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United Mileage Plus Explorer: The United Credit Card Impresses

If you’re looking for a great travel rewards credit card, you might be considering one of the many branded airline miles cards out there, and the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card has probably come across your radar. But how does this card stack up against some of its competitors? Let’s take a look.

At a glance
Annual fees $95, waived the first year
Foreign transaction fee None
Rewards program MileagePlus points: 2 miles for every dollar spent on United tickets, 1 mile per dollar spent on all other purchases.
Signup bonus Start with 30,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months.
Verdict: If you’re a big spender or frequently fly United, this card is worth considering.
Good for:
  • Someone who prefers flying United
  • Someone who checks bags on United flights
  • Someone who is a savvy travel hacker and can drive up the value of the rewards rate by buying and booking strategically
Bad for:
  • Someone who prefers flexibility when choosing airlines
  • Someone who prefers lower annual fees

In this article:

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card: the basics
Where the card shines
Where the card falls short
How does the Explorer compare to the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card?
Who should consider this card?

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card: the basics

The Explorer card offers a fairly standard suite of travel rewards benefits:

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card
Chase United Airlines Mileage Plus Credit Card
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  • Start with 30,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months
  • Check your first bag for free - save up to $100 per roundtrip
  • Enjoy priority boarding privileges and visit the United Club with two one-time-use passes every year
  • No foreign transaction fees!
  • Earn double miles on United ticket purchases, and 1 mile per $1 on all other purchases
  • Your miles don't expire as long as you're a Cardmember, with no limit to the number of miles you can earn
  • Use your miles for any seat, any time, on any United flight
  • $0 intro annual fee for the first year, then $95
thumbsupPros
  • No foreign transaction fee
thumbsdownCons
  • Has annual fee
  • Needs excellent credit
Annual Fee Signup Bonus APR , Variable* APR Promotions
$0 intro annual fee for the first year, then $95 Start with 30,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months. 15.99% (Variable) Purchase: None
Transfer: None

Other card features include:

  • Additional bonus of 5,000 miles if you make a purchase and add an authorized user within the first three months of being a Cardmember
  • 10,000 bonus miles every year once you spend $25,000 on the card
  • Free checked bag for you and a companion on any United flight

The rewards rate on the Explorer card appears pretty standard: Each dollar you spend earns you 1 MileagePlus point, unless you’re spending on United airline tickets, in which case you’re earning 2 points per dollar spent. This is lower than the rates on comparable cards (more on that in a minute), but there are some extra perks that come with this card that drive up its value.

Where the card shines

For one thing, the Explorer card gives you (and a friend) one free checked bag each on every United flight. Since United charges $25 per checked bag, this amounts to $50 saved on every round-trip flight—a pretty stellar savings if you frequently go on trips that require you to check bags.

Another one-time bonus to consider is the 5,000 bonus miles you’ll get if make a purchase with the card and add an authorized user to the account within the first three months of being a Cardmember. If you take advantage of this, the sign up bonus is essentially driven up to 35,000 miles, which brings it closer to some of the industry leaders.

Chase, the bank that issues the Explorer card, also sweetens the pot a bit with its spending bonus: Every year you spend at least $25,000 with the card, you get an automatic 10,000 miles. Granted, $25,000 is a lot to spend, but it’s worth mentioning for the big spenders out there.

Where the card falls short

It’s worth comparing the Explorer card to a travel rewards card that’s tough to beat: the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®. When you stack the two cards side by side, the Arrival wins on most metrics.

Barclays Arrival Plus Credit Card
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For one, the Arrival carries a lower annual fee of $89 (waived the first year) compared to the Explorer’s $95 fee. Also, the Arrival’s rewards rate is much higher: When points are redeemed for travel, the Arrival’s rewards rate is 2.2%, compared with the Explorer’s 1% rate of return. Additionally, the Arrival boasts a higher sign-up bonus: Earn 40,000 bonus miles when you spend $3,000 or more on purchases in the first 90 days from account opening. Even when you factor in the Explorer’s 5,000-mile bonus for making a purchase and adding an authorized user, the Arrival’s sign-up bonus is still better.

Plus, there’s the flexibility issue to consider – the Arrival card allows you to redeem your points for travel on any airline, while the Explorer limits you to flying with United. If it’s important to you to be able to choose from a bevvy of airlines when you’re booking your trip, the Arrival carries a serious advantage over the Explorer.

But the Arrival doesn’t provide free checked bags, so if you’re frequently taking long trips that require a lot of luggage, this is a factor to consider.

It’s also worth mentioning that, as with all branded airline miles cards, the rewards you earn with the Explorer have a variable value based on the cost of the flight you’re booking. This means that, if you play your cards right, you could potentially wring more than the Arrival’s 2.2% rewards rate out of the points you’ve earned with your Explorer card.

How does the Explorer compare to the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card?

In a head-to-head comparison with another popular travel card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, the Explorer comes up short in a couple of ways.

Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card
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Although the cards carry the same annual fee of $95 (waived the first year), the Sapphire Preferred has a higher rewards rate, 1.25% compared with the Explorer’s 1%. However, it’s important to understand how Sapphire Preferred’s points carry a higher value: If you book your travel arrangements through Chase, your points are worth 1.25%.

It’s also easier to earn points with Sapphire Preferred. You’ll earn two points per dollar spent on travel and dining and one point per dollar spent everywhere else. The only way to earn double points with the Explorer is to use your card to purchase United tickets.

Again, there’s a flexibility issue with the Explorer as compared to the Sapphire Preferred: Sapphire allows you to use your points to book tickets through a number of popular frequent flyer programs, including Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards, British Airways Executive Club and United MileagePlus. What’s more, the points you use with other programs won’t lose value—there’s a 1:1 transfer with participating partners. All this means that the Sapphire Preferred allows you a broader range of flight options when it comes to using your rewards points.

However, it comes back to the checked bags: If having the United card allows you to dodge baggage fees, it’s a great option.

Who should consider this card?

The Explorer isn’t the best travel rewards card out there, but it certainly isn’t the worst. If you’re a dedicated United flyer and hate paying to check your bags, this card will provide you with some good perks. But if you’re looking for a travel card with more flexibility and a higher rate of return, opting for the Arrival or the Sapphire Preferred is probably your best bet.

  • Michael Elson

    All I see is Free checked bags all over the airport it you have an . However, the last 4 trips I took I am always charged for my bags. First time they said I need to upgrade to new card. There always seems to be an excuse and the customer service on the phone is horrible. RUDE!!! Capital One Venture Card and my AMEX know how to treat a customer.

    As far as I am concerned DO NOT get an

    United MileagePlus® Explorer Card