One of the things I envision for this blog is exactly what happened while I was on the road recently. An old friend I’ll call “Melissa,” for the sake of this blog, emailed me with the following question (edited only for clarity and to disguise anything personal). You will find my answers in bold after her questions):

Dear Dr. Suz:

My husband and I have been traveling a lot, and I do not have a card that earns miles, and I would like to get one but it is all so confusing to me.  I tried to do some research about the best card but it is still confusing. (That’s because it is confusing, Melissa!) If you can help any, I would appreciate it as I have lost out on a lot of miles I could have earned from past travels.  [I replied with some follow up questions)… We just recently came back from our second trip to Hawaii. Needless to say I need a credit card that will give me some miles.

Yes, Melissa, you need a mileage card for sure. Honestly, having a couple of them would not hurt you. It’s a myth that opening more than one credit card at a time will tank your credit score. What actually happens is that those hard inquiries will temporarily ding your score maybe 5 points or so (negligibly); however, as long as you are not using that credit, your credit score eventually jumps up higher because now what has happened is that you have more available credit and so your usage of credit to your available credit has gone way down.

We have flown on United, American, Delta, Southwest and Alaska Airlines. So far I like United the best and Delta the least. I usually book through Travelocity when possible but not with Southwest or Alaska Air.

Don’t book on Travelocity, Melissa! I’ll let my buddies over at The Points Guy explains why in detail. Really, the bottom line is that if anything goes wrong, you now have to work through the third party, or plead for mercy with the airline. You don’t want to be in that position, especially if you are in another nation where you may be on a partner airline (have you ever even attempted to make a phone call on your cell phone from another country? I have and it’s not fun! I cried!). Your best bet to find good prices is to use Google Flights to see what is available, then go directly to the airline website to book. Cut out the middle man entirely. Travelocity doesn’t have better prices. What those sites sometimes do is find a one way ticket on one airline and another one way on another. You can do that yourself. You can look there, but I recommend doing that looking on Kayak. But book directly.

We plan to go back to Hawaii next year but also want to go to Europe (Spain, Germany, Ireland, Scotland but not necessarily at the same time), Alaska, Bahamas and places in that vicinity. I am sure there are other places we would like to go to but those are off the top of my head. I have signed up for the mileage program with each airline except Delta. I usually look for the best price not necessarily the airline. We did discover we don’t do well in coach on long flights.  My husband is 6’3” and broad shouldered so coach is miserable for him and not very good for myself as well. I found a very good 1st class price to Hawaii on Alaska air this last time, so that was a first for us and it was nice—not near as nice as United’s 1st class but better than coach. Long flights will need to be 1st class so that might mean more time between trips but it is necessary.

Don’t assume you have to decide between Coach and First Class, Melissa! Recently, I flew American Airlines in Premium Economy from Paris to Chicago. First Class has lie flat seats, which would have been awesome, but the 9 hour flight ended up being only 7:45 (way to go, Captain!) and I had a bulkhead seat—first row of PE, with way more legroom than this short traveler needed. If I were 6’ 3” it might have done just fine for me. PE is basically Business Class, which is what First Class used to be. It’s a nice middle ground, which has lots of space. I can’t speak for all airlines, but on AA, I flew to Paris in a bulkhead seat with only Main Cabin (Economy/ AKA “coach”) Extra. Because it was the front row against the wall (bulkhead), my feet didn’t even hit the wall unless I sunk all the way down in my seat. The upgrade was a bit pricey, but nowhere near what PE or First costs. So there are options. All three legacy airlines (AA, United, Delta) have a version of Premium Economy and Main Cabin Extra, so investigate these options before you think you need to spend thousands of dollars on a seat.

One more question on mileage credit cards. Do you get miles for making payments on other credit cards?  My guess would be no but I was curious. I don’t mean balance transfers, just regular payments.

