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While travel isn’t a priority for most people right now, eventually airlines will be flying broadly again, and we’ll likely see some great offers to get travelers back onto planes. When that happens, it’ll be helpful to have a stash of frequent flyer miles, and for those looking to quickly boost their balances, United Airlines currently has sign-up bonus offers on both its primary credit card, as well as a brand-new one.
Right now, the personal United Explorer Card is offering a 40,000-mile sign-up bonus when you spend $2,000 in the first three months after you open the account. There’s no annual fee on this card for the first year, then a $95 annual fee starting the second year you have it.
Or, for those who only fly United once in a while even when travel is at normal levels, the new no-annual-fee United Gateway Card currently offers new card holders 20,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 in purchases in the first three months after opening the account.
Both the United Explorer Card and the new United Gateway Card earn United MileagePlus miles, which are easily redeemed on United as well as for flights on the airline’s 20+ Star Alliance partners. While United now uses a dynamic pricing structure instead of a fixed award chart to price award tickets, the airline’s website is adept at finding partner airline inventory, which makes it easy to see route options, find seats and confirm your next award trip.
United Explorer card: Flight perks and rewards
With domestic United award tickets starting as low as 5,000 miles one-way, even just 40,000 bonus points from the personal United Explorer Card could cover eight tickets at the lowest rate, meaning you could take your whole family on a sorely-needed vacation once the pandemic has finally waned.
You’ll earn 2 miles for every dollar you spend on United with the United Explorer Card, as well as at restaurants (including eligible delivery services) and on hotel stays booked directly with the hotel. The card then earns 1 mile per dollar on everything else you buy.
These earning rates aren’t generally best-in-class. For instance, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card earns 2 points per dollar on dining and all travel — not just United flights or hotels — and you can transfer Chase points to United miles at a 1-to-1 ratio, as well as to 12 other airline and hotel partners.
Related: Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card increases sign-up bonus to 80,000 points.
However, with the United Explorer Card, you’ll also get a number of perks when you’re flying United that you can’t get with the Chase Sapphire Preferred. The card features a free checked bag for you (and one for a companion on the same reservation), a pair of one-time United Club lounge passes each year (which would cost you $59 each otherwise), 25% back on United inflight purchases, and priority boarding on United-operated flights.
Also, you can normally earn 500 Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) toward United elite status (up to Platinum level) for every $12,000 spent on the United Explorer Card, up to a maximum of 1,000 PQPs per calendar year. But this earning rate is currently doubled from May 1 through the end of 2020, and the PQP limits are doubled as well.
That means you can theoretically bank a total of 2,000 PQPs this year purely via credit card spending if you time it right. But remember, CNN Underscored recommends that you only make purchases you would make otherwise with cash, checks or a debit card. Don’t find yourself in debt paying credit card interest from trying to chase airline elite status.
The United Explorer Card also has no foreign transaction fees, so it’s safe to use it overseas once international travel resumes. And those hoping to sign up for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck will also appreciate the up to $100 fee reimbursement on the card.
United Gateway card: An airline card for beginners
If you aren’t much of a regular traveler but want to earn some airline miles, you might consider the new United Gateway Card, which replaces the old United TravelBank Card. It doesn’t have all the perks of the United Explorer card, but it also doesn’t have an annual fee, so you can earn United miles without having to pay each year just to have the card.
When it comes to earning miles, the United Gateway Card does have a number of bonus categories. It earns 3 miles for every dollar you spend at grocery stores, on up to $1,500 per month through Sept. 30, 2021, along with 2 miles per dollar spent on United Airlines purchases, at gas stations, and on local transit and commuting. The card earns 1 mile per dollar on all other purchases.
That grocery store bonus category is the most impressive of the lot, as 3 miles per dollar is a fairly competitive rate, though it doesn’t beat the best credit cards for groceries that are currently available. However, if your aim is to earn United miles and you spend a decent amount of your household budget on groceries, it could very well be a good fit.
Related: Earn more rewards on your groceries with these credit cards.
The one perk that carries over from the United Explorer card to the United Gateway card is a 25% rebate on all United inflight purchases. Surprisingly, the card also carries no foreign transaction fees, which is somewhat unusual for a no-annual-fee card, but certainly welcome.
And as a final added extra, if you have either the United Gateway Card or the United Explorer Card, and also the United Business Card, you’ll earn 5,000 bonus miles each year on your United Business Card anniversary.
Related: The best Chase credit cards to get for cash back and travel rewards.
Just be mindful of applying for too many credit cards in rapid succession, and consider the rules banks employ for people who quickly pick up a lot of cards. For instance, Chase — the bank that issues United credit cards — won’t approve any new credit cards for people who have already gotten five or more credit cards across all banks in the previous 24 months. This is colloquially known as Chase’s 5/24 rule.
Use these United credit card offers to stash away miles
Getting an airline credit card right now is definitely an investment in the future, since you likely won’t be able to use most of its benefits at the moment, and we’ve also seen higher sign-up offers in the past on the United Explorer card. But you could theoretically pick up one of these two cards now, earn the sign-up bonus and use the miles down the road not just for United flights, but for flights on any of United’s airline partners as well.
So if you want to lock down 40,000 bonus miles on the United Explorer Card or 20,000 bonus miles on the no-annual-fee United Gateway Card, take a look at these offers and consider if they make sense for you.
Learn more about the United Explorer Card.
Learn more about the United Gateway Card.
Check out CNN Underscored’s guide to the best credit cards of 2020.