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A Different Perspective on Collecting United Miles

The Best Credit Card for Collecting United Miles?

It’s All a Matter of Perspective.


The other day, Scott’s post over at Hack My Trip – Why You Shouldn’t Use a United Airlines Credit Card – caught my attention. I mean, he’s been around the game a lot longer than I have. He’s an expert whose opinion I respect a lot. But by the time I got done with that post, I couldn’t believe it was his. Everything about it seemed so wrong!

Then I tried to put myself in his shoes, but they were too far away. So I looked at it, as much as I could, from his perspective, and it began made sense. Let’s take the same argument from a different perspective and see what a difference it makes. At the end of the day, I would still say that for a family starting out and wanting to travel from any random point A in the U.S. to any random point B outside the U.S., the United MileagePlus Explorer card is one of the first cards they should get, miles (no pun intended) ahead of the Sapphire Preferred.

  • Scott lives on the West coast, where he can easily travel on any number of Star Alliance carriers without ever stepping inside a United plane. United is the only Star Alliance carrier at the two airports closest to me, and I have to drive 3 hours to get to the nearest airport (Houston) with service from other partners. Which is OK if it saves a stop, but a real drag if it doesn’t.
  • Scott buys a lot of paid travel, and travels a lot for work. I do as little paid travel as possible, and don’t travel for work. Like this year our family’s total combined air travel is 189,000 miles for around $2000 out-of-pocket, before we redeemed Arrival points for most of that.
  • Scott has status, I don’t.
  • Scott books one or two tickets, I book four.

(Sorry if I got any of these wrong if you happen to read this, Scott. As far as I can tell, they are all accurate.)

Lighthouse Reef, Belize

United windows have cool views too! Lighthouse Reef, Belize

So let’s look at the reasons United is one of the best programs for international family travel, and why the United card is the best personal card (for us) for collecting United miles.

  • United generally has the best routing rules, partners and coach availability to nearly everywhere not named South America. And no surcharges. As well as better business class partners, from what people say. I have no clue about that.
  • 55,000 miles for spending $1000 vs 45,000 for spending $3000. You might have to send a secure message, so add 2 minutes of time at whatever your T-rate is, but whatever. 56 miles per dollar rather than 16 miles per dollar on the Sapphire Preferred, and then you can move on to another card like an AA card to get you home from wherever the United card takes you. Face it, one card that earns 1, 1.4 or even 2 miles per dollar isn’t taking a family far no matter how much regular spending you put on it.
  • Any couple who reads a blog like Hack My Trip can get a pair of Amazon Payments accounts and make up the difference between their regular spending and $25,000 in the first year, and earn 1.4 miles per dollar without having to worry about category bonuses or which Friday it happens to be. This is one of the best uses of Amazon Payments since AMEX stopped paying 3X on the PRG card.
  • XN. Scott’s status gives him access to the fare class called ‘XN’ which are the award seats reserved for Elite members and United card holders. On many flights out of San Antonio and Austin, United opens 2 or 3 ‘X’ seats (open to anyone) and 2 or 3 more ‘XN’ seats. In fact, on our next trip our flight from San Antonio to Chicago is in XN. If I had collected those miles with a Sapphire Preferred card, I’d have had to book one or more Standard award seats which would have cost an extra 12,500 United miles or more, easily wiping out any advantage the Sapphire Preferred could have offered.
  • Baggage allowance. Not a huge deal for us as we travel light, but again Scott’s status takes care of that.
  • Retention bonus. Sure, the Sapphire Preferred gets a 7% dividend on points each February. But based on this Flyertalk thread, a quick phone call to Chase usually gets either 10K bonus miles or a statement credit to offset the fee. You’d have to earn 143,000 points annually from the Sapphire Preferred in order to come out ahead.
  • I may be straying off topic here, but no credit card or program is worth getting hitched to. I mean, if you can MS, you could be leveraging Arrival points or UR from an Ink card and wiping out most of the costs of your non-award travel. And if you can’t or don’t want to MS, you could be opening a couple cards every few months and earning 5 points or 5% cashback at the very least on every dollar you spend.

The one huge plus the Sapphire Preferred has going for it is the variety of transfer partners, but if you’re playing this game and haven’t yet had a Sapphire Preferred, you either have an incredible will to overcome persuasive advertizing or simply can’t get an approval from Chase. And you can almost certainly do better with Southwest, British Airways and other co-branded cards that fit your specific needs, and get an Ink card for UR points. I know, it’s a business card.

