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United MileagePlus Explorer: The United Credit Card Impresses

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United Mileage Plus Explorer: The United Credit Card Impresses

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card Editor's Rating: 3.8 / 5

If you’re looking for a great travel rewards credit card, you might consider one of the many branded airline miles cards, like the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card.

But how does this card stack up against some of its competitors?

Let’s take a look.

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card

Apply Now on Chase's secure site
  • Recommended Credit Score
  • 690
    850
    Good - Excellent
  • Card Details
  • Pros

    • Free checked bag and priority boarding
    • Two United Club passes annually
    • Bonus miles when you spend $25,000 in a year
    • Miles don't expire as long as you're a cardholder

    Cons

    • Has annual fee
    • Checked bag fee waived for fewer traveling partners than competitors
    • Best for frequent United flyers only

    Annual Fees

    $95

    APR

    • APR: 16.99% - 23.99% Variable APR
    • Cash Advance APR: 25.99%, Variable

    Bonus Offers

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

    Intro APR

    • N/A
  • Additional Information
    • 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open
    • Check your first bag for free (a savings of up to $100 per roundtrip) when you use your Card to purchase your ticket
    • Enjoy priority boarding privileges and visit the United Club℠ with 2 one-time passes each year for your anniversary
    • No foreign transaction fees
    • Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on tickets purchased from United, and 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases
    • Your miles don't expire as long as your credit card account is open, with no limit to the number of miles you can earn
    • $95 annual fee

At a glance
Annual fee $95
Foreign transaction fee None
Rewards program MileagePlus: 2 miles per dollar spent on tickets purchased from United; 1 mile per dollar spent on all other purchases.
Signup bonus Earn 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open
Verdict: If you’re a big spender or frequently fly United, this card is worth considering.
Good for:
  • Someone who prefers flying United
  • Someone who checks bags on United flights
  • Someone who is a savvy travel hacker and can drive up the value of the rewards rate by buying and booking strategically
Bad for:
  • Someone who prefers flexibility when choosing airlines
  • Someone who prefers lower annual fees

In this article:

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card: The basics
Where the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card shines
Where the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card falls short
How does the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card compare to the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card?
Who should consider the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card?

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card: The basics

The United MileagePlus® Explorer Card card offers a fairly standard suite of travel rewards benefits. Other card features include:

  • Additional bonus of 5,000 miles after you make a purchase and add an authorized user within the first three months
  • 10,000 bonus miles every year you spend $25,000 on the card
  • Free checked bag for you and a companion traveling on your reservation when you pay with the card

The rewards rate on the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card is pretty standard: Each dollar you spend earns you 1 mile, unless you’re buying tickets from United, in which case you’re earning 2 miles per dollar. But there are extra perks that come with this card that drive up its value.

» MORE: Chase credit cards mobile app review

Where the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card shines

Paying with the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card gives you (and a companion on your reservation) one free checked bag. Since United charges $25 per checked bag, this amounts to a savings of up to $100 per roundtrip flight, making up for the annual fee. Our calculator can help you further break down that math:

Another one-time bonus to consider is the 5,000 bonus miles you’ll get if make a purchase with the card and add an authorized user to the account within the first three months of being a cardmember. This is a unique perk offered by Chase, and a quick and easy way to get free miles.

The United MileagePlus® Explorer Card also boasts an annual bonus. Each year you spend at least $25,000 with the card, you get an additional 10,000 miles. Granted, $25,000 is a lot to spend, but it’s worth mentioning for big spenders.

Where the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card falls short

It’s worth comparing the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card to a travel rewards card that’s tough to beat, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®. When you stack the two cards side by side, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® wins on many metrics.

For one, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® carries a lower annual fee – $0 for the first year, then $89 – compared to the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card’s $95. Also, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®’s rewards rate is much higher. In addition to the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®’s flat rate of 2 miles per dollar spent, you get 5% of your miles back whenever you redeem. That makes the effective rewards rate 2.1%, which handily beats the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card’s standard 1% on everything except United tickets.

Plus, there’s the flexibility issue to consider — the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® allows you to redeem your points for any travel purchase, while the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card limits you to flying with United and its Star Alliance partners. If it’s important to you to be able to choose from a bevy of airlines when you’re booking your trip, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® carries a serious advantage over the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card.

But the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® doesn’t provide free checked bags, so if you’re frequently taking long trips that require a lot of luggage, this is a factor to consider.

It’s also worth mentioning that — as with all branded airline miles cards — the rewards you earn with the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card have a variable value based on the cost of the flight you’re booking. This means that you could potentially wring more than the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®’s 2% rewards rate out of the points you’ve earned with your United MileagePlus® Explorer Card, provided you have the know-how to do so.

How does the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card compare to the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card?

In a head-to-head comparison with another popular travel card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card comes up short in a couple of ways.

Although the cards carry the same annual fee, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card has a higher standard rewards rate — 1.25% compared with the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card’s 1%. However, it’s important to understand how Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card’s points carry a higher value: If you book your travel arrangements through Chase, your points are worth 1.25%, otherwise they could be worth as low as 1%.

It’s also easier to earn points with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. You’ll earn 2 points per dollar spent on travel and dining and 1 point per dollar spent everywhere else. The only way to earn double points with the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card is buying tickets from United.

Again, there’s a flexibility issue with the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card as compared to the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card: The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card allows you to use your points to book tickets through a number of popular frequent flyer programs, including Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards, British Airways Executive Club and United MileagePlus. What’s more, the points you use with other programs won’t lose value — there’s a 1:1 transfer with participating partners. All this means that the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card allows you a broader range of flight options when it comes to using your rewards points.

However, it comes back to the checked bags: If having the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card allows you to dodge frequent baggage fees, it’s a great option.

And if you want to see how this card stacks up against other travel cards, explore NerdWallet’s best credit card offers page.

Who should consider the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card?

The United MileagePlus® Explorer Card isn’t the best travel rewards card out there, but it’s still a solid option. If you’re a dedicated United flyer and hate paying to check your bag, this card provides some good perks. But if you’re looking for a travel card with more flexibility and a higher rate of return, opting for the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® or the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is better for you.

Erin El Issa is a staff writer covering personal finance for NerdWallet. Follow her on Twitter @Erin_Lindsay17 and on Google+.

Image via iStock.