Credit card showdown: United Explorer Card vs. United Club Card

Mar 3, 2020

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When it comes to cobranded airline credit cards, United loyalists have two main options: the United Explorer Card or the United Club Card, both issued by Chase.

The average traveler might get more mileage (so to speak) out of a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or the American Express® Green Card — both of which earn bonus points on a wide range of purchases that can be transferred to several different airline and hotel partners. But those looking for United-specific benefits will want to take a look at cobranded United cards. Here are the factors to help you decide which United card is the best choice for you.

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Comparing United Explorer vs. United Club

Card United Explorer Card United Club Card
Sign-up bonus 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months 75,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months
Annual fee $0 the first year, then $95 $450
Earning rates 2x on purchases with United, at restaurants and on hotel accommodations when purchased directly with the hotel

1x on everything else

2x on purchases with United

1.5x on everything else

Airline benefits Free first checked bag, priority boarding, 25% back on United inflight purchases, complimentary Premier upgrades on award flights for United elites Free first and second checked bag, Premier Access travel services, 25% back on United inflight purchases, complimentary Premier upgrades on award flights for United elites
Club benefits Two one-time United Club passes after account opening and on each anniversary United Club membership
Other benefits No foreign transaction fees, Chase Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection, credit (up to $100) for Global Entry/TSA Precheck application fee every four years No foreign transaction fees, Hertz Gold Plus Rewards President’s Circle, Chase Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection

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.

Now, let’s see how these benefits stack up against one another.

Sign-up bonus

The United Club Card currently offers a sign-up bonus of 75,000 United miles after you spend $3,000 in the first three months your account is open. Based on TPG’s valuations, these bonus miles are worth $975. However, this elevated offer ends on March 12, 2020.

The United Explorer Card offers a slightly lower sign-up bonus of 60,000 bonus United miles after you spend $3,000 in the first three months your account is open. Based on TPG’s valuations, these bonus miles are worth $780. This elevated offer doesn’t end until April 2, 2020.

Related reading: Cards currently offering welcome bonuses of 100,000 points or more

Annual fee

Now we’re getting into the major differences between the two cards. The United Explorer Card’s annual fee is a modest $95 and it’s even waived the first year. By contrast, the United Club Card’s annual fee is $450, but you get several elevated benefits for it.

Related reading: How United credit cards fit into the new MileagePlus program

Earning rates

(Photo by The Points Guy)

Both United cards earn 2 miles per dollar spent on tickets purchased from United. But that’s where the similarities end. The United Explorer Card also earns 2 miles per dollar spent at restaurants and on hotel accommodations when purchased directly with the hotel, as well as 1 mile per dollar spent on everything else. Meanwhile, the United Club Card doesn’t have any non-United bonus categories but earns 1.5 miles per dollar spent on everything else.

Based on TPG’s valuation of United miles at 1.3 cents each, this means you’ll earn a 2.6% return on United purchases with both cards and at restaurants and on hotel accommodations when purchased directly with the hotel with the United Explorer Card. And you’ll get a return of 1.95% with the United Club Card and 1.3% with the United Explorer Card on all other purchases.

None of these earning rates are overly compelling unless you need United miles for an upcoming redemption. Even then, from an earning standpoint, you may be better off using cards in the Chase Trifecta or Chase Quartet and then transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United miles.

Related reading: The best credit cards for flying United

United benefits

As you’d expect, both cards offer benefits specifically for flying United. Here’s what you’ll get with each card.

Baggage

Baggage arrives from Delta Air Lines Inc. flights at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on Friday, March 29, 2019 in Los Angeles, Calif. © 2019 Patrick T. Fallon for The Points Guy
Get at least your first checked bag free. (Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/The Points Guy)

The United Explorer Card gets the primary cardmember and one travel companion on the same reservation their first standard checked bag free when the primary cardmember includes their MileagePlus number in their reservation and uses their United Explorer Card to purchase the tickets. This benefit is valued at up to $30 per passenger each way.

United Club Card primary cardmembers get first and second checked bags free for themselves and one travel companion on the same reservation when the primary cardmember includes their United MileagePlus number in their reservation and purchases their tickets from United with their United Club Card. This is valued at up to $70 per passenger each way.

This benefit is only available on United- and United Express-operated flights and service charges for oversized, overweight and extra baggage may apply. Cardmembers who are already exempt from select checked baggage service charges due to elite status or other reasons will not receive an additional free standard checked bag.

Related reading: How to avoid checked baggage fees on major domestic airlines

Ground experience

United Explorer Card primary cardholders and companions traveling on the same reservation get priority Group 2 boarding on United- and United Express-operated flights when the primary cardmember includes their MileagePlus number in their reservation.

And, United Club Card primary cardholders and companions traveling on the same reservation get Premier Access when the primary Cardmember includes their MileagePlus number in their reservation. Premier Access is like low-level elite status, providing access to designated check-in lines, priority security lanes, priority Group 2 boarding and priority baggage handling.

Related reading: Credit cards that can help you earn airline elite status

Benefits to help earn elite status

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)
Spend on your card to top off your PQPs. (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

United’s elite status qualification is now based on Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) and Premier Qualifying Flights (PQFs). Both cards can help you earn PQPs — you earn 500 PQPs for every $12,000 in spending on your card. However, you can only earn up to 1,000 PQPs from spending on your card in a calendar year, and these PQPs can only be applied up to Platinum status. So this benefit will only help you top off your PQPs — you won’t even get close to the lowest status level through credit card spending alone.

Related reading: What is United Airlines elite status worth in 2020?

