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United MileagePlus Explorer vs. Chase Sapphire Preferred: Carry Sapphire, Fly United

November 10, 2016
Airline Credit Cards, Credit Cards, Travel Credit Cards
United MileagePlus Explorer vs. Chase Sapphire Preferred: Carry Sapphire, Fly United
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This story is out of date

On June 1, 2018, the benefits on the United℠ Explorer Card changed. For information about the new version of the card, read NerdWallet’s FAQ on the updates.

If you’re a frequent flier with United, the United℠ Explorer Card sounds like the perfect travel credit card. It offers a big sign-up bonus, VIP perks and a way to earn United miles faster. Like most co-branded cards, its extra loyalty benefits make it stand out from ho-hum general travel cards.

But even with all its perks, the United℠ Explorer Card actually isn’t the best choice for most United frequent fliers. The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, a general travel card, offers more value — even though it doesn’t have “United” in its name. It lets you transfer points at a 1:1 ratio to United Airlines, as well as many other airlines and hotel chains, and it offers a richer rewards-earning structure. In effect, it’s a rare general travel credit card that lets you be loyal to United without really being, well, loyal.

Here’s how the cards stack up.

 United℠ Explorer Card Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
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 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
Annual fee
  • $0 for the first year, then $95
  • $0 for the first year, then $95
Rewards
  • 2 points per dollar spent on United tickets; 1 point per dollar spent on everything else.
  • Points can be redeemed through United.
  • 2 points per dollar spent on travel and dining; 1 point per dollar spent on everything else.
  • Points can be transferred to 1:1 transfer partners (including United), redeemed through Chase's travel portal at 1.25 cents each or redeemed for cash back or gift cards at 1 cent each, among other options.
Extras
  • First checked bag for you and a companion on the same reservation are free.
  • Two complimentary single-use United Club passes each year.


  • Priority boarding.
  • Flexible redemption options.

Why the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card wins

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card outpaces the United℠ Explorer Card by offering high earning potential and maximum versatility.

It has several 1:1 transfer partners

For serious travelers, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card’s long list of 1:1 transfer partners makes it a top-of-wallet card.

You could convert 50,000 points on the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card to 50,000 United miles. Because United miles are worth 1 cent each on average, according to NerdWallet’s valuation, that gives the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card a 1% rate on every purchase. If you use the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card to pay for travel and dining, which earns 2 points per dollar, transferring the points to United yields a 2% rewards rate.

You also could transfer the points to a different loyalty program or redeem them directly through Chase’s travel portal and get 1.25 cents apiece for them. This kind of reward flexibility could get you through the next Great Airline Miles Devaluation unscathed, because your credit card rewards won’t be locked into a single loyalty program.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card’s bonus won’t help you earn Premier status with United — the frequent flier status that gets you extra perks on the airline — but neither will the bonus on the United℠ Explorer Card. The co-branded card’s bonus is made up of “bonus miles,” not “Premier qualifying miles.” If you’re just looking for a card that will help you earn United tickets faster, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is the better choice.

It offers richer rewards

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card comes out ahead on long-term earning potential.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card’s ongoing rewards rates — 2 points per dollar spent on travel and dining and 1 point per dollar spent on everything else — lets you earn bonus points on an array of purchases. You’ll get the higher rate on fast-food meals and fine dining, as well as unconventional travel purchases like campgrounds and cruise lines. That makes it a better deal than the United℠ Explorer Card, which offers the higher 2 miles per dollar rate if you use the card to buy plane tickets on United. You’ll earn 1 mile per dollar spent on everything else.

Let’s assume you wanted to redeem your rewards for United miles, worth 1 cent each. With the United℠ Explorer Card, you’d have to spend $4,750 on United tickets per year to break even on the card’s annual fee. With the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, you’d still have to spend $4,750 to break even, but you could split that spending between travel expenses and dining. The latter is an easier bar to clear.

It’s a better deal for Premier status fliers

If you already have Premier Silver status or better with United, getting the United℠ Explorer Card would be redundant. You’d get waived baggage fees and priority boarding regardless. With Premier Gold status, you’d also get lounge access internationally, making the two annual one-time United Club passes that come with the United℠ Explorer Card less valuable when traveling abroad. If you already have these perks, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card would be a better addition to your wallet.

Why the United℠ Explorer Card may still be the better choice

If you don’t have Premier status and regularly check bags with United, the United℠ Explorer Card may offer a better deal.

It comes with free checked bags

Checking bags on flights is easy enough to avoid most of the time, as long as you don’t mind stuffing a suitcase into a jam-packed overhead bin. But if you don’t have Premier status and have to check your bag — say, you regularly travel for weeks at a time or you never leave home without your collection of culinary knives — the United℠ Explorer Card’s waived checked-bag fees could make it a better deal than the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.

The United℠ Explorer Card lets you and a companion check one bag each for free if your flight is on the same reservation. That adds up to $100 in savings per round trip, enough to wipe out the annual fee in one go. If you’re the baggage-checking type, the United℠ Explorer Card quickly becomes a much better deal than the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.

It offers priority boarding and two one-time United Club passes per year

During peak travel season, when the line at every airport Starbucks runs several gates long, the United℠ Explorer Card’s priority boarding benefit can get you on the plane a lot faster than everyone else. Also, the two one-time United Club passes each year can make your wait in the airport a lot more pleasant with bundles of free stuff, including free magazines and newspapers, free showers and free snacks and booze.

A win for versatility

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card’s versatility gives the card a decisive advantage over the United℠ Explorer Card — especially for United fliers with Premier status, who already enjoy United’s side perks. What’s more, it gives you the freedom to spend your points a different way, if you need to — say, if you start flying out of a different airport or you want to dodge a devaluation and redeem rewards with a different program.

The United℠ Explorer Card may be the best card for some, but between these two choices, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is the better pick for most travelers.

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