Editorial Review

United Explorer: Richer Rewards, Perks You’ll Actually Use

This card gets you solid ongoing rewards, free checked bags, two airport lounge passes per year, reimbursement for Global Entry or TSA Precheck application fees and primary car rental coverage.

Gregory KarpNovember 25, 2019

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Our Take

3.8

NerdWallet rating 

The Bottom Line: This card's valuable benefits — including useful ones that other airline cards don’t offer — set it apart, making it worth the annual fee, even if you fly United only occasionally.

Chase United Airlines Mileage Plus Credit Card

on Chase's website

Annual Fee

$0 intro for the first year, then $95

Regular APR

17.99% - 24.99% Variable APR

Intro APR

N/A

Recommended Credit Score

Quick Facts

Annual Fee
$0 intro for the first year, then $95
Annual Fee
$0 intro for the first year, then $95
Intro APR
N/A

Pros & Cons

Pros
  • Free checked bag and priority boarding

  • Two United Club passes annually

  • Primary rental car coverage

Cons
  • Has annual fee

  • Checked bag fee waived for fewer traveling partners than competitors

Alternate Pick: Greater flexibility

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Transfer points to United, or use elsewhere

This card earns 2 points per dollar spent on travel and dining and 1 point per dollar elsewhere. You can transfer points on a 1:1 basis to about a dozen airline and hotel programs, including United, or you can use them to book travel through Chase at 1.25 cents per point. However, you won't get any airline-specific perks. Annual fee: $95.

Read our review

Compare to Other Cards

Annual Fee

$0 intro for the first year, then $95

Annual Fee

$0 for the first year, then $95

Annual Fee

$0

Regular APR

17.99% - 24.99% Variable APR

Regular APR

17.49% - 24.74% Variable APR

Regular APR

16.49% - 24.49% Variable APR

Intro APR

N/A

Intro APR

N/A

Intro APR

0% on Purchases for 12 billing cycles

Recommended Credit Score
Recommended Credit Score
Recommended Credit Score

Full Review

For travelers who fly United Airlines the United℠ Explorer Card has the most mass appeal of the airline's cards: It delivers excellent value at a reasonable cost, even for those who fly only a couple of times a year. With an annual fee of $0 intro for the first year, then $95, it comes with useful benefits many other airline and travel cards don’t offer.

Most notably, it gets you two airport lounge passes per year, reimbursement for Global Entry or TSA Precheck application fees and primary car rental coverage that will pay up before your own auto insurance. That puts it in a league of its own among other co-branded airline cards with similar annual fees, which generally feature free checked bags, priority boarding and frequent flyer miles — all of which is included on the United℠ Explorer Card, too.

United℠ Explorer Card: Basics and benefits

Card type: Airline.

Annual fee: $0 intro for the first year, then $95.

Sign-up bonus: Limited time offer! Earn up to 65,000 Bonus Miles: 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus earn an additional 25,000 bonus miles after you spend $10,000 total on purchases in the first 6 months your account is open.

Rewards:

  • 2 MileagePlus miles per dollar spent on purchases from United.

  • 2 miles per dollar spent on restaurant purchases and hotel accommodations purchased directly with the hotel.

  • 1 mile per dollar spent on all other purchases.

  • United miles are worth an average of 1.3 cents apiece for domestic travel, according to NerdWallet valuations.

Interest rate: The ongoing APR is 17.99% - 24.99% Variable APR.

Foreign transaction fee: None.

Noteworthy perks:

  • First checked bag free for you and a companion on your reservation.

  • Two United Club one-time use passes per year.

  • Global Entry or TSA Precheck statement credit every four years.

  • Trip cancellation or trip interruption insurance.

  • 25% back on in-flight purchases.

Where the United℠ Explorer Card shines

Airport lounge passes

The United℠ Explorer Card is the only major U.S. airline credit card in this price range that offers free lounge passes. It includes two one-day passes per year at a United Club. They typically cost $59 each, so the value of the passes alone exceeds the annual fee.

Why care about the lounge? Airport lounges can provide serenity, away from the noisy and hectic atmosphere of seating at the gate. United Clubs also offer free bar service, light snacks, free Wi-Fi, along with comfortable chairs and work stations. Agents there will help with reservations, seat assignments and electronic ticketing.

