Carl brought up an important point in the comments of an earlier post: The new United’s credit card products are largely unimpressive. I don’t just blame Chase. I also blame United. This change for the worse came about after United and Continental merged, and United has the bargaining power to demand more benefits with appropriate annual fees to cover its costs. It’s great that the old cards were grandfathered in, but they could be doing more.
We are stuck between the minimalist MileagePlus Explorer card and the costly MileagePlus Club card. The fact is, many high-value customers already have access to the United Club. Some of them get it because they do so much international travel, others because they bought lifetime memberships back when they were still offered or earned a lifetime membership as part of their Million Miler benefits. Other high-value customers may not want United Club access but don’t see any value in the Explorer card either.
If you don’t need Club access, I currently recommend the MileagePlus Explorer and the MileagePlus Club cards for only two specific uses:
- Upgrades on award tickets
- Primary coverage on car rentals
And those three perks that remain may not fit your needs.
Upgrades on award tickets? As I pointed out on Monday, that helps my family when I book awards for them using my miles. It doesn’t really help me except to stay in their good graces, and Heaven knows they put up with a lot.
Primary coverage on rental cars only matters if you actually rent cars. And even then, it can depend on the quality of your existing insurance. My deductible is pretty low to begin with.
So what would a new card look like if we could design our own?
I want a card that actually appeals to United’s elite travelers, offering them things they can’t find elsewhere and at the same time dispensing with those they don’t need. It would also be great if it had some features to enhance the overall travel experience or if it was useful outside of travel. The Sapphire Preferred and Premier Rewards Gold have great bonuses in other categories, like restaurants or grocery stores. United’s cards don’t. In fact, United’s cards aren’t even very good for booking their own flights!
First, we need to change the earnings structure.
Two points per dollar on United purchases with the Explorer card is as good as it gets, though the Club card offers 1.5 miles on everything. Pick your poison: fewer miles or fewer restrictions?
There are many better options. Just two examples:
The Chase Sapphire Preferred gives 2.14 points on all travel, not just that booked through United or just flights, when you include the 7% annual dividend. The annual fee is the same and the points can be transferred easily to United.
The American Express Premier Rewards Gold card offers 3 points on all flights. Though you can’t transfer them directly to United, you can transfer them to KrisFlyer with options to book partner awards on United or book Singapore’s business and first class awards more easily.
At a minimum, I think we need to see three miles per dollar for flights booked directly with United Airlines. Even better would be a 3-2-1 approach that also offers two miles per dollar on other travel (hotels, cars, and restaurants) or one mile per dollar everywhere else. This would mimic the earnings structure of the Hyatt Visa.
Second, we need to see some basic benefits.
…Whether or not a cardholder actually needs them. One free checked bag for you and a companion should be good enough. And how about priority check-in, security, and boarding? Remember, we’re targeting this card to loyal United customers. They probably already get these perks, but they make good advertising fodder.
I wouldn’t worry about diluting elite benefits too much. The majority of elites I talk to say a good frequent traveler should never check a bag or wait to see a person to check in. You probably have PreCheck anyway and don’t need access to the premium security line. The boarding process is already screwed up.
Third, add something unique, something you can’t get with status.
Upgrades on award tickets are a nice touch but seldom used and not easily understood. Most people don’t understand the difference between primary and secondary rental insurance. I frankly don’t care about Platinum status with Hyatt because I’m a Diamond member. If the Club card is supposed to appeal to frequent travelers, shouldn’t they already have Platinum or better?
I know some people were disappointed about the loss of Avis President’s Club status, downgraded to Avis First, but that only matters if you rent from Avis. A better benefit would offer top- or upper-tier status with Hertz, Avis, and National, not just one of them.
Here are more ideas. I’m not expecting all of them, but at least one or two:
Bring back the Premier Qualifying Miles!
The United Select Visa already offers 3 miles per dollar and 1 Premier Qualifying Mile per dollar on United purchases (capped at 5,000 PQMs per year). The Continental Presidential Plus card offers Flex PQMs at a rate of 1,000 PQM per $5,000 in purchases in any category. (One catch is they can’t be redeemed toward Premier 1K status.)
