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What’s the Best Credit Card for Flying on United Airlines?

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It may seem like the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card would be the best card for flying on United, but there are cases where it does not offer the best bang for your buck. We’ll break down the various scenarios and help you choose the right credit card for holiday travel.

Question 1: Do you check your bags?

If you check bags on United, the answer’s clear: get the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card. The card waives the fee on the first checked bag for you and one other person on your reservation, which can save you $100 per roundtrip, canceling out the $0 for the first year, then $95 annual fee.

Question 2: Do you enjoy priority boarding or airport lounge access?

The United MileagePlus® Explorer Card gives priority boarding and 2 free passes to the United Club per year. While priority boarding doesn’t mean what it used to — you still jockey with first and business class and elite status holders — it’s nice to take a seat before the hoi polloi. Moreover, the card offers you two airport lounge passes per year, and if you value that perk, you should use the branded card. The lounge access is particularly  rewarding for international flights or long layovers.

Question 3: Do you book through Orbitz or Expedia?

While Orbitz and Expedia might seem similar to Kayak, they’re different in one crucial way. Kayak acts as in intermediary, so it sends you to the airline’s website to buy your tickets. Orbitz and Expedia, on the other hand, function as online travel agents, so you pay them instead of the airline itself. While you can still earn airline miles for your purchase on Orbitz or Expedia (the ones you’d earn anyway, no matter how you pay), you won’t earn bonus credit card miles. Instead, you should book with a card that gives bonus rewards on general travel spending. Enter your United MileagePlus number while booking to earn general airline rewards, but use a travel card to earn bonus credit card rewards.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card  earns up to 2.5 points per $1 — 2 miles per $1 spent on travel or dining and a 25% points boost when you redeem for travel booked through Chase.

Question 4: Do you plan to use your miles on another airline than United?

Finally, we come to the redemption question. You’ve earned your miles; how will you use them? If you’re happy to redeem on United and only United, you can stick with that credit card. However, other cards offer more options. The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card lets you transfer your points at a 1:1 ratio to United and other major airline programs, like American Airlines and Southwest. Alternatively, your Ultimate Rewards Points are worth 25% more when you redeem for travel booked through Chase’s Kayak-like tool. The Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® earns 2 miles per $1 and credits 5% of those back to you when you redeem, which gives you even more flexible redemption options. If you’re a great rewards hacker and can wring 2 cents or more out of an airline mile, go with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card; otherwise, keep it simple with the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®.