There’s no way around it: Loyalty is hard to fake. Co-branded credit cards like the United℠ Explorer Card exist to encourage loyalty — in this case, to a particular airline. That means you have to fly United at least once in a while to get any value from the United℠ Explorer Card.
But as long as you're a United flier, it's easy to get excellent rewards from this card. All you have to do is take advantage of the opportunities to earn extra miles, use the card benefits regularly, and be strategic about how you redeem your miles.
1. Earn more miles
Snag the sign-up bonus
The current sign-up bonus is generous: 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plan your credit card purchases carefully to make sure you hit the spending requirement.
Enjoy useful ongoing rewards categories
Yes, you'll earn 2 United MileagePlus miles per dollar spent on United purchases, but you'll also earn double miles on restaurant purchases and hotel stays. Those categories make the United℠ Explorer Card relatively attractive for everyday use and can help you rack up miles more quickly.
Shop with United travel partners
United has more partners than a professional square dancer, which makes it pretty easy to earn miles on non-United purchases. Here's how:
Book a flight: You can earn extra United miles when you fly with one of its partner airlines, including those in the Star Alliance, an international network of airlines.
Ride on Amtrak: You can earn extra United miles on certain Amtrak routes.
Rent a car: General MileagePlus program members can earn up to 500 bonus miles and qualify for other discounts when booking a car rental through United.
Stay at a hotel: You can earn miles by booking a trip through one of United’s partner hotel websites.
You don’t need the United℠ Explorer Card to take advantage of every one of these deals; you just need to be a MileagePlus member. But if you do use the card, you’ll earn United miles for the purchase in addition to the bonus.
Check the MileagePlus bonus mall for deals
Instead of making a beeline for Amazon.com when you're shopping online, stop by United’s bonus mall first. You can earn miles by clicking through to one of the listed online retailers, including some big names such as Sears.com and Walmart.com, and completing a transaction. The miles you earn via the bonus mall are on top of what you earn by using the United℠ Explorer Card for the purchase.
Enroll in the dining program
United's MileagePlus Dining Program gives you extra miles for using your card at participating restaurants. It’s free to sign up, and after you register your card, you can earn up to 5 miles per dollar spent at restaurants you were planning on visiting anyway. Add that to your United℠ Explorer Card earnings, and you might get 7 miles per dollar spent.
2. Use your benefits
Get free checked bags
You and a companion on the same reservation each get your first checked bag free with United when you use your United℠ Explorer Card to book your flight. That could save you $140 per round trip if you don't prepay bag fees — plus whatever bonus miles you earn on the trip. If you used another card, you’d either have to stuff your bag in the overhead bins or cough up $35 to check it.
Visit the United Club
A visit to the United Club can make your next layover less stressful and more scone-driven. These lounges offer snacks, drinks and magazines, all for free. The United℠ Explorer Card gives you two one-time passes to these airport paradises each year — worth $59 each, according to United. Be sure to use them before they expire.
Use the 'trusted traveler' credit
Cardholders get up to a $100 credit for the TSA Precheck or Global Entry application fee, which can help you speed through airport security.
Use it for your in-flight purchases
The card also offers 25% off on in-flight purchases, so be sure to use it to fulfill any drink or food cravings while you’re in the air.
3. Redeem miles strategically
Generally, you can get more out of your miles by using them to book United flights. Steer clear of other overpriced redemption options.
Check for monthly featured Saver Awards
United’s Saver Award deals can help you squeeze more trips out of your miles. These offer the same basic amenities as Standard Award deals, but they’re a lot cheaper. If you wanted to book a one-way economy flight from San Francisco to London in mid-January, for example, a Saver ticket would cost you a mere 30,000 miles plus $5.60 in fees. As of this writing, such a trip would cost $1,394 in cash, so you’d be getting more than 4.6 cents out of each mile.
How to book an award flight
Once your MileagePlus account is full of miles, you’ll want to redeem them. Here’s how you do that:
Log in to your MileagePlus account.
Enter your upcoming trip details and select “Search.”
Select the flight you want to buy with your miles, and check out. The ticket’s award prices will be deducted from your mile balance.