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Making the Most of the United MileagePlus Explorer

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Making the Most of the United MileagePlus Explorer
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There’s no way around it: Loyalty is hard to fake. Co-branded credit cards like the United MileagePlus® 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 MileagePlus® 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.

Earn more miles

GET THAT SIGN-UP BONUS AND ADD AN AUTHORIZED USER

Like an object in your rearview mirror, the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card’s sign-up bonus is larger than it appears. In sheer numerical terms, the bonus may seem similar to others: 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. But NerdWallet values United miles at 1 cent apiece, on average, making the sign-up bonus alone worth $400, or four one-way domestic Saver Award tickets. Plan your credit card purchases carefully to make sure you hit the spending requirement.

For an additional 5,000-mile boost, add an authorized user to the account in the first three months the account is open.

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 you can earn those extra miles:

You don’t need the United MileagePlus® 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. If you clicked through on J. Crew’s link, for example, you could earn 2 miles per dollar spent on your transaction, in addition to the usual 1 mile per dollar you’d earn with the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card. Since miles are worth 1 cent each, that’s a rewards rate of 3 cents per dollar spent at J. Crew.

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 MileagePlus® Explorer Card earnings, and you might get 6 miles per dollar spent — a 6% return, assuming miles are worth 1 cent each.

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 MileagePlus® Explorer Card to book your flight. That could save you $100 per round trip — 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 $25 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 MileagePlus® 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.

Redeem miles strategically

Generally, you can get more out of your miles by using them to book United flights. Steer clear of the airline’s overpriced merchandise and gift certificates.

CHECK FOR MONTHLY FEATURED SAVER AWARDS

United’s new 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 $1,958 in cash, so you’d be getting more than 6 cents — 6 cents! — out of each mile. That runs circles around the average redemption value of United miles of 1 cent each.

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 on 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.

A word to the wise: Don’t sit on that sign-up bonus for too long. If your card is closed for inactivity, your miles can expire within 18 months if you don’t earn or spend any. To keep your account active, all you have to do is periodically earn or spend miles. Since you’ll earn miles every time you use the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card, using the card regularly is a great way to keep your entire stash of miles from expiring.

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