Both of these cards have been grandfathered but are no longer offered. Should that be taken as a sign the new United doesn’t want to offer a similar benefit in the future? I’m not sure. Clearly there is a movement to avoid giving away or cheaply selling status. Premier Accelerator has gotten ever more expensive, and that prohibition against using Flex PQMs for Premier 1K is telling. But they are also very popular benefits.
Allow free transfers to friends and family!
Hawaiian Airlines allows free transfers to consolidate your miles with someone else. It does this only if you and the other person have a Hawaiian Airlines credit card. Frequent travelers already have lots of miles in their accounts, so it may not seem like something of much value, but what if you had the ability to move miles from the account of a spouse with no status and book them with your Premier 1K benefits to change and cancel awards without fees?
Waive ticketing fees, change fees, and EconomyPlus upgrades!
Admittedly, the MileagePlus Club card already waives a few fees, but I’m suggesting they go further. This could come in one of two forms (or both). Lower-tiers could receive the same waived fee benefits that Premier Platinum and Premier 1K members get for award tickets or same-day changes. It could hurt the quality of service current elites receive, but I’m going with the expectation that these are less frequent travelers.
The second option — and maybe this would only apply to those who are already Premier Platinum or Premier 1K — is to allow free cancellations and changes on revenue tickets. Alaska’s Mileage Plan already provides this benefit to its MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75 elites, who fly as few as 40,000 miles a year. It would be great if United said: “Elites who use our credit card to purchase their tickets can cancel them at any time.”
Access to Premier 1K customer service!
Again, this has a real cost, but I think it would be appealing to many people who are interested in paying for better service. United already sells Premier Access for check-in, boarding, and seating. Why not let them pay to avoid the phone tree? Infrequent travelers will be gaining the most but use the service less often. I think it’s possible to charge appropriately for the card and use the funds to improve staffing to match demand.
Access to domestic clubs for Star Gold members!
Many airlines allow their elite customer access to airport clubs, but United and US Airways exclude this benefit when on domestic itineraries. Is that because we’re a captive audience with a large domestic network? Someone in a smaller country like Germany or Singapore will almost always be taking an international flight, so such a restriction would be more difficult to implement.
Obviously you can’t just give club access to everyone. That’s what the MileagePlus Club card does. But I think dropping the domestic itinerary exclusion for Star Alliance Gold members is a good place to start. It would be very similar to extending complimentary upgrades on award flights — the same upgrade policy still applies, but it now applies to both paid and award tickets. So the same lounge access policy would apply — you need to be Star Gold, but you no longer have to worry about domestic vs. international travel.
Free drink and snack in economy class!
This is something United really needs to step up on. I love that American Airlines provides its Executive Platinum members a free drink and snack if they don’t get upgraded. It’s a small gesture that softens the blow. United could make this a benefit of being a cardholder so you just flash your card and get it waived or perhaps process the transaction and get it refunded as an account statement. The latter option would let you opt to get free DirecTV or (eventually) in-flight WiFi instead of a snack if you’re not hungry.
The ultimate cost of providing these benefits or something like them will depend on their exact nature and how many are offered. I think we can all agree it will be a premium card offered at a premium price. My goal from the beginning was to find a card that appeals to United’s frequent travelers. If I had to come up with a number, I’d guess around $150 or $200. Remember, we only need one or two of these benefits. It will cost much more if all were included, but maybe multiple new cards would offer some choice.
Is that worth it? Look at it this way. The MileagePlus Explorer card has few unique benefits and costs $95. It’s a very poor value proposition even if it is the cheapest way to get those three perks I mentioned at the beginning. The MileagePlus Club card has a few more benefits, but really it’s all about paying $395 for a United Club membership. What if you already have a lifetime club membership or earned it through your Million Miler benefits? We need a compromise in the middle, something that offers more benefits than the Explorer card without forcing you to pay for the United Club.
What perks are you looking for in an airline credit card? I see lots of benefits to hotel cards, with outright free status and annual free night awards. Bank cards with flexible points programs seem to be gaining steam and are adding more perks all the time. But airline cards are pulling back. What can be done to make United’s cards — or any other airline’s cards — more appealing to you?