Actually, the answer is a resounding YES, assuming you mean, if you use the card for other things, do you get miles. YES, YES, YES! Every time I use my Chase United Card, I get miles posted to my United mileage account. In fact, here’s the breakdown: 

  • 2 miles per $1 spent on United purchases, at restaurants and on hotel stays.
  • 2 miles per $1 spent at restaurants
  • 2 miles per $1 spent on hotel accommodations when purchased directly with the hotel
  • 2 miles per $1 spent on purchases from United, including tickets, Economy Plus, inflight food, beverages and Wi-Fi, and other United charges
  • 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases

Basically, if you want lots of miles, toss the debit card, charge everything, and just use the Chase app on your phone and automatically pay the credit card bill at a set time, maybe weekly, from your bank account. Never use a debit card. You get nothing from it and it doesn’t even offer you protection!

I also have a Barclay AAdvantage Aviator Red MasterCard. I get double miles for every mile spent on American. So if I buy a $300 ticket, I get 600 miles. However, I don’t get much else for that. I am finding it’s actually more worthwhile for me to charge my tickets to a card that has travel insurance as a benefit. My Barclays card does have a free bag check, free Wi-Fi credit, 25% discount for inflight purchases and other benefits, though. The bag credit alone justifies the annual fee. As I am one flight or so away from Elite Gold status on American, I will have a free bag anyway, I may not need that, but keeping Elite status is not guaranteed, so it’s always good to have the cards.

I hear many say what you say, that they look for the best price, not the airline. There is some logic to that, but if you are going to fly a lot, it’s best to hone in on an airline that serves your home. In your case, you like United, and it serves your home airport pretty well. Also, an important factor to consider since you plan to travel overseas is whether the airline has a good codeshare service. What that means is which airlines it partners with internationally so that if you fly on a European or Asian airline, for example, you will get mileage credit and have your alliances still count. Here’s a breakdown on the legacy carriers:

  • American is part of the Oneworld Alliance
  • Delta is part Sky Team alliance
  • United is part of Star Alliance

Of these three, the largest is Star Alliance, so your instinct to go with United is right. Oneworld is pretty good, and AA just added Qantas to its mix. Delta has high customer satisfaction rates in the US, but it’s Sky Team alliance is the smallest. As you can see from this recent list, your United Miles will take you, literally, a lot farther across the world to more destinations. Basically, if it is a codeshare partner alliance airline, then if you have miles, say United miles, and you want to book a flight on Egypt Air, you can do it! Here’s an article that explains it even better.

I hope this is helpful in answering my credit card questions. If you need to know anything else just ask.

In your case, you wrote to me asking specifically about the United Mileage Plus Card and it seems that is the best fit for you. I’d recommend applying immediately because as I mentioned in my previous post about it, it did take me some time to get my miles credited after I met the spending requirement. The spending requirement is only $2000 in the first 3 months. Charge all your groceries, cable bills, etc. In fact, this is one case where it is absolutely worth it to pay the small processing fee to pay utility bills. If you’re lucky enough to have your car insurance premium due now, that’s even better. Comment below or on our Facebook page if you need help on how to meet the spending requirement; there are all sorts of creative ways. But whatever you do, don’t go on a spending spree for things you would not ordinarily buy! And never carry a balance or you defeat the entire purpose. This card is a perfect one due to the benefits. As soon as you are approved, go online and sign up right away for Global Entry. You will find that as soon as the charge for $100 posts, there will be a $100 statement credit, so it will never appear on your bill (but realize it will not help you with that $2K spending either!), and that will make all your travel even easier; however, because I know where you live, I can also tell you that you may have to travel to have your interview, or schedule it to have it occur on your way back from an international trip as I did last year in Chicago.). But those two United Lounge passes you get once a year will make your trips a bit nicer.

One more piece of advice I give all couples when it comes to credit cards. Many travel savvy couples decide to get separate credit cards. If you get one in each of your names, that’s double bonus points, double Global entry credits, double United Lounge passes. And if you don’t carry a balance, while you have two annual fees, this credit card is so valuable and pays for itself with the built-in travel insurance, lounge passes, and TSA/Global Entry credits that even two annual fees is really nothing compared to what two international travelers will get for the investment. That would be my recommendation for you. You’d both start with whatever United miles you have in your accounts already (you have some, right?), and add 40K each, rather than splitting them. If you can do that, do it. They will pay for themselves.

If you decide to get another credit card for travel, I’d go with either a secondary airline card (American probably) or better yet, a hotel card with a huge bonus). But we can talk about that next!

Happy travels, Melissa!

PS: Here’s my shameless referral link if you would like to apply for the United card using that!