The United MileagePlus Explorer is the best thing to come out of the Continental-United merger: with 40,000 bonus points on the table and perks both quantifiable and not, the new United credit card is ideal for anyone who plans on flying on the new conglomerate. Among its perks: free checked bags, lounge access, never-expiring miles, and more. Read on:
Current United MileagePlus cardholders will not be automatically upgraded to the new Explorer; you have to call the number on the back of your credit card. When you are upgraded, chances are you won’t need to change your credit card number. Continental OnePass cardholders can keep their cards for now, but next year they’ll receive Explorers with the same card number.
Explorer’s perks carry the day
The rewards rate of the United MileagePlus Explorer is decent: 2 miles per $1 spent on United and Continental, and 1 mile per $1 spent elsewhere. That’s about the same rate as most other airline credit cards, like the Delta American Express and Southwest Airlines credit cards.
Where the Explorer distinguishes itself is in its perks. First off, you get one free checked bag for you and a companion per flight, saving you up to $100 roundtrip (United advertises this perk at only $50, for reasons we do not know). That alone can nix the annual fee. What’s more, you get priority boarding (clutch) and 2 free passes to the United Red Carpet and Continental Presidents Club lounges each year.
As of September 30th, those who enjoy Priority Pass lounge access through their AmEx cards (like the AmEx Platinum) will not receive access to United/Continental lounges, so the only credit cards that get you into these lounges will be the Continental OnePass, Continental Presidential Plus and United MileagePlus Explorer. The waived bag fee, as we said, is worth up to $100 per roundtrip flight, and the lounge access is worth $100 ($50 at the door x 2 per year). Even leaving out the waived bag fees, signup bonus and the rewards themselves, the lounge access makes up for the annual fee by itself.
A couple of changes from the merger make the United MileagePlus Explorer an even better deal for frequent flyers:
- Continental miles don’t expire, but United’s do. Post-merger, miles will expire after 18 months, unless you have a Continental/United credit card with an annual fee.
- United lets you book any seat on a plane for 50,000 miles, but Continental has capacity control restrictions. Post-merger, there will be capacity controls, unless you’ve got a card with an annual fee.
- Starting on September 30th, if you have a Priority Pass membership through an American Express card, you won’t get access to Continental or United’s airport lounges and the free snacks, wifi and quiet that they offer. The only cards that’ll get you in are the branded ones.
Finally, the United MileagePlus is a Visa Signature, so you get a handful of really nice perks. These include lost baggage and travel accident insurance, concierge service, purchase protection, rental car insurance and other miscellaneous perks (for the rest of July, for example, you get 2-for-1 Fandango tickets on Fridays).
The details: The MileagePlus has an annual fee of $95 that’s waived in the first year. That’s steeper than you usually see, but better than the Continental Presidential Plus’ $395, which isn’t waived the first year. The interest rate is a variable 14.24%, fairly standard for rewards cards.
Explorer vs. Continental
The Explorer is already pretty much functionally undifferentiated from the Continental OnePass, except that the former is a Visa Signature and the latter is a World MasterCard. The differences are slight, and turn on little details like an extra 15 days’ worth of purchase protection. Soon, OnePass cardholders will get whatever (minimal) benefits that the Explorer has and their cards don’t, and sometime in 2012, United will send OnePass cardholders new Explorer cards. So if you’re debating between the OnePass and Explorer, go with the Explorer. It’ll save you a bit of hassle next year.
Starting in 2012, the frequent flyer programs of the two airlines will merge, so any miles you’ve accumulated by flying or by using your credit card will transfer to the new combined program (called the United Mileage Plus program, but with the Continental logo). If you’ve earned elite status on either airline for next year, the new program will honor it.
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