Setting all MS aside and assuming someone wants one personal card to charge everything on for United miles, let’s use some real numbers from thesimpledollar.com on average family expenditures. Besides rent/mortgage, taxes, car payments and healthcare that are not likely to be easily paid with credit cards, annual spending is $25498, which would earn 90,498 United miles the first year on the United MileagePlus Explorer card and a 55K bonus, or 70,948 if you got stuck with a 35K offer, plus the likely 10K retention bonus. The same spending on a Sapphire Preferred with a 40K bonus, with an estimated $5668 that earns 2X, would net 76,147 points if Chase continues to pay the 7% dividend on the bonus miles or 73,347 if they don’t. Which brings up another point: either of these cards makes sense to open near the beginning of the year to make the most of the first-year bonus and perks. But that’s a subject for another post.

Disclosure: we have had two Sapphire Preferred cards and two United MileagePlus cards. They all worked just fine, and no fees have been or will be paid on any of them. And I get plenty of UR points from Chase business cards – I don’t need money from them affecting what I might recommend. If you pay a dime of interest by carrying a balance on a credit card, you should press the ‘back’ button immediately and not come back until you have no credit card debt.

Thanks for reading this far! If I got something right, something wrong or missed something, I’d love any feedback. Especially from Scott, whose post was, again, good for his own situation and needs.

– Kenny

{ 21 comments… add one }
  • Ben June 19, 2014, 7:43 am

    Hey Kenny – Great post! Perhaps you may want to clarify that the dividend for the CSP does not include any sign up bonus. It only includes points earned through spend and the shopping portal.

    • Kenny June 19, 2014, 8:02 am

      Thanks, Ben. My experience is that they did award the 7% on the bonus in 2013. Based on the FT thread on it, it seems they did not in 2014.
      Sometimes the reality is better than the stated terms, we can always hope!

  • fortension June 19, 2014, 7:54 am

    The XN tip is great for those of us traveling with families. That’s worth the annual fee (if forced to pay) right there.

    • Kenny June 19, 2014, 8:24 am

      We have been able to trade off cards in what Milenomics likes to call the 2-player mode, but I agree that the fee would be worth paying if we had to for XN space.

  • TravelBloggerBuzz June 19, 2014, 9:44 am

    You are on a roll!
    Strongest blog debut since I started TBB!

    • Kenny June 19, 2014, 7:48 pm

      Thanks George. Can I buy an exclamation point? I hear they make posts better.

  • Scott June 19, 2014, 11:56 am

    I can see the value of keeping the United card, and putting spending on other, higher earning cards when possible. I’m spending my 25k, though, so that I can be gold with 2.5k pqds, mostly paid by wells fargo. And most of that was MS, while real spending went to Ink, AA, Amex, and even sapphire.

    • Kenny June 19, 2014, 7:51 pm

      Right, I would either put only the minimum spending or else 25K on the United card, plus United fares or taxes for the baggage waiver. The Sapphire Preferred has a nice little bonus but not enough advantages over Sapphire, Freedom, Ink and others to make it a keeper at our house.

  • chasingthepoints June 19, 2014, 9:24 pm

    Great post, Kenny! Welcome aboard!

  • Elaine June 20, 2014, 2:06 am

    You are hitting them out of the park, Kenny!

    In my experience, the retention bonus on the United Explorer is dependent on how much spend you put on the card. FT shows this as well. I “sock-drawered” it soon after making the minimum spend. My offer – 2 club passes – was upped all the way to 4 passes (!) when I tried for a better deal. I ended up closing it 🙁 and moving the credit line to another Chase card.

    The moral of the story, perhaps, is if you want to keep this card without an annual fee in the second year, don’t ignore it completely once you make the minimum spend. I may test my theory by putting some more spend on my husband’s, before he hits his one year anniversary with it. Then again, like Scott, I live on the west coast and have other options.

    Can’t wait to see what you’ll post for #3!

    • Kenny June 20, 2014, 6:38 am

      Thanks for sharing your experience. I closed mine since Bonnie had just gotten one, and they sent me the 2 passes like a month later anyway.

  • Trevor June 20, 2014, 7:49 am

    Great post — based on your last paragraph of annual family spending, it seems to me like the United Club Card (yes with the annual fee) may actually be slightly better than a wash with the 1.5 miles per dollar earned. What are your thoughts on that card?

    • Kenny June 20, 2014, 8:48 am

      Thanks! In my United account I see an offer for the Club card with the fee waived for a year, but with no bonus I don’t really see spending a Chase application on it. If lounge access is important and you’re not eligible for any good Chase bonus offers, it’s a good deal for MS for sure.

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