the PQD waiver. But for most people, if they can manage to get $25K in a year it would probably be better put toward some other card’s annual spend bonus.

      • HikerT

        I wouldn’t say 2K/month is “serious” MS. It’s childsplay. :) You’d would want to save it for 1x MS categories like AMEX GC thru a portal and liquidating via AP. But we are talking childsplay to do 2K / month. Heck, throw in normal spend and most people would only need to MS 1K / month to hit 25K. About the only card I pick for 1x spend over this one would be one of the 2% cards, AMEX Everyday Preferred (1.5x), or SPG.

        • Scottrick

          Not for one card. But it depends on how many cards you have with annual spend bonuses and if you’re still applying for other cards have have first-time sign-up bonuses.

          If the ONLY card you have is the MP Explorer, then spending $25K a year is not difficult. But at the same time, if this is your only card then you will probably spend more than $25K and the effective multiplier is less than 1.5X (because you only get the 10K miles once per year).

          It’s more likely that someone who does some serious manufactured spend could spend on this card up to the $25K threshold and then stop and switch to another card. And if someone only has one card, I would probably recommend a different card than this one, such as one of the 2% cards or the Amex Everyday Preferred as you point out.

          • HikerT

            Bottom line it’s a good card to keep if you want UA miles and will put ~25K annual spend on it. What are your other choices if you want to accumulate UA miles? CSP? I don’t see how it comes out ahead at 1.07x (unless you spend a lot in bonus categories). Ink? Same issue. Freedom? Well, you would need Ink or CSP to transfer to UA, so you would be paying the AF for one of those cards. So for the hypothetical non-MS consumer who spends over 25K annually, the 10K bonus would be an excellent reason to use a United Airlines Credit Card, which for whatever reason is conspicuously absent from your analysis.

          • Scottrick

            My analysis wasn’t about why you should use a United credit card. Lots of posts pitch applying for this or that card. I find them tiring. The title clearly states that I’m providing reasons why you shouldn’t use one.

          • HikerT

            I must have missed the point of your post then. Reading the conclusion it sounds like the goal was to argue against the value of the UA cards and break down false beliefs. Yet you fail to discuss a key benefit of the Explorer card for those who put 25K spend on it. Honestly it reads more like whimpering about UA than an objective analysis of the UA cards. What is it about the Alaska Visa you think causes fanatical devotion? Other than the annual companion ticket there’s nothing to write home about. How does it reward Alaska’s customers, both elite members and non-elites? In that regard, what benefits would you like to see added to the UA cards? Honestly I think Chase has done a pretty good job of nailing it. What other sub $100 annual fee card offers a 10K bonus for 25K spend? Would you prefer a loophole to earn status? I think we all know where that is going!

          • Scottrick

            So you found one benefit that makes it a good deal. Absent that, is it still such a great deal? I know a lot of people who aren’t going to spend $25K on a card in one year. When I write about manufactured spend, I call it out as such. This post is not about manufactured spend. I’ve never pretended that this blog is meant to compete with Frequent Miler. If you want everything to keep a MS perspective, please, go read his blog instead.

            I think this post is a subjective — not objective — analysis of the benefits I mention, as I make quite clear when I state my opinions on what I think different things are worth. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me.

            As for Alaska, I don’t know why everyone is so devoted to the card. It isn’t the best card for everyday purchases. But it does have value in its annual companion pass, and that seems to be enough to convince the average person — the person who doesn’t spend $20K a week — to keep it and use it as their primary card. It’s an obvious value that can be hundreds of dollars at once, and that’s salient. I don’t see that in United’s cards. If i were an average consumer who wasn’t spending $25K a year on a credit card, I’d say “Meh, I guess I get a free bag now and then, but am I going to need that free bag? Maybe…”

          • HikerT

            Well, the Alaska companion pass can’t be the reason people put spend on the Alaska Visa since you get the pass whether or not the card remains in the sock drawer. I suspect the reason why people put spend on the Alaska Visa is they value the miles. If we want to talk about whether or not to put spend on the UA card, well, the 10K bonus on the UA card *is* the incentive to put spend on the card so how can it be ignored? Similarly, the bag fee waiver is incentive to use the card (you don’t get it unless you buy the tickets with the card). I would venture to guess a substantial portion of UA cardholders are not elites and do benefit from the bag waiver and other card benefits. And if they value UA miles I’d think the 10K bonus is attainable for a good portion of them.

          • Scottrick

            If a person has one credit card, that’s the card they’ll use. So how do they pick this one credit card? My experience talking to people is that many of them do not know which is the best card. They find one feature they like (such as the companion fare) and they use that to justify keeping it regardless of how many points it earns.

  • BradR

    Now how about the argument for keeping the PP card for those of us who still have it? FEQM and PQD waiver are worth something, but I’m still debating if it’s something I’ll keep after next year.

  • E

    What about the united business card? 2x on food plus the 10k spend bonus..

    • atxtravel

      +1, 2x on gas also, which means I can stamp out 60k miles for about $260 in gift card and MO fees thanks to 7-11.

      • Wobbledongle

        How does that math work out?

        • atxtravel

          $25k manufactured spend, 2x gas points = 60k miles. The cost is $4.95 per $500 card so 50 cards total = ~$250. Money orders are about 70 cents per $1000 so another $17… $267 total.

    • Scottrick

      I didn’t argue re: business cards here because that would apply to a smaller group of people who own a small business. The post was already getting long. Many of their benefits are similar to the consumer versions of these cards.

