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The best credit cards for flying United Airlines in 2021

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There’s a decent chance you’re starting to think about travel again right now, even if you aren’t looking to actually hit the skies until later this year. And with airline programs still offering great options to redeem their frequent flyer miles, now’s the perfect time to work on increasing that stash of miles you can use to book flights without having to pay an arm and a leg.

United still has one of the best loyalty programs to use for traveling around the world. You can redeem United MileagePlus miles to go almost anywhere, thanks not only to the airline’s large route network of its own, but also its membership in the Star Alliance with 25 other airlines.

Plus, a brand-new credit card — the United Quest Card — was just added to the United family of cards, and it even has a juicy bonus offer of up to 100,000 miles. This means there are now seven different credit cards you can use to rack up United miles — four United cards and three separate Chase cards which earn points that can be transferred to United. With so many options, there truly is something for everyone.

United Explorer Card: Best for occasional United flyers

United Quest Card: Best sign-up bonus

United Club Infinite Card: Best for United lounge access

United Business Card: Best for occasional United business flyers

Chase Sapphire Reserve: Best for earning United miles on travel purchases

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: Best for the everyday United traveler

Ink Business Preferred Credit Card: Best for earning United miles on business purchases

Let’s dive into each of these cards to see how they compare to one another, and look at how a few non-United cards could potentially maximize the number of miles you earn on your everyday purchases.

The United Explorer card features solid benefits for occasional United flyers.

If you’re looking for a United credit card with a low annual fee but rich benefits, the United Explorer Card is one to consider. As an occasional United flyer, you’ll save money by receiving your first checked bag for free for you and one traveling companion on United flights, priority boarding, two United Club day passes per year and 25% back on in-flight United purchases. Although this card comes with a $95 annual fee (which is waived for the first year), the perks alone can be well worth the cost and ultimately save you money.

With the United Explorer Card, you’ll earn 2 miles for every dollar you spend on all United purchases as well as restaurant and hotel purchases. The card also comes with a statement credit worth up to $100 on the application fee for either Global Entry or TSA PreCheck. Although this is becoming a more common benefit on many credit cards these days, it’s still typically found on cards that come with high annual fees, not one that costs less than $100 per year.

The United Explorer is currently offering a sign-up bonus of up to 65,000 bonus miles — 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months after opening your account, plus an additional 25,000 bonus miles after you spend $10,000 in the first six months.

Based on the point valuations of frequent flyer website The Points Guy, United miles are worth 1.3 cents apiece, which makes 65,000 miles worth $845. But if you want to take advantage of this offer, you’ll have to act fast, as it’s ending on May 5, 2021.

This is also one of only two United credit cards that currently waive their annual fees for the first year, which means you can make sure a United credit card is right for you without paying for it right away.

Learn more and apply for the United Explorer Card.

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You can earn up to 100,000 bonus miles for flights on United with the brand-new United Quest Card.

New credit cards can be exciting, and the United Quest Card is a brand-new card that was just introduced with a sky-high sign-up bonus.

Right now, when you get the United Quest Card, you can earn up to 100,000 bonus miles, broken down into two tiers. First, you’ll earn 80,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 in the first three months after opening the account. Then, you can earn an additional 20,000 bonus miles after you spend $10,000 total in the first six months after opening the account.

While spending $10,000 in six months — an average of $1,666 per month — isn’t going to be feasible for everyone, even if you’re only able to meet the first spending tier requirement of $5,000, you’ll still end up with a whopping 80,000 bonus points. And this offer isn’t set to expire until June 2, 2021, so you can apply for the card at a time that works best for you to meet the spending requirement.

Since The Points Guy values United miles at 1.3 cents apiece, even 80,000 miles are worth $1,040 in United travel, while the grand total of 100,000 miles would be worth $1,300 in flights on United or its partners.

The United Quest Card does come with a $250 annual fee, putting it between the $95 yearly cost of the United Explorer Card after the first year and the $450 annual fee of the United Club Infinite Card. But there are a number of benefits that can help offset the fee a good chunk of the fee.

The best perk of the United Quest Card is the up to $125 in statement credits you can get for United purchases charged to your credit card. This is a yearly benefit — available every 12 months from the date you first open the card — and if you can use all $125 in credits each year, you’re effectively knocking off half of the $250 annual fee and paying only $125 per year.

Also, starting at your first anniversary as a card holder — meaning one year after you were approved for the card — and each year thereafter, you’ll get 5,000 United miles back when you redeem your miles for a United or United Express-operated flight, regardless of the number of miles redeemed. You can even earn this mileage rebate twice per year.

And for those chasing United elite status, the United Quest Card earns 500 Premier Qualifying Points (PQP) for every $12,000 ypu spend on the card, up to 3,000 PQP per year. While this won’t earn you elite status on its own, if you aren’t flying as much this year as you typically might, it can help push you over the threshold.

