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 MileagePlus® 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 MileagePlus® Explorer Card measures up with the other cards.
|United MileagePlus® Explorer Card||Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card||Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®|
|Sign-up bonus||Earn 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.||Enjoy a one-time bonus of 50,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $500 in travel.||Enjoy 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 90 days — that's enough to redeem for a $400 travel statement credit toward an eligible travel purchase.|
|Annual fee||$0 for the first year, then $95||$0 for the first year, then $95||$0 for the first year, then $89|
|Rewards||2 miles per dollar spent on tickets purchased through United; 1 mile per dollar spent elsewhere.||2 miles per dollar spent everywhere.||2 miles per dollar spent everywhere.|
|Extras||None||5% miles bonus when you redeem. This gives you an effective earn rate of 2.1%. For example, if you redeemed 50,000 miles, you'd earn 2,500 miles toward your next redemption.|
|Foreign transaction fees||None||None||None|
Baggage tips the scales for the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card
When you pay for a United flight with the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card, you and a companion on the same reservation can each check a bag for free. That adds up to $100 per round trip, which would cover the card’s annual fee of $0 for the first year, then $95.
Even for occasional United flyers who pack heavy, the United MileagePlus® 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 MileagePlus® 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 MileagePlus® 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.
Of the two, the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card offers the best short-term value for most people, because it comes with the largest sign-up bonus. It earns a flat 2 miles for each dollar spent, for an annual fee of $0 for the first year, then $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® comes with a slightly smaller sign-up bonus, but offers stronger 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 MileagePlus® 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 MileagePlus® 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 MileagePlus® 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®.
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.
Updated on Nov. 29, 2017.