Premium perks without a high annual fee: United Explorer Card review
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United Explorer Card overview
The United Explorer Card isn’t your average airline credit card. It is packed with premium perks such as an up to $100 Global Entry or TSA PreCheck credit, two annual one-time lounge visits and free checked bags — easily justifying its modest $95 annual fee that’s waived the first year. Card Rating*: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
*Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG’s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.
While travel has slowed during the pandemic, cobranded airline credit cards can still come in handy in the coming months. In fact, some of you with a premium United credit card may be looking for a cheaper alternative to downgrade to. Or perhaps you’re looking to stock up on miles for the day when travel restrictions are eased. The United Explorer Card is a great fit in either scenario.
This entry-level card has a $95 annual fee that’s waived the first year and is currently offering a generous sign-up bonus that’s worth $520, based on TPG valuations. Besides the usual airline credit card perks like free checked bags and priority boarding, the United Explorer offers some more premium benefits, such as two annual lounge passes, a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit and excellent travel protections.
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Who is this card for?
Since United is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, there are plenty of credit cards that can help boost your United mileage account balance. However, if it’s elite-like benefits you’re after, such as free checked bags and priority boarding, you’re going to need one of the airline’s cobranded cards.
The United Explorer Card offers all of the perks an occasional United flyer might need, as well as a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit (up to $100) and two one-time United Club passes each account anniversary year. If you’re solely after United Club access, you’ll probably be better off with the United Club Infinite Card, which comes with a full United Club membership — but also at a significantly higher annual fee of $525 (waived for the first year).
Keep in mind that as a Chase card, the United Explorer is subject to the issuer’s 5/24 rule. So, if you’ve opened more than five credit cards in the past 24 months (from all banks, not just Chase), you’ll want to hold off on applying, as you likely won’t be approved.
Sign-up bonus: As much as up to $520 in value
The United Explorer Card is currently offering 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. That’s worth a very solid $520, based on TPG’s most recent valuations. If you’re wondering how to get the most value out of these miles, be sure read up on United sweet-spot redemptions.
United benefits and perks
The United Explorer Card offers a good mix of perks for both frequent and occasional United flyers. Here’s a look at the United-specific perks the card offers:
Free first checked bag
Get a first checked bag free on United-operated flights for you and one companion on the same reservation. A first checked bag usually costs $30 each way, so this benefit can save you at least $60 per round-trip. You must include your MileagePlus number in your reservation and pay for the flight with the Explorer Card to receive this benefit.
Two United Club passes
Receive two, one-time United Club passes deposited into your MileagePlus account each year of card membership. This benefit alone is worth $118 per year, as day passes at the lounge cost $59 each (as of Nov. 1, 2019, you can only buy a one-day United Club pass with a same-day boarding pass).
Get Group 2 boarding for you and your companions traveling on the same reservation when you include you MileagePlus number. This means you board after Premier Platinum, Premier Gold and Star Alliance™ Gold members and those seated in United Polaris, United First and United Business classes. This is especially valuable for those prone to buying basic economy tickets, as you’ll be excluded from the carry-on baggage restrictions.
Expanded award availability
As a cardholder, you’ll have unrestricted access to book an award — even if it’s the last seat on the plane — and may see economy award seats requiring fewer miles when you log in to your MileagePlus account.
Elite status shortcuts
As of 2020, United elite status qualification is based on Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) and Premier Qualifying Flights (PQFs). Cardholders will have the opportunity to earn 500 PQPs for spending $12,000 on the card each calendar year, plus an additional 500 PQPs with an additional $12,000 in spend, for a grand total of 1,000 PQPs. Authorized users’ spending will count toward the thresholds. (Just note that these bonus PQPs will only count toward status up to Premier Platinum.)
25% inflight savings
Receive 25% off inflight United purchases, including Wi-Fi, food and beverages.
Other travel benefits
There are also some general travel perks that are typically only offered by more expensive premium cards:
Application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck
The United Explorer Card will reimburse you when you charge the application fee for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck to the card (up to $100). You can gift this perk to a friend or family member if you don’t need it for yourself. Most other cards that offer this benefit have annual fees above $400.
Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection access
Get valuable on-property perks such as free breakfast and room upgrades when you book hotel stays through Chase’s Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection.
Finally, the United Explorer Card comes with a strong set of travel and shopping protections that nearly match those offered by the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. Card holders receive the following protections when something goes wrong on a trip:
Auto rental collision damage waiver
This is among the few cards that offers primary rental coverage. This means that when you rent a car using your card, you can decline the rental car company’s collision insurance and be covered by the card — up to the cash value of the vehicle — in the case of theft or collision damage.
Trip delay protection
If any common carrier delays your trip by 12 hours, you and your traveling companions are each covered up to $500 to purchase things such as lodging, ground transportation, meals and toiletries. Even award tickets booked using miles are covered as long as a some portion of the cash outlay was paid for with the card.
Trip cancellation/interruption protection
If a trip is canceled, interrupted or extended for a covered reason, you may be reimbursed up to $6,000 per trip.
Lost/delayed baggage protection
If your baggage is delayed by six or more hours, you’re eligible for reimbursement for personal items up to $100 per day for up to three days. If your bag is lost, you may be reimbursed up to $3,000 per traveler ($2,000 per bag for New York state residents).
The United Explorer Card offers the following benefits for everyday shopping:
Get up to $10,000 per item and $50,000 per year for items that are damaged or stolen within 120 days of purchase.
Extended warranty protection
Get an additional year of coverage on eligible purchases with a manufacturer’s warranty of three years of less.
How to earn points
As a cardholder, you’ll earn 2x miles per dollar on United, dining and hotel spending and 1x mile per dollar on everything else. While the bonus for airline spending is pretty standard, it’s nice to see that the card also offers bonuses on certain types of everyday spending — something that the most other airline cards don’t offer.
How to redeem points
You can redeem your MileagePlus miles across United’s vast network of domestic and international routes or on the carrier’s 27 Star Alliance partners. United has implemented a dynamic pricing structure, so you should now expect a fairly consistent value of your miles whenever redeeming for United flights. Domestic awards economy start at just 5,000 miles one-way so the full sign-up bonus of 63,000 miles could be enough to book a whopping 12 one-way tickets.
The award pricing changes only apply to United-operated flights, so the best use of your miles now might actually for partner redemptions, such as Lufthansa first class between the U.S. and Europe for 110,000 United miles one-way. Plus, United doesn’t pass on fuel surcharges on partner awards. Just note that awards may be subject to a close-in mileage charge if booked within 30 days of travel.
To squeeze even more value out of your miles, you might want to utilize United’s Excursionist Perk, which as of now is here to stay. We have an in-depth guide that explains everything you need to know about this perk, but basically, it allows you to add a free flight segment to qualifying, round-trip itineraries between two different regions at no extra cost.
You’ll typically want to avoid non-flight redemptions with your United miles, such as hotel stays or merchandise, as they tend to offer a poor value proposition.
Which cards compete with the United Explorer Card?
Much like American Express and Delta, Chase has a very close relationship with United, issuing its cobranded credit cards and offering 1:1 point transfers from Ultimate Rewards. Because of that, the card’s competition goes beyond just other United-branded cards.
The closest comparison to the United Explorer Card is the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which also has a $95 annual fee, albeit not waived the first year. Similar to the United Explorer Card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred earns 2x points on dining. What makes it stand out, however, is that it also earns 2x points on all travel, including everything from cruises to parking fees, as opposed to just United purchases and hotel stays.
Most of the cards’ travel protections overlap, but the United Explorer gets a slight edge in terms of perks as it also offers the Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit, as well as all of the United-specific benefits, such as free checked bags and United Club passes.
The sign-up bonus on the Chase Sapphire Preferred is currently 60,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening. Those points are more valuable than United miles, as they can be transferred to more than a dozen airline and hotel programs, giving you much more flexibility in terms of redemptions.
The United Explorer Card definitely isn’t your run-of-the-mill airline credit card. Between free TSA PreCheck, annual lounge visits and Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection access, the card is jam-packed with perks that will enhance your trips from start to finish — not just when you’re in the air. The card’s welcome bonus of up to 40,000 miles is just the cherry on top.
Additional reporting by Chris Dong.
Featured image by The Points Guy.
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