Credit Card Review: United MileagePlus® Explorer

Most of the co-branded credit cards for airlines will give you benefits just below those of the most frequent flyers. This is one reason why I never feel the need to go for any type of status with airlines. There’s one airline credit card that gives you certain perks but then puts restrictions on those perks that makes them feel like an imposition instead of a courtesy. I still keep this card because having it is better than not having it.

Links to the card in this article give us a referral bonus and we appreciate if you use those but there may be better offers available and we will mention them if we know about them. It’s up to you which one to use. 

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card

Annual Fee – $95 per year (fee waived for the first year)

Sign Up Benefits –  (If you have signed up for several new credit cards in the last 2 years, this card is subject to Chase’s 5/24 rule. To read more about that, check out this article from Doctor of Credit.)

The link we have for this card currently has a 40,000 point bonus if you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.  I was able to find a better sign up link for 50,000 miles after spending $3,000 in three months plus you can earn 5,000 bonus points after you add your first authorized user and make your first purchase in the first three months from account opening. I’m not a big fan of adding authorized users and an extra 5,000 United miles might not be worth it if you are going to be applying for other cards. An even better offer may be targeted for you which includes a $100 statement credit. Click this link and log in to see if you are targeted.

The bonus on this card has varied from the current 30,000, to 50,000 in the past 12 months.  If you are a United MileagePlus Member, you could always look for targeted offers by mail, email or when booking (or almost booking) a ticket on United.

Spending Bonus Categories – The United MileagePlus Explorer card earns 2X points on tickets purchased from United. The card earns one point per dollar for all other spending.

No Foreign Transaction Fees – As you would hope a card that can be used on United flights worldwide would, the United MileagePlus Explorer card does not charge any foreign transaction fees.

Priority Boarding – The primary Cardmember and companions on the same reservation will be invited to board United-operated flights prior to general boarding. This boarding is with Group 2 that includes Star Alliance Gold and Silver members. This advanced boarding sounds great but there are still at least eight other groups who can board before “Group 2.” If you book a basic economy ticket on United (which I even wouldn’t do on United), having the credit card will allow you earlier boarding and the ability to bring a bag for the overhead on the plane.

United Club Passes – Take some time to relax before your flight with two United Club one-time passes, which will be deposited into your MileagePlus account each year for your Cardmember anniversary. Enjoy complimentary beverages, snacks, and amenities like workspaces, free Wi-Fi and more.

You could use these passes to spend some time at the United Club in Orlando Airport. While the club is basic, the staff can help you out during irregular operations.

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Bonus earnings on purchases through the MileagePlus X app – I’ll admit that my knowledge of this app is limited. It works by you buying a virtual gift card through the app for the store you want to shop at. You can read the basics here.  The bonus is that Chase United MileagePlus primary cardholders get a 25% bonus on points earned through the app. This could add up if you are a power user, which I am not.

Free First Checked Bag – Here’s where United manages to lower the bar. Let’s look at the free bag policy with the United MileagePlus Explorer card:

The primary Cardmember and one companion traveling on the same reservation will each receive their first standard checked bag free ($25 value, each way, per person) on United-operated flights when the primary Cardmember includes their United MileagePlus® number in their reservation and purchases their tickets from United with their Card. For complete details, please visit united.com/chasebag .

So the cardholder and one person on the same reservation can get a free bag and in order to get these benefits, you need to pay for your reservation with your MileagePlus Explorer card. This means to get the free checked bag benefit, you will have to give up the better trip delay and lost baggage insurance you would get if you paid with a card like the Sapphire Reserve or the Citi Prestige.

So, how does that free bag benefit compare to other airlines credit cards?

  • American – Your first eligible checked bag is free of charge for you and up to 4 traveling companions on your reservation, when traveling on domestic itineraries operated by American Airlines.
  • Delta – Fee waiver also available for passengers traveling in the same reservation as the Basic Card Member. Maximum nine waivers per reservation. 
  • Alaska  – Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® consumer cardholders and up to 6 passengers traveling in the same reservation.

All of these airlines allow at least 4 companions and even up to 9 passengers on the same reservation to get a free checked bag (even if you don’t pay with the card).

The only other major airline that makes you pay with the card to get the free bag benefit is JetBlue and they at least allow up to three companions on the reservation.

  • JetBlue – You and up to 3 travel companions on the same reservation, who have purchased Blue fares, will each receive their first checked bag free on JetBlue-operated flights that do not include first checked bag free. All ticket purchases must be made with your JetBlue Plus Card, and the primary cardmember’s TrueBlue member number must be entered at the time of booking.

As much as I don’t like the restrictions that United puts on the benefits of their MileagePlus Explorer card, they also offer some benefits that make the card appealing.

Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver – Decline the rental company’s collision insurance and charge the entire rental cost to your Card. Coverage is primary and provides reimbursement up to the actual cash value of the vehicle for theft and collision damage for most rental cars in the U.S. and abroad.

This PRIMARY coverage is a HUGE benefit and something most other cards don’t offer. Primary coverage means you don’t have to report damage to a rental car to your insurance company, so if you get into an accident, the coverage from the card will cover you. For a while, this was one of the only cards to offer this coverage, although now you can get the same coverage from the Chase Sapphire Reserve card. Personally, this was the one reason I kept my United MileagePlus Explorer card for several years.

Expanded Award Availability – This is an often overlooked perk of having this card. As the primary cardholder, you will also enjoy expanded award availability when you use miles to book any United-operated flight, any time, at the applicable Everyday Award level – with no restrictions or blackout dates. For more information, please visit united.com/awards.

If you’re searching for award seats using your United miles, just having this card will open up access to flights that would be otherwise unavailable. Everyday award pricing is higher than the saver level but if cash prices for a ticket are astronomical, using some miles to get that “gotta-have-it” ticket can be invaluable.

Use of Miles on Partner Airlines – While you can use your miles to book flights on United, you can also use miles to book award travel on Star Allianceand other partner airlines. This is the way that I’ve used most of my United miles. I was able to book us on Thai Airways business class from Australia to Japan with a stopover in Bangkok for 40,000 miles each. Sharon appreciated all the leg room we had on that flight.

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Our most recent redemption with United MileagePlus was to get two tickets from Orlando to London (via Dublin) on Aer Lingus. This flight cost 70,000 miles each and this time I was the one who was appreciative of the legroom.

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Final Thoughts

The United MileagePlus Explorer card has many of the perks offered by most co-branded airline credit cards. You get preferred boarding, but not that much better than what’s normally offered. You get a free checked bag, but only for the cardholder and one additional guest on the same reservation if you pay for the trip with the card. However, the card does provide primary rental car collision insurance and extra access to award seats on United flights. You do also get two passes into a United Club lounge every year and while the lounges might not be spectacular, the staff may be able to help you out if you’re in a bind with your flights. United also has a great partner network through the Star Alliance, even if they have made booking awards on those flights more expensive over the last few years.

I’ll keep at least one of these cards between Sharon and I because of the benefits for when we occasionally fly on United. Even one trip where we would be checking a bag will save us $50. The club passes are worth $25 each so we’re at least breaking even.

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