The passes give access to more than 45 United Club locations. To access these lounges, you’ll need to provide a same-day boarding pass for travel on United or a partner.

Free checked bags

It's not 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 can save 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 made up for the annual fee, assuming you otherwise would have paid to check bags.

One important detail, though: You get the checked-bag waiver only if you paid for the airfare with the card. Not all airline cards have that restriction.

Rich Rewards

You can get plenty of value out of this card even without using it for spending. But if your goal is free flights or upgrades to a premium cabin, earning frequent-flyer miles from credit card purchases is key.

You'll earn 2 miles per dollar spent on eligible United purchases, including airfare, bag fees, seat upgrades, and in-flight food, beverage and Wi-Fi. You'll also earn double miles on two other spending categories relevant to travelers:

  • Restaurant purchases.

  • Hotel stays.

The card earns 1 mile per dollar spent on everything else. Miles can be spent many ways but generally, they are most valuable when used for award flights and seat upgrades.

In addition to ongoing rewards, the card also comes with a generous sign-up bonus: Limited time offer! Earn up to 65,000 Bonus Miles: 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus earn an additional 25,000 bonus miles after you spend $10,000 total on purchases in the first 6 months your account is open.

Other valuable perks

The United℠ Explorer Card also comes with several other benefits that set it apart from other airline cards. Here are a few you might find useful:

  • Primary car rental coverage. This valuable feature is unusual for a card at this price point. Unlike most airline and travel cards, this card comes with car rental coverage that's primary, meaning the card’s benefit kicks in before your own auto insurance. That can save you money — your insurance deductible — if you have an accident in a rental. To use this benefit, you must pay for the rental with the card and decline the rental company's coverage.

  • Global Entry or TSA Precheck credit. 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 renews every four years.

  • Priority boarding. 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 is a welcome perk.

How it compares to other United cards

The United℠ Explorer Card is one of three co-branded consumer United Airlines credit cards. Its siblings are:

  • The United Club℠ Card: This $450-annual-fee premium card includes membership to United Club℠ airport lounges and robust benefits.

  • The United℠ TravelBank Card: This basic card comes with an annual fee of $0, but doesn't offer free checked bags or MileagePlus frequent-flyer miles.

Among these three cards, the United℠ Explorer Card lands in the middle, offering much richer benefits than the United℠ TravelBank Card but fewer luxury perks than the United Club℠ Card.

Here’s how the United Airlines consumer cards compare on key features:

United Club℠ Card, annual fee of $450

Rewards:

  • 2 miles per dollar spent on ticket purchases from United.

  • 1.5 miles per dollar on all other purchases.

  • Free checked bags: Two free checked bags for you and a companion.

  • Priority boarding: Included.

  • United Club access: Full membership.

United℠ Explorer Card, annual fee of $0 intro for the first year, then $95

Rewards:

  • 2 miles per dollar spent on ticket purchases from United, restaurants and hotels.

  • 1 mile per dollar on all other purchases.

  • Free checked bags: One free checked bag for you and a companion.

  • Priority boarding: Included.

  • United Club access: Two one-day passes annually.

United℠ TravelBank Card, annual fee of $0

Rewards: 

  • 2% back in TravelBank cash on ticket purchases from United.

  • 1.5% back on all other purchases.

  • Free checked bags: None.

  • Priority boarding: None.

  • United Club access: None.

United℠ Explorer Card: Drawbacks and alternatives

Annual fee

This card's annual fee of $0 intro for the first year, then $95 is on par with similar airline cards, but not cheap. Be sure you can extract more value from the card than you’re paying to hold it.

If you’re looking for a no-fee general travel card, look at the Bank of America® Travel Rewards Visa® credit card. You earn an unlimited 1.5 points per $1 spent on all purchases, and points can be redeemed for nearly any travel purchase in the form of a statement credit. The annual fee is $0.

Reward redemptions

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.

Especially if you fly with multiple airlines, a general travel card might be a better fit. Good choices include the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, which can convert its points into United MileagePlus frequent-flyer miles. Also consider the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card.

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?

If you’re a frequent flyer on United, the United℠ Explorer Card is loaded with useful and valuable benefits — more than co-branded cards from other airlines give their loyalists. But the card is also good for occasional United flyers because its free checked bags and lounge access passes alone can compensate for the annual fee.

Information related to the United 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.