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How I Use United MileagePlus Explorer: Ciao, Europe!

Nov. 16, 2016
Airline Credit Cards, Credit Cards
How I Use United MileagePlus Explorer: Ciao, Europe!
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The United℠ Explorer Card is a popular choice among Nerds — especially for those based in San Francisco, home to one of United Airlines’ largest hubs.

For Elyse Klein, a senior marketing associate at NerdWallet, redeeming the miles she earns for flights makes international travel more affordable. “If you’re not paying for the airline ticket, and you can stay in cheap places, the trip doesn’t end up being crazy expensive,” she says. Last summer, she redeemed her miles to cover airfare for herself and her husband for their trip to Croatia and Italy.

Stacy Stuart, an executive assistant at NerdWallet, used miles earned on the card to pay for a trip to Spain, Italy, France and Greece with her fiancé in September. “I’m totally inspired to travel now. I got the travel bug,” she says. “This is the card I use all the time.”

The United℠ Explorer Card comes with a big sign-up bonus: 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. The card also offers 2 miles per dollar spent on tickets purchased from United and 1 mile per dollar spent elsewhere. Here’s what Klein and Stuart say about their experiences with the card.

Why did you get the United℠ Explorer Card?

“I always wanted an airline card, because I knew a lot of people who got a lot of travel miles that way,” Klein says. “But I was moving around and wasn’t sure where I was going to live, or which airline I’d want to fly with. So when I took a job in San Francisco three years ago, I decided on the United card, because United flies out of San Francisco.” The airline serves 339 locations, making it a versatile choice for those who live near one of its hubs, like Klein, or in a smaller market with regular United service.

Stacy Stuart

Stacy Stuart

The United℠ Explorer Card’s robust travel benefits caught Stuart’s attention. “I knew I wanted a card that gave some type of travel benefit because I wanted to travel a lot,” says Stuart, who applied for an earlier version of the United card in 2006. About five years ago, the issuer upgraded it to the United℠ Explorer Card, which offered more benefits for the same annual fee.

Stuart notes that United’s airline partners make it easy to earn bonus miles with other airlines, too. “United is a member of Star Alliance, so it’s not just United you can fly with. There are other larger airlines, like Lufthansa, that they partner with.” When you fly with one of United’s airline partners, you can also earn extra miles. Just be sure to enter your MileagePlus account number before making the transaction, so the miles are credited to your account.

What do you like about the United℠ Explorer Card?

United Club access, Klein says. The United℠ Explorer Card gets you two one-time passes to the United Club every year, which can make trips a lot more pleasant.

“There’s a bar where they’ll give you beer or wine, comped,” Klein says. “It’s kind of nice if you have a long layover. Having a glass of wine makes the trip easier. They also have water there, which is really nice, because in the airport you have to buy water. And they usually have food — nice food, too. They have carrots and cucumbers, things you want to eat when you’re traveling.”

Elyse Klein

Elyse Klein

Stuart also enjoys the lounge passes, as well as the free checked bags and priority boarding privileges when paying for fares with the card. While traveling in Europe this past September, the card also allowed her to avoid foreign transaction fees — the 1% to 3% surcharges that many cards add to international purchases.

Stuart has also enrolled in United’s dining program, which is free. It offers up to 5 miles per dollar spent at select restaurants, in addition to the miles earned on your card. “I love to try new restaurants, so most of the time I don’t even realize a restaurant is on the list until I look at my statement and get extra miles. … It’s just a nice surprise.”

How have you redeemed your miles?

Klein and her husband used their miles to go to Europe, Klein says, noting that they visited Croatia and Italy soon after getting married. “We ended up paying $60 total for both of our tickets [in taxes and fees], which was really nice.”

Neither had visited Croatia before, and it seemed like the perfect destination for a summer trip. “We just wanted to go to a place we’d never been, and a mix of culture and beach,” Klein says. “We really bought the tickets last minute, about two months before we left. So we had to decide everything really fast.” Afterward, Klein still has 120,000 miles left — enough to cover four low-priced international Saver Award tickets on United.

Stuart also used her miles for a European vacation. She and her fiancé flew to Spain, then took a cruise to Italy, France and Greece. “I was hoarding my miles for the longest time. In a spur-of-the-moment decision, [she and her fiancé] decided to go to Europe and used half of my miles to book our trip. It was basically free airfare, but they charge you for taxes and fees. … I saved about $3,000.”

For Stuart, the most memorable part of the trip was when she and her fiancé arrived in Barcelona. “It was our first time in Europe together. We went out to dinner and had an amazing tapas meal. We walked around the Las Ramblas area. I had been thinking about [going to Spain] for so long, and we finally made it happen. It was so surreal to finally be there.” She still has 140,000 miles left over, which she’s looking forward to redeeming when she and her husband-to-be — who also has the United℠ Explorer Card — book their honeymoon.

What was your biggest splurge?

I think my biggest splurge was two-and-a-half years ago, when my husband and I decided to go to Nepal,” Klein says. “We went trekking in the mountains there, in the foothills of the Himalayas, and it was just really pretty. They don’t have roads where cars can go up, but they have all these villages. It’s a really cool place to go if you like hiking, because you don’t have to do full-on backpacking. You can stop in the villages to sleep and eat.”

“Once you get there, it’s really inexpensive. The plane tickets were a lot of money, but actually, the week we spent in Nepal was less expensive than spending a week in San Francisco. Sleeping there was about $5 a night. … And meals were about a dollar for good, delicious food.” After trekking for five days, “we splurged on a really nice hotel because we were tired. It cost about $25.”

Stuart remembers splurging on basketball game tickets earlier this year. “Last year, I bought [NBA Golden State] Warriors playoff tickets as a surprise for my fiancé. That was a pretty big splurge,” she says. “He was a huge lifetime Warriors fan, and I just wanted to do something nice for him.”

What do you dislike about the card?

“I don’t love paying the annual fee, but I suppose it’s the deal you make,” Klein says. The card’s annual fee is $0 for the first year, then $95. “Sometimes I wish it gave more miles, because it only gives double miles when you make purchases with United.” She pairs the card with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, which allows 1:1 point transfers to United and earns 2 points per dollar spent on travel and dining — broader categories than the United℠ Explorer Card offers.

Stuart also isn’t enthusiastic about the fee. “The annual fee is kind of expensive. One of the things it includes is the free baggage, but you have to read the fine print. Last year when we went to New York with my fiancé, I had a different itinerary than my fiancé — we both came in at different times but left at the same time — and because we didn’t have the same itinerary, he had to pay for his baggage, still.”

Stuart also notes the interest charges add up quickly, so it’s best not to carry a balance on the card. She adds, “I pay it off right away and keep a strict budget.”

Interviews by Claire Tsosie. Tsosie is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: claire@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @ideclaire7.