  • Tom

    “However, I don’t think these passes are actually worth $50 each.”

    The free market would appear to agree with you. I typically buy lounge passes regardless of the carrier off Ebay for $10-28 each.

  • rrgg

    You forgot something. The UA Explorer card pays 10k miles after spending $25k. If you spend exactly $25k, then you’re getting 1.4 miles per dollar on that card which is BETTER than Sapphire Preferred. If that’s all you spend, then you can argue it’s also better than the UA Club card (accounting for the large annual fee). If you’re a big spender though (> $60k ) then the UA Club card is best.

    • Scottrick

      Better than the MP Club card, but maybe still not better than putting that spend on a different card that isn’t affiliated with United. See my response to HikerT below.

  • Jean

    Club CArd allows 2 free checked bags for me and companion. Could be handy when they send you back to check that now oversized carry-on (by 1 inch). I personally enjoy the lounge access not in the US while flying Coach and so far I have had pre-check every time I fly since acquiring the Club Card, even while flying Delta.

    • Scottrick

      If you fly so often that you think you need a United Club membership, I would expect you would have Premier Gold status and could get into lounges for free when traveling internationally.

      As for bags not fitting, maybe a new suitcase is cheaper than a $395 credit card?

  • Aptraveler

    Scott, great analysis. Is as if you hit it right on the head (of the nail) for me.

    At the beginning of the year I had thought about really going for the 10K bonus miles that the United Explorer card provides after meeting the required $25K spend. Since I’ve status, it was pretty much the only thing that I cared to get from using the card. However, after United gutted its FF program with all the changes, I’ve decided against it.

    So, I’ve been asking myself, what other cc should I get to replace it? I already have the Sapphire preferred and would like to stay with Chase, in case I might need to switch credit limits to qualify for the new card. I thought about the Ink card and/or getting a ‘hotel’ credit card since I don’t have any, but I am not limiting myself to either category. Any suggestions? Thx.

  • Speedy

    The Chase United MileagePlus Club Visa card’s annual fee is $395 (not $495 as stated) and you can check 2 bags for free, along with a travel companion (so 4 bags for 2 people), including on international flights as long as you purchase the tickets with the UA Club card (I can vouch for this, as I paid for the ticket with another card once and they made me pay for my bag at check-in even when I explained I had the Club card!) and are flying on UA metal for the outgoing flight. The 2 free bags would not apply if you book a Lufthansa economy ticket with MileagePlus miles, for example, even though it was purchased through United, but it would apply if you booked a multi-stop flight via United Airlines and your 1st segment outgoing flight was a United flight to Frankfurt and then a connection via a Star Alliance member (like Lufthansa) to another destination, for example.

    • Scottrick

      Thanks, I forgot to fix the price in the heading for that card.

      I don’t dispute that you get free checked bags if you have this card. I dispute that the majority of people would find this to be a useful benefit.

      • justthebest

        B/c you think $50/bag is no big deal, or that most don’t need to check bags? I think you are wrong on both counts. It’s the main reason I have every major airline card.

        • Beast McMasterson

          I think what he’s saying is that most people may not earn enough miles to justify the fee. If somebody doesn’t earn very many miles, they may pay more for the fee than they would have if they just bought the miles/ticket outright.

          • justthebest

            Even with no miles, the free checked bag pays for itself in my case with just 2 bags or trips.

          • Scottrick

            If you check a bag, then it may be a good idea. I don’t check a bag, and most of the people I know don’t check bags. If you don’t check a bag and then start checking one because it’s “free,” you still haven’t saved any money. You just paid $95 to get unlimited checked baggage. The only people who save money are those who used to pay more than $95 without the card.

            The post describes a variety of reasons why you may not want to use or hold this credit card. If those reasons don’t apply to you, then the conclusion of the post may not apply, either.

          • justthebest

            It may also break somewhat along gender lines, since most women I know could never go on a leisure trip with just a carry on. Super-travelers figure out ways, but the 2 trip a year woman is mostly still concerned about looking good when she gets there, and having shoes for hiking, beach and evening. Can’t get all those (and the clothes) in the carry-on. ; )

  • JACK WILLIAMS

    My scam is to get The
    Card, get

    the Bonus, then cancel Card, and do it again after a while. It works

    • Raj

      all the while hurting your credit score. sure.

  • David Ficenec

    For the benefit under both cards:

    Group 2 priority boarding (after Premier 1K, Premier Platinum, and premium cabins)

    shouldn’t it also have the qualifier “when ticket is booked with the card”?

    I went back and forth with customer service over this. I was expecting it to work like my US Air card which gives priority boarding as long as the reservation has the frequent flyer number – regardless of the card used to purchase the ticket (i.e. corporate card).

  • Fred

    I am a 1K with United. from what I understand in your story, Getting the CC will not waive the 25K I will need to spend to keep my 1K status. I am a Diamond also with Delta and the AMEX does waive the $ needed to spend on Delta tickets. I appreciate your column and enjoy reading. Thanks very much.

    • Scottrick

      That’s right, there’s no CC waiver for Premier 1K. Thanks for reading!

  • lake

    If someone is putting 100k per year on a card, is the Club card the best? (I don’t care about the club access, I only care about international standard awards). Thanks!

  • jill

    this article is very interesting. we are trying to decide whether to keep our united mileage explorer card or switch to the venture card because they give you more miles. if we give up united card we lose priority boarding, and baggage. is there anything else?

  • David

    I use my Mileage Plus Explorer to pay my child’s tuition in Canada. No foreign transaction fee!