Credit Card Review: The United Explorer Card
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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – United Explorer Card
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.
The 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 $780 based on our 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 MileagePlus Club Card, which comes a full United Club membership, but also a significantly higher annual fee.
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.
For a limited time, the United Explorer Card is offering a welcome bonus of 40,000 miles after you spend $2,000 in the first three months. That’s worth a solid $520 based on TPG’s most recent valuations.
The United Explorer Card earns 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 not offer.
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. Presently, some of the best uses of the 60,000-mile welcome bonus include a one-way ticket to Europe in Polaris business class or a round-trip domestic first-class ticket.
United’s implementing a new dynamic pricing structure for travel from November 16, 2019 onwards, so moving forward, you should get fairly consistent value of your miles whenever redeeming for United flights. Domestic awards economy now start at just 5,000 miles one-way so the full welcome bonus of 60,000 miles would be enough to book a whopping 12 tickets.
The award pricing changes only apply to United-operated flights, so the best use of your miles for travel post-Nov. 15 might actually for partner redemptions. Plus, United doesn’t pass on fuel surcharges on partner awards.
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.
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 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.
- 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 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 card holder, you’ll both be able to book any flight using miles at the standard (non-saver) level, and you should see better saver-level availability in economy when you log in to your MileagePlus account.
- PQD Waiver — If you’re going for Premier Silver, Gold or Platinum status, you can get the PQD requirement waived by spending $25,000 during the calendar year. Authorized users’ spending will count toward the PQD waiver and you can combine spending across cards to meet the $25,000 requirement. Just remember that the waiver does not apply to United’s top-tier Premier 1K level.
- 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 like 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 — The United Explorer Card 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 like lodging, ground transportation, meals and toiletries. Even award tickets booked using miles are covered so 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.
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, 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 spending $4,000 in the first 3 months. Those points are slightly more valuable than United miles as they can be transferred to over 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 60,000 miles is just the cherry on top.