Premium perks without a high annual fee: United Explorer Card review
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The United Explorer Card isn’t your average airline credit card. It is packed with premium perks such as free TSA PreCheck, two annual 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 post has been updated with card changes and the latest card limited-time sign-up bonus. It was originally published on April 19, 2019.
Cobranded airline credit cards have evolved significantly over the years. To keep them competitive with other travel credit cards on the market, issuers have been adding non airline-specific perks and bonus categories. Among the most improved airline cards is the United Explorer Card.
This entry-level card has a $95 annual fee that’s waived the first year and is currently offering an elevated welcome bonus that’s worth $845, 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 annual lounge visits, a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit and excellent travel protections.
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, including the benefits just mentioned as well as a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit (up to $100) and two United Club one-time passes each year. If you’re solely after United Club access, you’ll probably be better off with the United Club Card, which comes a full United Club membership — but also a significantly higher annual fee and no Global Entry/TSA PreCheck credit. The information for the United Club card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Keep in mind that as a Chase card, the United Explorer, along with United’s other cards, 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.
Welcome bonus: As much as $845 in value
Through Jan. 9, 2020, the United Explorer Card is offering an elevated welcome bonus of 40,000 miles after you spend $2,000 in the first three months, plus another 25,000 United miles after you spend $10,000 total on purchases in the first six months. That’s worth a very solid $845, based on TPG’s most recent valuations.
Main benefits and perks
Although this isn’t always the case with airline credit cards, the United Explorer Card offers a good mix of perks that don’t just revolve around its sponsoring airline. 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 for every trip that you take with checked baggage. 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. (Plus as of Nov. 1, 2019, you can only buy a one-day United Club pass with a same-day boarding pass.)
- Priority boarding. Get Group 2 boarding for you and your companions traveling on the same reservation when you include you MileagePlus number in you reservation. 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 will be 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.
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:
- Purchase protection. 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 2 miles per dollar on United, dining and hotel spending and 1 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 welcome bonus of 65,000 miles could be enough to book a whopping 13 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 to United. 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 welcome bonus on the Chase Sapphire Preferred is currently 60,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months. Those points are slightly 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 elevated welcome bonus of up to 65,000 miles is just the cherry on top.
Featured image by The Points Guy.