Which United Credit Card Should You Get?

The higher the annual fee, the more you'll get. Consider how often you fly and how much you'll use the perks.

Erin HurdOctober 26, 2020
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United Airlines offers three branded credit cards from Chase: a basic card with no annual fee, a premium card with a high-end price tag, and an in-between card with an in-between fee. All three cards earn MileagePlus miles on spending, which you can redeem for free flights, seat upgrades, lounge passes and more.

Here’s a rundown of United's credit card options to help you make a decision.

The basics

Key points of difference

Annual fee

Don't count a card out just because it has an annual fee — even a high one. The more you pay, the more you'll usually get in terms of the miles you earn and the perks you'll enjoy.

For example, regular travelers can save enough on checked-bag fees to more than make up for the annual fee on the United℠ Explorer Card. (More on this below.) If you’re a heavy traveler who eats several meals a month at the airport, you could eat for free in the airport lounges that the United Club℠ Infinite Card gives you access to and come out on top despite the high annual fee.

You’ll have to weigh how much you’ll use the extras to see if it makes sense for you.

Rewards

The United Club℠ Infinite Card earns 4 miles per dollar spent on United purchases, which is twice as much as you get with the United℠ Explorer Card or the United Gateway℠ Card. If you spent $5,000 in a year on United airfare, you would earn 20,000 miles with the United Club℠ Infinite Card, compared with 10,000 miles on the other cards.

None of the cards offer standout earnings in other categories — 2 miles per dollar is the best you'll do.

If you spend a good chunk of change eating out, the United℠ Explorer Card and the United Club℠ Infinite Card cards will earn 2X on dining. But if you drive a lot, the 2X on gas from the United Gateway℠ Card can help fill up your MileagePlus account.

Nerd tip: NerdWallet values United Mileage Plus miles at 1 cent. This is a baseline value, drawn from real-world data, not a maximized value. In other words, you should aim for award redemptions that offer 1 cent or more in value from your United MileagePlus miles.

Checked bags

Bag fees can really add up, and the United℠ Explorer Card and the United Club℠ Infinite Card can save regular travelers a tidy sum. If you fly with a companion, you can save up to $140 in baggage fees on a roundtrip with the United℠ Explorer Card. Your savings from that one trip pays the annual fee, and then some.

The potential savings go even higher with the United Club℠ Infinite Card. Since this card covers the fees for the first and second checked bags for you and one travel companion, you could save up to $320 per round trip.

The United Gateway℠ Card doesn't offer free checked bags.

VIP treatment

If you like having time to settle into your seat and get dibs on the overhead compartments, this perk will appeal to you. Holders of the United℠ Explorer Card and any companions traveling with them are eligible for priority boarding on United flights.

The United Club℠ Infinite Card kicks the red carpet treatment up a notch. Not only will cardholders get priority boarding on United flights, but they’ll also get priority check-in, security screening and baggage handling.

Both the United℠ Explorer Card and the United Club℠ Infinite Card also give a credit of up to $100 every four years for Global Entry or TSA Precheck — services designed to make your travel experience smoother and faster.

Nerd tip: Want to build up MileagePlus miles for your small business? United offers more than just personal credit cards. Check out the United℠ Business Card for United-loyal entrepreneurs.

Airport lounge access

For regular travelers, how much use you could get out of a membership to United's airport lounges could be the deciding factor when choosing a United card. United Club lounges provide snacks, light meals, beverages and sometimes even showers in a quiet place to relax before your flight. The United Club℠ Infinite Card comes with an annual membership, and it allows you to bring one adult and dependent children under 21, or up to two guests, into any United Club location.

If you fly through an airport with a United Club Lounge often, you and your traveling companions could enjoy substantial value from this premium perk. But if your home airport doesn’t have a United Club lounge, or you only fly a few times a year, it may not make sense.

Occasional travelers can get a taste of the high life with the United℠ Explorer Card, which comes with two one-time lounge passes each year.

What these cards have in common

25% back on United in-flight purchases

If you hold any of the United credit cards, you’ll get a 25% rebate when you buy an in-flight snack, drink or Wi-Fi connection. Use your United card to pay on board, and you’ll receive statement credit for 25% of the total.

Clear discount

Travelers can save time at some airports (not to mention select arenas, stadiums and Hertz rental car locations) by using Clear, a biometric ID system. Memberships to Clear usually run $179 per year, but United credit card holders can get a discounted rate of $109. Add your United MileagePlus number to your Clear subscription. If you already have a Clear account that was created or renewed within the past 60 days, you’ll receive a refund for the difference.

Foreign transaction fees

The United Gateway℠ Card, United℠ Explorer Card and United Club℠ Infinite Card are all good traveling companions when you’re going abroad. You won’t pay foreign transaction fees on any of the cards.

Trip cancellation and interruption protection

You’ll get some trip cancellation and trip interruption insurance coverage from all three of these United credit cards, though the amounts vary by card:

  • United Gateway℠ Card and United℠ Explorer Card: Eligible for up to $1,500 per person and $6,000 per trip for your prepaid, nonrefundable fares.

  • United Club℠ Infinite Card: Eligible for up to $10,000 per person and $20,000 per trip for your prepaid, nonrefundable fares.

The United℠ Explorer Card and the United Club℠ Infinite Card also have some extra travel protections like auto rental collision damage waiver and lost luggage reimbursement that theUnited Gateway℠ Card doesn't offer.

Which United credit card should you choose?

If you’re only a casual United flyer, you probably won’t get enough value from the United Club℠ Infinite Card to make it worth the high fee.

For most people, the choice comes down to the United Gateway℠ Card and the United℠ Explorer Card. If you check bags on your United flights a couple times a year, your baggage savings will likely outweigh the annual fee. And the United℠ Explorer Card gives a better sign-up bonus to help your MileagePlus balance take flight.

If you don’t check bags, aren’t excited about the two United Club passes and just want a no-cost way to earn miles, the United Gateway℠ Card could be a better choice.

It's also worth considering whether a more flexible travel card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card works better for your travel style. When you earn Chase Ultimate Rewards® points from the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, you can transfer them to United or you can use them for hotel stays, rental cars, vacation packages and much more.

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