United credit cards: stupid, pointless, or worth having? [updated Jan 2019]

You know you’ve heard me knobjob cards that earn transferable points like Chase Ultimate Rewards and Amex Membership Rewards, but do airline cards ever make sense? I dunno. That’s why I’m writing this. One post per airline. First up…United. Duh.

In general, United cards are dumb to spend on, because you could instead be spending on a Chase Sapphire Reserve, or Preferred, or Freedom Unlimited, or Ink Business Preferred, and earning more Ultimate Rewards points than you would United miles, and you can always transfer those points to United, but you can also transfer the points to some other airlines, or use them as cash towards any airline ticket. So are the United cards worth having at all?

Chase United Explorer: Mostly, it’s dumb to spend on this $95/year card, when you could instead earn Ultimate Rewards points, and more of them, with other cards. However, it can be helpful to have the Explorer card, because, if you don’t have Premier Silver status on United, it opens up a ton more award ticket availability than you’d otherwise have. And, if you do have Premier status, the card makes you eligible for cabin upgrades even when traveling on an award ticket. It might also pay to spend on this card if you book directly with Star Alliance partners, or buy a lot of cheap flights on United, because if you drop $25K on it, you’ll waive the $3,000 United spending requirement (PQD) for earning Premier Silver (or $6,000 for Gold, etc). Finally, the Explorer card has some decent perks, like two United Club visits per year, a checked bag (if you charge your flight to the card), a 20% discount at all the iPad-encrusted restaurants at Newark Terminal C, and free Global Entry/TSA Pre registration. Of course it has a signup bonus, currently 40,000-60,000 miles, or 75,000 miles on the business version. You get 2 miles per dollar spent on restaurants, hotels, and United, and 1 point per dollar on everything else. Worth having if you don’t have Premier status, or have Premier status and want to try to get upgraded on award tickets. Worth spending on if you’re chasing higher status with cheap tickets.

Chase United Club: Same general benefits as with Explorer card, plus United lounge access, and, as I’ve said elsewhere, it gives you most of the convenience perks of being Silver, like priority checkin/security/baggage, and a couple of benefits of higher levels of status, like two checked bags, and no close in booking fees (hooray), for $450/year.You can decide if that’s worth it to you. It earns 2 miles per dollar spent on United (but not restaurants and hotels), and a not-bad 1.5 miles for everything else (making its earnings somewhat comparable, to, say, a Freedom Unlimited). Unlike the Explorer, it does not offer free Global Entry/TSA PreCheck. Worth considering over the Explorer if you’re going for the $25,000 PQD waiver, because it will earn up to 12,500 extra miles for the same spending. Also comes in a business version. Worth having if you like having access to the lounge, or don’t have Premier status and wants some of its perks, or do have Premier status and want to try to get upgraded on award tickets. Worth spending on if you’re chasing higher status with cheap tickets or Star Alliance partners, or if your only purpose for Chase Ultimate Rewards points would be to convert them to United miles.

Chase United MileagePlus: This card costs nothing, but you can only get it by converting to it from another United card you’ve had for at least a year. Its one considerable benefit is that it gets those without Premier status access to more award seats, like the annual fee cards. It will also get you 20% off most meals in Terminal C at Newark. Worth having if you don’t have Premier status and want access to more award tickets, or want to preserve your credit line and history from another card without paying another annual fee. Very stupid to spend on.

Cards you probably don’t want to bother with, but are here for completeness’ sake:

Chase United MileagePlus Awards: This is, more or less, an Explorer card that doesn’t come with two lounge passes or free Global Entry/TSA Pre, and so it costs a little less, at $60 annually. You can only get it by converting from another United card you’ve had for at least a year (and so there is no signup bonus). Not recommended compared to one of the above three cards, but there’s nothing specifically wrong with it if you like what it offers for what it costs. Worth having if you don’t have Premier status. Stupid to spend on.

Chase United TravelBank: Even though it’s free and comes with a bonus of $150 towards future United flights, this card is garbage. Rather than earning United miles, it instead yields 1.5 cents per dollar spent towards future United flights, and not much else. Don’t waste your time with it; if you want a no-fee United card, get the MileagePlus card mentioned above (and if you want cash back for your spending, get a 2%-2.5% card instead). Stupid to have, stupider to spend on.

3 thoughts on “United credit cards: stupid, pointless, or worth having? [updated Jan 2019]

  1. Tom

    Specifically regarding the discounted food at EWR terminal C, do you have any idea if either the United MileagePlus Club card or the no-annual-fee United MileagePlus card also has this benefit, or is it strictly just the MPE card?

    P.S. I love your blog and your writing style.. You write all of the things that I am thinking in my mind (and probably everyone else too, but are afraid to say in this manner). Please don’t ever change!

    Reply
    1. Ivan X Post author

      @Tom, I just tried my no-annual-fee MP card today at Newark, and got the 20% discount, so I’d have to assume the Club card also offers it. The language on the iPads simply says “MileagePlus cardholders,” which seems inclusive of all of them.

      Thanks for the kind words about the blog!

      Reply
      1. Tom

        Thanks for the follow-up, I’m glad to hear that all of the MP cards most likely offer the discount. I usually travel out of Newark at least 90% of the time, and my SO and I usually grab a meal or at least a snack before every flight, so this benefit alone could actually be quite valuable. Sounds like I need to head over to a Chase branch soon to check for pre-approvals… fingers crossed!

        Reply

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