United Explorer vs. Chase Sapphire Preferred: Carry Sapphire, Fly United

It's a close call, but the Chase Sapphire Preferred can offer more value and flexibility.

Gregory Karp, Claire TsosieAugust 20, 2020
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United MileagePlus Explorer vs. Chase Sapphire Preferred: Carry Sapphire, Fly United

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If you're a frequent flyer with United Airlines, the United℠ Explorer Card sounds like an ideal travel credit card. It offers a big sign-up bonus, VIP perks and ways to earn United miles faster than buying airfares.

Chase United Airlines Mileage Plus Credit Card
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As with most co-branded credit cards, its extra loyalty benefits make it stand out from ho-hum general travel credit cards.

But even with all its perks, the United℠ Explorer Card isn't the best choice for all United frequent flyers. The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, a general travel card, could offer more value — even though it doesn't have "United" in its name.

Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card
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That's partly because it lets you transfer points at a 1:1 ratio to United Airlines, as well as many other airlines and hotel chains.

In the end, we give a slight edge to the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card because of the huge value of its sign-up bonus and flexibility of its points, which are a superior currency to United’s miles. But regular United flyers could still get more value from the United℠ Explorer Card thanks to its perks, especially when it comes to free checked bags.

Here's how to decide which is right for you.

How they compare at a glance

United℠ Explorer Card

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Sign-up bonus

40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,000 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.

Annual fee

$0 intro for the first year, then $95.

$95.

Rewards

• 2 points per dollar spent on United purchases, at restaurants, and on hotel accommodations purchased directly with the hotel; 1 point per dollar spent on everything else.

• Points can be redeemed through United.

• 2 points per dollar spent on travel and dining; 1 point per dollar spent on everything else.

• Points can be transferred to 1:1 transfer partners (including United), redeemed through Chase's travel portal at 1.25 cents each, or redeemed for cash back or gift cards at 1 cent each, among other options.

Extras

• First checked bag for you and a companion on the same reservation are free.

• Two complimentary single-use United Club passes each year.

• Priority boarding.

• Global Entry or TSA Precheck statement credit every four years.

• 25% back on in-flight purchases.

• Flexible redemption options.

Why the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card wins

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card outpaces the United℠ Explorer Card by offering high earning potential and maximum versatility.

Flexibility

For serious travelers, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card has a long list of 1:1 transfer partners for using your rewards, which come in the form of Chase Ultimate Rewards® points.

Among those transfer options: You could convert 50,000 points from the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card to 50,000 United miles.

NerdWallet values United miles at 1 cent each.

You also could transfer points to a different loyalty program or redeem them directly through Chase's travel portal and get 1.25 cents apiece for them. This kind of reward flexibility means your credit card rewards won't be locked into a single loyalty program.

Granted, United’s miles can get you award flights on its partners in the Star Alliance. But for most people, transfer partners are just better on the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.

Sign-up bonus

This is a huge win for the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, especially because we’re going to assume its points are used optimally at 1.25 cents each to buy travel.

Again, NerdWallet values United miles at 1 cent each.

Those tiny numbers are more revealing when applied to sign-up bonuses totaling tens of thousands of points or miles. Bonuses change periodically, but a typical bonus might net you about $270 more in value from the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.

Slightly richer rewards structure

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card comes out ahead on long-term earning potential.

The ongoing rewards rates of the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card — 2 points per dollar spent on travel and dining and 1 point per dollar spent on everything else — let you earn bonus points on an array of purchases. You'll get the higher rate on fast-food meals and fine dining, as well as unconventional travel purchases like campgrounds and cruise lines.

That makes it a better deal than the United℠ Explorer Card, which offers the higher 2 miles per dollar rate only on United purchases, restaurants and hotel accommodations purchased directly with the hotel (as well as 1 mile per dollar spent on all other purchases).

If you’ll transfer Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card points to United, the value of the reward currency is the same. So, the difference in the rewards earning rate comes down to earning double miles with a broader definition of travel on the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.

Duplicate benefits for Premier status flyers

If you already have Premier Silver status or better with United, getting the United℠ Explorer Card would be somewhat redundant. You'd get waived baggage fees and priority boarding anyway and wouldn’t need that perk in a credit card. With Premier Gold status, you'd also get lounge access internationally, making the two annual one-time United Club passes that come with the United℠ Explorer Card less valuable when traveling abroad.

Why the United℠ Explorer Card may be the better choice

If you don't have Premier status and regularly check bags with United, the United℠ Explorer Card becomes compelling.

Free checked bags

The United℠ Explorer Card lets you and a companion check one bag each for free if your flight is on the same reservation. Assuming the normal bag fee of $35 (if you don't prepay), that adds up to $140 in savings per round trip, enough to wipe out the annual fee in one go.

Perks that have real value

Priority boarding that comes with the United℠ Explorer Card can get you on the plane a lot faster, meaning a better chance of finding room left in the overhead bin. And the two one-time United Club airport lounge passes each year, which otherwise cost $59 each, can make your wait in the airport a lot more pleasant with bundles of free stuff, including free snacks and booze, free magazines and newspapers and free showers.

Add to that a Global Entry or TSA Precheck statement credit every four years and 25% back on in-flight purchases. Neither of those perks is offered by the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.

First-year hypothetical dollar values to consider that favor the United℠ Explorer Card:

  • Free checked bags: Worth $280 for four round trips at $35 each.

  • Global Entry/Precheck credit: Up to $100.

  • Lounge passes: $118 per year at $59 each.

  • Waived first-year annual fee: $95.

  • 25% off in-flight purchases: $25 (assuming $100 spent on in-flight food, Wi-Fi, etc.).

That's more than $600 in value.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card offers no United-specific perks, but it has limited-time offers for specific branded services. Overall, its perks are a weaker offer for most people.

  • DoorDash. Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on orders over $12 for a minimum of one year on qualifying food purchases with DashPass, DoorDash’s subscription service.

  • Lyft. Earn 5X points on Lyft rides through March 2022. That's 3X points in addition to the 2X points you already earn on travel.

A win for versatility

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card’s versatility gives the card an edge over the United℠ Explorer Card — especially for United flyers with Premier status, who don’t need some of the card’s United perks. What’s more, it gives you the freedom to spend your points a different way — if you start flying a different airline, for example.

The United℠ Explorer Card may be the best card for dedicated United flyers, but between these two choices, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is the better pick for most travelers.

If you fly United enough, it’s not a crazy idea to get both: the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card for rewards and the United℠ Explorer Card for United perks.

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