Other benefits of the United Quest Card include 3 points for every dollar you spend on United purchases (after your $125 in annual credits), 2 miles per dollar on travel, dining and select streaming services, up to $100 in Global Entry or TSA PreCheck fee credits, free first and second checked bags for you and a companion traveling on the same reservation, priority boarding, 25% back on United inflight purchases and no foreign transaction fees.

Learn more and apply for the United Quest Card.

United Airlines

Access the United Club lounges at Chicago’s O’Hare airport with the United Club Infinite Card.

If you’re normally a frequent United flyer, the United Club Infinite Card offers a better travel experience. One of the best benefits of the card is its included United Club lounge membership. For those who find themselves in airports often, lounge access gives you a place to relax, eat and drink before your flight.

Even better, the United Club Infinite Card currently comes with a solid 75,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months after opening the account. However, the card has a pricey $525 annual fee that isn’t waived for the first year, so you’ll need to make sure the benefits of the card are worth the cost.

But the United Club lounge membership is a pretty great perk, and you can bring another adult and dependent children under 21 into the lounge with you, or up to two guests, for no additional fee. That means you can bring your co-workers into the United Club with you during business travel, or your family during personal travel.

Just remember that with this membership, you’ll only be able to enter a United Club if you’re holding a same-day boarding pass on United or a partner airline — you can’t be flying a different airline. If you’d prefer lounge access privileges with more flexibility, then you might find the Priority Pass Select membership that comes with the Chase Sapphire Reserve or The Platinum Card® from American Express offers better options.

You’ll be able to check both your first and second bag for free with the United Club Infinite Card, unlike the United Explorer card, which is capped at one checked bag. This is extended to both the card holder and another person on the same reservation, although it’s limited to just United-operated flights.

Premier Access travel services also come with the United Club Infinite Card, which give you access to designated airport check-in lines, exclusive security lines (where available), priority boarding and priority baggage handling after your flight deplanes. Best of all, if someone is traveling with you on the same reservation, they’ll also receive complimentary Premier Access.

In addition to the better perks on this card, you’ll also earn more miles on your everyday purchases. You’ll earn a higher 4 miles per dollar on United purchases, plus 2 miles per dollar on all other travel and dining and 1 mile per dollar on everything else you purchase.

Learn more and apply for the United Club Infinite Card.

United Airlines

Occasional United business flyers will find value in the United Business Card.

The United Business Card is an option you won’t want to miss out on if you have a business. For starters, it’s currently offering 75,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases within your first three months of being a card holder. Based on The Points Guy’s 1.3 cents per mile valuation, this makes the sign-up offer worth an impressive $975.

On the earning side, you’ll receive 2 miles per dollar spent on United purchases, on local transit and commuting, at restaurants, at gas stations and at office supply stores. You’ll also earn 1 mile per dollar on all other purchases.

Similar to the personal United Explorer Card, with the United Business Card you’ll be able to check your first bag for free for you and a traveling companion on the same reservation, receive priority boarding, receive two one-time United Club passes each year and 25% back on in-flight United purchases.

One unique benefit to this card is that you’ll receive a $100 United travel credit after seven United flight purchases of $100 or more in a calendar year. If you fly often, this should be an easy $100 credit to obtain, which fully offsets the card’s annual fee.

United is also incentivizing flyers to hold both the United Business Card and the United Explorer Card. If you have both, you’ll receive 5,000 bonus miles each anniversary year. Those extra miles are worth $65 toward travel based on The Points Guy’s valuations.

Learn more about the United Business Card.

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Earn points on your travel purchases that can be converted to United miles with the Chase Sapphire Reserve.

Although the Chase Sapphire Reserve isn’t a United-specific credit card, United flyers might actually find it to be one of the more useful cards to have in their purse or wallet. The Chase Sapphire Reserve earns Chase Ultimate Rewards points that can be transferred into United miles at a 1-to-1 ratio, meaning you’ll get 1,000 United miles for every 1,000 Ultimate Rewards points. But they can also be transferred to a dozen other airline and hotel loyalty programs, making them significantly more flexible.

With the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you’ll earn 3 points for every dollar you spend on travel, which is significantly more than what you’ll earn on any of the United credit cards. You’ll earn this multiplier not only on paid United flights but also for purchases on any other airline, plus hotels, car rentals, taxis and much more. You’ll also earn 10 points per dollar on Lyft rides, 3 points per dollar on dining and 1 point per dollar on all other purchases.

On the benefits side, you’ll receive up to $300 in statement credits each year on the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which can be used for any travel-related purchases, including United flights. Although the card has a steep $550 annual fee, if you’re able to maximize this $300 statement credit on a yearly basis, it will significantly offset the fee and bring it down to a more moderate $250 cost.

Related: Is the Chase Sapphire Reserve worth the annual fee?

You’ll also receive a complimentary Priority Pass Select membership, which gives you access to more than 1,200 airport lounges worldwide. If you travel often but don’t have lounge access through another program, this is a great perk to have. It also doesn’t pigeonhole you to just the United lounges like the United Club credit cards do.

