If you fly United Airlines even a few times a year, the United℠ Explorer Card can be a huge help, easily making up for its annual fee. For United travelers, it makes so much sense to have the card that the problem might be making a case against getting it.
That’s because, frequent-flyer miles aside, the card is practical. It helps with common hassles while flying United, especially dealing with luggage, whether you check it or carry it aboard. And upgrades to the card added in June 2018 help make the case for using it as an everyday credit card, not just when you’re flying United.
Most people don’t compare airline credit cards head-to-head like other cards — because the right card mostly depends on which airline you’re able to fly often.
If you did compare, you’d find the United℠ Explorer Card is similar to competitors. But it has some features other large-airline cards don’t, like two free airport lounge passes per year and superior rental car insurance — perks you might actually use. Then again, the United card is skimpier than similar airline credit cards in how many free checked bags it offers for you and others on your reservation.
That’s the quick take on the United℠ Explorer Card. Here are the finer details.
$0 for the first year, then $95
40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open
United℠ Explorer Card: Basics and benefits
- Annual fee: $0 for the first year, then $95
- First checked bag free for you and a companion on your reservation
- Rewards: 2 MileagePlus miles per dollar spent on purchases from United; 2 miles per dollar spent on restaurant purchases and hotel stays; 1 mile per dollar spent on all other purchases
- Sign-up bonus: 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open
- Two United Club one-time use passes per year
- Global Entry/TSA PreCheck statement credit every five years
- 25% off in-flight purchases
- Foreign transaction fee: None
- APR: The ongoing APR is 17.74% - 24.74% Variable APR
Where the United℠ Explorer Card shines
Free checked bags
It might not be the sexiest benefit a credit card can offer, but free checked bags are among the most valuable. You’ll get a first checked bag free for you and a companion on your reservation. That saves you $120 on a round-trip flight for you and a traveling partner ($30 per person each way). Do that once a year, and you’ve more than broken even on the annual fee, assuming you would have otherwise paid to check bags.
One important detail, though: You only get the checked bag waiver if you paid for the airfare with your United credit card. Not all airline cards have that restriction.
Don’t usually check bags? Then priority boarding that comes with the card will help. Getting on the plane earlier — in a lower-number boarding group — means you’re more likely to find overhead bin space for your roll-aboard. And some flyers like to board earlier to get settled in their seat before the cabin gets crowded. Either way, priority boarding can be a welcome perk.
Miles don’t expire
Another benefit that might be overlooked is that your miles don’t expire as long as you’re a cardholder in good standing. Otherwise, miles would expire in 18 months if there’s no activity on the account — meaning you didn’t earn or redeem miles. That gives you more time to rack up enough reward miles for a free flight, which could be important if you’re a more occasional United flyer.
» MORE: NerdWallet’s best airline cards
Typical United flyers might find the card’s perks more valuable than the frequent flyer miles it earns. In that way, the card might be thought of more as a membership card than a rewards card you use for everyday purchases. Still, if your goal is free flights or upgrades to a premium cabin, additional miles from credit card purchases are a great way to accomplish that. Changes to the card in June 2018 helped make the case for using the card for more everyday spending.
Earn 2 miles per dollar spent on eligible United purchases, including airfare, bag fees, seat upgrades, and in-flight food, beverage and Wi-Fi. Also earn double miles on two other spending categories relevant to travelers:
- Restaurant purchases
- Hotel stays
It earns 1 mile per dollar spent on everything else. Generally, miles are most valuable when used for award flights and seat upgrades.
» MORE: MileagePlus program review
Bonuses can change periodically, but the card typically gives you enough miles — or nearly enough — to get a free domestic award flight.
The current bonus is: 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.
You can get an additional 5,000 miles after you add the first authorized user and make your first purchase in the first 3 months from account opening.
Like many travel cards, the United℠ Explorer Card comes with several other benefits. Here are a few you might find useful:
Lounge passes. A day pass at a United Club typically costs $59. So the value of the two free passes that come with being a card member already exceeds the annual fee.
Trusted traveler programs. The card offers a credit for the cost of a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee when you use your card to pay for it. That could save you $100 or $85, respectively. Each program needs to be renewed every five years; the benefit on this card also renews every five years.
Primary car rental insurance. Unlike most airline and travel cards, car rental insurance is primary, meaning the card’s insurance kicks in before your own auto insurance, which can save you money — your insurance deductible — if you have an accident in a rental. You must pay for the rental with the card and decline the rental company’s coverage.
No foreign transaction fees. Travel cards generally don’t charge the fee — 3% is common — for making purchases abroad. And it’s nice to know the United card doesn’t either. It also helps that the card uses the Visa network, which is widely accepted in other countries.
In-flight discounts. Cardholders get 25% off in-flight purchases, including Wi-Fi, food and beverages, when paying with the card.
United℠ Explorer Card: Pitfalls and other possibilities
The annual fee of $0 for the first year, then $95 is standard for this type of card but not cheap. Be sure you can extract more value from the card than you’re paying to hold it. Our calculator can help:
The checked-bag waiver is a pro and con. The card includes a bag benefit, but it’s stingier than cards from other large airlines. A family of four all checking bags will get bag-fee waivers on only half of them. By contrast, the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express offers the first bag free for you and up to eight other passengers on your reservation.
Generally, the best redemption options for MileagePlus miles are award flights and seat upgrades on United and its Star Alliance partners. That’s pretty limiting compared with general travel cards, which allow you to apply rewards to a wide range of travel-related expenses.
For United loyalists, the other choices among United’s consumer credit cards are:
- United MileagePlus® Club Card. This is a premium card that includes membership to United Club℠ airport lounges and more robust benefits.
- United℠ TravelBank Card. This lower-tier card offers lesser rewards and perks, including no free checked bags, for no annual fee.
Here’s how the United Airlines consumer cards compare on key features:
United℠ Explorer Card United MileagePlus® Club Card United℠ TravelBank Card
Information related to the United MileagePlus® Club Card and the United℠ TravelBank Card has been collected by NerdWallet and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of these cards.
Annual fee $0 for the first year, then $95 $450 (This offer is no longer valid on our site) $0 (This offer is no longer valid on our site)
United Club℠ access Two passes annually Unlimited None
Checked bags 1 free checked bag for you and a companion 2 free checked bags for you and a companion No
Priority boarding Yes Yes No
Rewards currency MileagePlus miles MileagePlus miles TravelBank cash
Rewards rate 2 miles per dollar spent on ticket purchases from United, restaurants and hotels, and 1 mile per dollar on everything else 2 miles per dollar spent on ticket purchases from United and 1.5 miles per dollar on everything else 2% back in TravelBank cash per dollar spent on ticket purchases from United and 1.5% back on everything else
Sign-up bonus 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open
Earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. (This offer is no longer valid on our site) $150 in TravelBank cash after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. (This offer is no longer valid on our site)
If you mostly fly a different network carrier, its own airline card would suit you better.
And if you want to see how this card stacks up against other travel cards, explore NerdWallet’s best credit card offers page.
Is the United℠ Explorer Card right for you?
No credit card is a must-have, but if you’re a frequent flyer on United, the United℠ Explorer Card is easy to justify. Its free checked bags and lounge access passes alone can compensate for the annual fee. But if you spread your flying among several airlines, a cash-back or general travel credit card might serve you better.
Information related to the United MileagePlus® Club Card and the United℠ TravelBank Card has been collected by NerdWallet and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card.