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On June 1, 2018, the benefits on the United℠ Explorer Card changed. For information about the new version of the card, read NerdWallet's FAQ on the updates.
With some rivalries, everyone has an opinion, so let's make this quick: I prefer Macs to PCs, Coke to Pepsi and general travel credit cards to co-branded airline cards.
But let me add something to that last point: The best credit card for you depends on how you spend your money.
Some people do find co-branded airline credit cards, such as the United℠ Explorer Card, to be better deals than general travel cards for a very specific reason: They waive checked baggage fees. If you fly regularly on United Airlines, this could add up to hundreds of dollars per year. That could make the co-branded United card far more valuable to you than even the best general travel cards, such as the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®, which have superior rewards rates but leave you paying to check your bags.
For this comparison, I'm putting my personal opinions on hold for a minute. Armed with a can of Pepsi, I'll walk you through how the United℠ Explorer Card measures up with the other cards.
Baggage tips the scales for the United℠ Explorer Card
When you pay for a United flight with the United℠ Explorer Card, you and a companion on the same reservation can each check a bag for free. That adds up to $120 per round trip, which would cover the card's annual fee of $0 intro for the first year, then $95.
Even for occasional United flyers who pack heavy, the United℠ Explorer Card can quickly become a more valuable card than the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card or the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®. Use the calculator below to find out which card is the best choice for you, based on your spending habits.
MORE LOYALTY BENEFITS FOR UNITED FLYERS
Among co-branded airline cards, the United℠ Explorer Card's rewards structure is as common as pretzels on planes: It offers 2 miles per $1 spent on tickets purchased through United and 1 mile per dollar on all other purchases. Those miles are worth just 1 cent each on average, according to NerdWallet valuations. But the other benefits on this card compensate for the so-so rewards structure. With this card, you get priority boarding, which is always a welcome perk when traveling during peak season. Each year, you'll also get two free one-time passes to the United Club lounges, which are basically just rooms full of freebies: Free booze! Free showers! Free use of printers! And free Wi-Fi, so you can brag about it all on Facebook without wasting data.
When the alternatives might be better
The United℠ Explorer Card is an excellent choice for many United flyers. But for some, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® and the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card might make more sense.
IF YOU WANT MORE FLEXIBILITY
Booking award flights for one or two people through United is relatively easy. Booking award travel for a family of five, not so much. If you're traveling with family, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® or the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card might be a better fit.
The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card comes with a large sign-up bonus. It earns a flat 2 miles for each dollar spent, for an annual fee of $95. With both this card and the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®, you can redeem your miles for statement credit against travel purchases. In other words, you book travel however you want — fly on United or any other airline, stay at any hotel and so on — and then pay for those purchases with your miles, at 1 cent per point. And, by the way, "travel purchases" include a lot more than just airlines and hotels.
The Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® also comes with a sign-up bonus and offers strong long-term value. It earns a flat 2 miles for each dollar spent, plus 5% of your miles back when you redeem. That gives it an effective rewards rate of 2.1%, for the relatively low annual fee of $0 for the first year, then $89.
IF YOU’RE TRAVELING ABROAD
For international travelers, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® may pull ahead of the competition for one small reason: It's chip-and-PIN enabled. You can authorize payments with a four-digit PIN instead of a signature, unlike the United℠ Explorer Card and the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. This comes in handy in some countries, where kiosks, parking meters and other self-serve machines accept only chip-and-PIN cards. Like the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® doesn't offer free checked bags or other airline loyalty benefits. But it offers robust ongoing rewards and a big sign-up bonus, and it might help you buy a soda at a European vending machine.
Why not both?
Back to my opinions, because I have another: I prefer carrying multiple credit cards to just one. That kind of throws a monkey wrench into comparisons like this one. If you wanted to choose just one card and you prefer flying United, the United℠ Explorer Card may well be your best option. But it doesn't have to be the only card in your wallet.
Frequent flyers could easily save hundreds in baggage fees alone by using the United℠ Explorer Card just for United flights, even if you never use it for anything else. That would free you up to earn a higher rewards rate on your other purchases with the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card or the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®.
Or, if you wanted to avoid another annual fee, you could go with a high flat-rate cash-back option, such as the Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer.
Perhaps this is the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card’s best benefit: For United flyers, it’s an excellent complement to the other cards in your wallet.