Other non-United related benefits on the Chase Sapphire Reserve include up to $60 in credits for DoorDash purchases in 2021 and complimentary Lyft Pink membership. Plus, with a 60,000-point bonus offer after you spend $4,000 on the card in the first three months, you can very quickly find yourself with another 60,000 United miles in your account.

Learn more and apply for the Chase Sapphire Reserve.

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The everyday United flyer can convert Ultimate Rewards points to United miles with the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

Similar to the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred also earns highly desirable Chase Ultimate Rewards points that can be transferred to United. But the annual fee is significantly lower at just $95 a year, which makes it the perfect starter card for those looking to dip their toes into the Ultimate Rewards program.

For the cheaper price, you’ll earn only 2 points for every dollar you spend on all travel and dining purchases with the Chase Sapphire Preferred. But if you don’t already have this card, it’ll also provide you with a stronger sign-up bonus than the Sapphire Reserve card — you can earn 80,000 bonus points on the Chase Sapphire Preferred when you spend $4,000 in the first three months, plus up to $50 in statement credits on grocery store purchases in the first year of account opening.

Related: 6 reasons you should consider getting the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

The Ultimate Rewards points earned with this card are worth 1.25 cents apiece when redeemed for travel through the Chase travel portal, which means the 80,000 bonus points are worth a minimum of $1,000 toward travel. But you can also transfer the points to United or another loyalty partner and potentially receive even more value for them if you’re willing to put in the effort of finding award space.

Similar to many other Chase credit cards, the Chase Sapphire Preferred also comes with trip cancellation insurance, trip delay protection and baggage delay protection. This type of baked-in insurance can help with unexpected costs if you need to cancel your United flight or any other nonrefundable travel purchase due to a covered reason, or if your flight gets delayed by more than 12 hours (or requires an overnight stay) or your bags never make it to your destination. It’s a benefit that you hope never to use, but the coverage can be invaluable if you ever experience such an incident.

Learn more and apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

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Businesses can earn points that convert to United miles with the Ink Business Preferred credit card.

Business owners also have an opportunity to increase their United frequent flyer account balance with transferable Ultimate Rewards points, but this time on business purchases.

With the Ink Business Preferred, not only will you earn 3 points for every dollar your business spends on travel, you’ll also earn 3 points per dollar on shipping purchases, internet/cable/phone services and advertising purchases with social media sites and search engines. All those 3x categories are up to the first $150,000 in combined purchases each account anniversary year — after that, you’ll get 1 point per dollar in those categories.

Related: 8 reasons to consider the Chase Ink Business Preferred credit card.

Of all the Chase credit cards that earn Ultimate Rewards points, the Ink Business Preferred has the highest current sign-up bonus. With the Ink Business Preferred, right now you can earn 100,000 bonus points after you spend $15,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.

That’s a significant amount of money to spend in three months, but for many businesses, it’s not uncommon to have that much in regular monthly expenses. And again, these points can be transferred to United at a 1-to-1 ratio, meaning you can end up with 100,000 United miles if you prefer, or you can transfer them to other Chase airline and hotel partners.

Learn more and apply for the Ink Business Preferred.

Although most of the credit cards on our list are personal cards, some of the best ones are business cards. But even if you don’t own a large business or work for a huge corporation, don’t immediately write off these cards. You might in fact have a business without even realizing it.

If you sell products online, work as a ride-share driver, write an online blog or even have a side hustle that you do in your spare time, you may already be a business owner. If that’s the case, you’re able to legitimately apply for a business credit card using your Social Security number instead of a company Employer Identification Number. And even if you’re just starting out in your new business venture, don’t let that deter you — just always be completely honest on your credit card application.

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It’s important to pick the United credit card that fits your flying habits.

Getting any sort of airline credit card right now is obviously an investment in the future, since you won’t be able to use the perks immediately. But if you’re thinking about stockpiling some United miles for when travel returns to normal, you’re probably wondering which card is best for you.

If you’re committed solely to flying United when it returns to full service but won’t likely find yourself flying very often, at least at first, your best bet is probably the United Explorer Card. However, if you have that same dedication to United Airlines but expect to be in the air quite often right away when travel resumes, the United Club Infinite Card is the way to go.

But, if your main priority is to increase your account balance as quickly as possible, then the brand-new United Quest Card may be your best choice. Even if you can’t spend $10,000 in six months to earn the entire 100,000-mile bonus, if you can spend $5,000 on the card in three months, you’ll earn 80,000 bonus miles, which is still the highest offer available on any United credit card.

On the other hand, if you have a business and are looking to increase your United MileagePlus account balance right away, apply for the United Business Card to earn the 75,000-point sign up bonus. Alternatively, if you prefer flexibility in how you redeem your miles, the Ink Business Preferred should be your go-to card. And for those people without a business but looking for flexible points, the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred are the way to go.

Looking for a credit card but not interested in travel? Check out CNN Underscored’s guide to the best credit cards of 2021.

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