Credit Card Review: United Explorer Card (MileagePlus)

Airline co-brand credit cards provide cardholders with benefits very similar to ones earned by the most frequent flyers with status. This is one reason why I never feel a need to go for any type of status with airlines.  I’ve noticed there’s one airline credit card, in particular, while providing perks to cardholders, also puts restrictions on using them that make it seem to be an imposition to utilize them instead of being a courtesy provided for carrying the card in your wallet. 

United Explorer Card

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

Sign Up Benefits – If you’ve signed up for several new credit cards in the last 2 years, this card is subject to Chase’s 5/24 rule (to learn more about that, check out this list of 8 commonly heard questions regarding the 5/24 rule).

The bonus on this card varies from 30,000 to 60,000 points. If you’re a United MileagePlus member, you could always look for targeted offers by mail, email or when booking (or almost booking) a ticket on United.

I like to check U.S. Credit Card Guide to see what the best current offer is for a card and if that’s historically a low, average or high offer.

Spending Bonus Categories – The United MileagePlus Explorer card earns 2X points on tickets purchased from United, restaurants and hotel stays. The card earns one point per dollar for all other purchases.

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

Priority Boarding – The primary cardmember and companions on the same reservation will be invited to board United-operated flights before general boarding, after MileagePlus Premier members, customers with Premier Access and travelers requiring special assistance.

According to the United boarding process, Explorer cardholders board with Group 2, along with Star Alliance 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 after account opening and 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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Effective November 1, 2019, United Club customers, including members and their guests, and one-time pass holders will need to provide a same-day boarding pass for travel on United, Star Alliance or a contracted partner for entry into all United Club locations.

Bonus earnings on purchases through the MileagePlus X app – The app works by 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 traveling companion on the same reservation are each eligible to receive their first standard checked bag free; authorized users are only eligible if they are on the same reservation as the primary Cardmember. To receive first standard checked bag free, the primary Cardmember must include their MileagePlus number in their reservation and use their United Explorer Card to purchase their ticket(s). First standard checked bag free is only available on United- and United Express-operated flights; codeshare partner-operated flights are not eligible.

So the cardholder and one person on the same reservation can get a free bag and to get these benefits, you need to pay for your ticket 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.

So, how does that free bag benefit compare to other airline 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 on the same reservation as the Basic Card Member. Maximum of nine waivers per reservation. 
  • Alaska  – Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® consumer cardholders and up to 6 passengers traveling on 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.

25% In-Flight Savings – Cardmembers receive 25% back as a statement credit on purchases of food, beverages and Wi-Fi onboard United-operated flights when you pay with your Explorer Card.

Global Entry or TSA Pre✓ Credit – You will get a statement credit up to $100 once every four years to reimburse the application fee for either program when the fee is charged to the Explorer card. This is just one of the many cards that reimburse the fee for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry

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 the 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 Preferred and Chase Sapphire Reserve cards. This was the one reason I kept my United MileagePlus Explorer card for several years.

Travel Coverages 

  • Baggage Delay (6 hours) – $100/day x 3 days
  • Lost Luggage –  $3,000
  • Trip Cancellation/Interruption – $1,500 per person and $6,000 trip
  • Trip Delay  (12 hours or overnight) – $500 per ticket

Purchase Protections

  • Purchase protection (120 days)  – $10,000 per claim, $50,000 per year
  • Extended Warranty – Additional warranty for 1 year on eligible warranties of 3 years or less.

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 Alliance and 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 legroom we had on that flight.

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Another 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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Our most recent redemption was for a short hop from Frankfurt to Salzburg on Lufthansa. We found Saver space for 8,000 miles each, which is better than the almost $200 per ticket they wanted for the flight.

Expanded Award Availability – This is an often-overlooked perk of having this card.

MileagePlus Premier® members and eligible United MileagePlus Chase cardmembers have the benefit of booking Everyday Awards without capacity controls on flights operated by United and United Express. If there is a seat available, these members have unrestricted access to book an Everyday Award, even if it’s the last seat on the plane. Eligible MileagePlus Chase cardmembers can learn more about their benefits by reading their membership guide or by calling the Chase phone number on the back of their credit card.

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.

When United announced they were going to dynamic pricing for award flights, It remains to be seen if this will still be any benefit to cardholders or not.

Final Thoughts

The United Explorer card has many of the perks offered by most co-branded airline credit cards. You get preferred boarding, even if you purchase a basic economy ticket. 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. On a positive note, the card provides primary rental car collision insurance and for now, it still gives you extra access to award seats on United flights. You do also get two passes into a United Club lounge every year if you’re flying on United that day 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 vast partner network through the Star Alliance, even if they have made booking awards on those flights more expensive over the last few years.

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary

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