Other benefits

Both United cards also offer the following benefits:

  • 25% back on food, beverage and Wi-Fi purchases on board United- and United Express-operated flights
  • Complimentary Premier Upgrades based on availability on select United- and United Express-operated flights for the primary cardmember if he or she has MileagePlus Premier status and is traveling on an award ticket (assignment of complimentary Premier upgrades on award tickets within each Premier level will be prioritized after the lowest paid fare class)
  • As long as tickets are still available for sale for the applicable cabin on any United-operated flight, the primary cardmember can use miles to book award travel on that flight, including award travel booked by the primary cardmember for an authorized user under the primary cardmember’s MileagePlus number

Related reading: TPG Points Lab: How many miles do you really save with a United credit card?

Lounge benefits

United Club at London Heathrow (Photo by Daniel Ross/The Points Guy)
Get a United Club membership with the United Club Card. (Photo by Daniel Ross/The Points Guy)

This one is no contest. The United Explorer Card gives cardholders two United Club one-time passes deposited into their MileagePlus account after account opening and each year for their cardmember anniversary.

By contrast, the United Club Card comes with outright United Club membership for the primary cardmember. Depending on your level of elite status, that represents between $550-$650 in value per year, effectively covering the card’s annual fee. Existing United Club members are eligible to receive a prorated refund for any unused portion of their current membership if the refund is greater than $15.

With a United Club membership, you can access United Club lounges by showing a same-day boarding pass on United, a Star Alliance airline or another partner airline. United Club members may also bring their spouse and dependent children under 21, or up to two guests, into any United Club location. And your United Club membership will get even get you into Star Alliance lounges and select partner lounges when flying on eligible itineraries.

Related reading: Best credit cards for airport lounge access

Other benefits

Like many top travel credit cards, the United Explorer Card waives foreign transaction fees and gives cardholders access to booking hotel stays through Chase’s Luxury Hotel & Resorts Collection. You’ll also have access to a statement credit of up to $100 every four years as reimbursement for the application fee for Global Entry or TSA Precheck when charged to your card. And, cardholders also have access to Inside Access by Chase and MileagePlus events and the Visa Concierge service.

The United Club Card also waives foreign transaction fees, gives cardholders access to booking hotel stays through Chase’s Luxury Hotel & Resorts Collection, lets them attend Inside Access by Chase and MileagePlus events and gives them use the services of the Visa Concierge. Plus, primary cardholders of the United Club Card are also eligible for Hertz Gold Plus Rewards President’s Circle membership, which provides benefits like one-car-class upgrades, bonus points-earning and all the benefits of Hertz Gold service.

Related reading: Credit cards that offer elite status for car rentals

Travel protections

(Photo by Getty Images)
(Photo by Getty Images)

The travel and purchase protections on these two United cards are generally the same. But the United Club Card provides additional or elevated protections in a couple of cases, which are noted below:

Trip cancellation/trip interruption insurance:

  • United Explorer Card: You can be reimbursed up to $1,500 per person and $6,000 per trip for your prepaid, nonrefundable passenger fares if your trip is canceled or cut short by covered situations like sickness or injury.
  • United Club Card: If your trip is canceled or cut short by sickness, severe weather and other covered situations, you can be reimbursed up to $10,000 per person and $20,000 per trip for your prepaid, nonrefundable travel expenses, including passenger fares, tours, and hotels.

Baggage delay insurance: Reimburses you for essential purchases like toiletries and clothing for baggage delays over six hours by the carrier, up to $100 a day for three days.

Lost luggage reimbursement: If you or an immediate family member check or carry on luggage that is damaged or lost by the carrier, you’re covered up to $3,000 per passenger.

Trip delay reimbursement: If your common carrier travel is delayed more than 12 hours or requires an overnight stay, you and your family are covered for unreimbursed expenses, such as meals and lodging, up to $500 per ticket.

Auto rental collision damage waiver: Decline the rental company’s collision insurance and charge the entire rental cost to your card. Coverage is primary and provides reimbursement up to the actual cash value of the vehicle for theft and collision damage for most rental cars in the U.S. and abroad.

Purchase protection: Covers your new purchases for 120 days against damage or theft up to $10,000 per claim and $50,000 per year.

Extended warranty protection: Extends the period of the U.S. manufacturer’s warranty by an additional year, on eligible warranties of three years or less.

Price protection (only available on the United Club Card): If a card purchase you made in the U.S. is advertised for less in print or online within 90 days, you can be reimbursed the difference up to $500 per item and $2,500 per year.

Return protection (only available on the United Club Card): You can be reimbursed for eligible items that the store won’t take back within 90 days of purchase, up to $500 per item, $1,000 per year.

As you can see, the United Club Card offers two types of shopping protections that aren’t offered by the United Explorer Card: return protection and (increasingly rare) price protection. Plus, the United Club Card offers more comprehensive trip cancellation/interruption insurance. These elevated benefits may provide ample value to justify the difference in annual fees for some cardholders — but it’s also important to realize that the United Explorer Card offers pretty strong travel and shopping benefits considering its sub-$100 annual fee.

Related reading: The best credit cards with travel insurance

Bottom line

There are several differences between these two cards, including their annual fees, airline and lounge-related benefits and earning potential. If what you care about is earning United miles as well as getting priority boarding and a complimentary checked bag when flying United, the United Explorer Card is probably the one for you.

On the other hand, if you’re going to purchase United Club membership anyway, it makes sense to get the United Club Card since it lets you do so at a discount and comes with benefits like Hertz elite status and 1.5x earning on everyday purchases.

What it comes down to is, which card’s benefits will you maximize enough to meet your travel goals and justify paying its annual fee? The answer to that question will help you decide which is the right choice for you.

Related guides

Additional reporting by Katie Genter.

Featured image by John Gribben/The Points Guy.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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