United℠ Explorer Card review: A good way to explore United Airlines’ many perks

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Snapshot

4.1

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Bottom line

Frequent and occasional travelers of United Airlines can take advantage of some nice airline perks like first free checked bag, priority boarding and discount on in-flight purchases. The card has plenty more benefits on top of that to offset the card’s $95 annual fee, which kicks in after the first year’s $0 intro annual fee.

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See Rates & Fees, Terms Apply

United℠ Explorer Card

Rewards rate

1X–2X

Annual fee

$0 Intro for First Year, then $95.

Intro offer

60,000 Bonus Miles

Regular APR

20.24% - 27.24% Variable

Recommended Credit Score

Good to Excellent  (670 - 850)

United Explorer Card Overview

United loyalists will find much to love about the United Explorer card. Along with its solid sign-up bonus and decent rewards rate on dining and hotel stays, the card’s $95 annual fee, which is waived for the first year, is a steal compared to higher-tier United cards like the United Quest℠ Card* ($250 annual fee) and the luxury United Club℠ Infinite Card* ($525 annual fee). Even so, the card comes with all the perks you’d expect in a good mid-level airline or travel credit card.

What are the advantages and disadvantages?

Pros

  • The $0 intro annual fee gives users the first year to see if the card is a good fit (then $95 per year)
  • Multiple cost-saving travel benefits include priority boarding, first checked bag free and a credit of up to $100 every four years for Global Entry/TSA PreCheck

Cons

  • It may take some research and effort to ensure you’re getting the most value out of your miles with the MileagePlus loyalty program.
  • Redemption options are limited compared to general travel rewards cards

A deeper look into the current card offer

Quick highlights

  • Rewards rate: Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on dining, hotel stays, and United® purchases and 1 mile per dollar spent on all other purchases
  • Welcome offer: Earn 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.
  • Annual fee: $0 intro annual fee for first year, then $95
  • Purchase intro APR: N/A
  • Balance transfer intro APR: N/A
  • Regular APR: 19.49 percent to 26.49 percent, variable

Current welcome offer

New cardholders can earn 60,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. This is a slight increase over the card’s previous offer, which gave you a chance at 50,000 bonus miles with the same spending requirement and timeframe. United miles are worth around 1.1 cents apiece according to Bankrate’s latest airline mile valuations, so we value this bonus at just over $660 in United travel.

This is a solid bonus offer for an airline rewards card at this price level, but the card has also offered higher bonuses in the past, so it may be worth waiting to see if a better offer comes along.

If you want to start earning now and don’t mind sacrificing some bonus potential, it’s a good idea to apply for the card with a plan for how you’ll meet the spending requirement and use the bonus miles. Keep in mind that while using the card for anything other than United travel, dining and hotel stays will only earn 1 mile per dollar, it may be worth it to reach the spending requirement more easily.

Rewards rate

Even when you’re not traveling, an airline credit card can help you rack up miles with everyday spending. With the United Explorer card, you can earn miles on a selection of everyday and travel purchases on top of the rewards you can earn as a member of United MileagePlus, United Airlines’s frequent flyer program. You can use your miles for travel with United or with one of United’s airline partners.

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Airline loyalty programs can be complicated. To make sure you’re getting the most value out of your United Explorer card and the miles you’ve earned, you’ll need to research flights and compare prices to ensure you’ve found the best redemption option. But the effort can be worthwhile: Once you know how to maximize the value of MileagePlus miles, you’ll be able to travel at a reduced cost without sacrificing the travel features and benefits that matter most to you.

What is United Airlines MileagePlus?

United MileagePlus United Airlines’s frequent flyer program. Miles earned with the Explorer card are added to your MileagePlus account so you can stockpile rewards even faster.

How you earn

With the Explorer card, you earn miles with every purchase.

You’ll earn 2X miles on the following purchases:

  • United purchases, including flights and incidentals
  • Restaurant purchases
  • Eligible delivery services (like Grubhub, Caviar, Seamless and DoorDash)
  • Hotel accommodations booked directly with the hotel

All other purchases made with the United Explorer card earn 1 mile per dollar.

Being able to earn 2X miles for dining and at any hotel you book directly with is a nice touch and gives the card more value. Not all airline cards offer boosted rewards for purchases made beyond the airline or its partners.

How to redeem

Primary cardholders can take advantage of United’s impressive network of domestic and international routes to book award flights on any dates without restrictions as long as seats are available. Plus, your MileagePlus miles never expire.

Miles can also be transferred to any of United’s incredibly long list of transfer partners. This includes more than two dozen other airlines that have come together with United to form the Star Alliance. This is the largest airline alliance in the world, giving you greater flexibility to find the best value when redeeming your miles.

In addition to flights, Mileage Plus miles can be redeemed in a number of other ways, including for hotel stays, car rentals, cruises and gift cards. But since the redemption value for these options can be considerably lower, it’s best to redeem your miles for flights.

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Thrillseekers and other travel enthusiasts looking to squeeze as much value as possible out of their MileagePlus miles can take advantage of United’s Excursionist Perk. This benefit lets you add a free stopover to your tickets, but you’ll need to jump through some hoops to enjoy it. You’ll have to fly to a different, MileagePlus-defined region because this feature doesn’t work on domestic flights. There are more limitations, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to pack in multiple destinations on one flight—a great benefit for explorers eager to see more of the world.

How much are points worth?

Like most airlines these days, United has a dynamic pricing structure for its flights. So the number of miles needed to redeem for a flight will vary depending on your destination, when you book, the type of award flight, cabin accommodations and more. That said, United MileagePlus miles are worth around 1.3 cents per mile when redeemed for flights, according to the most recent valuation by The Points Guy.

Other cardholder perks

In addition to miles earned on purchases, the United Explorer Card offers major travel benefits. Lounge access and in-flight perks make traveling a little more luxurious, and all of the protection benefits can help cover you when something goes wrong.

Free first checked bag

Checking a bag one-way on United usually can cost up to $35 per person. But as a cardholder, you and up to one other traveler on your reservation can check your first bags for free.

Priority boarding

You and anyone else on your reservation can board your United-operated flight before general passengers.

Chance to earn Premier status

For every $12,000 you spend with the Explorer card, you’ll earn 500 Premier qualifying points (PQP). The more PQPs you earn, the closer you get to achieving Premier status, which comes with elevated travel experiences. As a Premier member, you can enjoy perks like complimentary access to Economy Plus, waived fees, upgrades and priority travel services.

You can only earn 1,000 PQPs in a calendar year, but you can earn premier status with PQPs or with a combination of PQPs and premier qualifying flights (PQF). If you’re only using PQPs to qualify, you’ll need 3,500 PQPs to reach the first level, Premier Silver, and 15,000 PQPs to reach the top level, Premier 1K status.

Global Entry or TSA Precheck fee credit

Every four years, you can receive a statement credit of up to $100 for reimbursement of application fees for Global Entry or TSA Precheck — a must for frequent flyers.

Two United Club one-time passes

After opening your account and on each account anniversary, United Explorer cardholders get two one-time passes for the United Club, United’s airport lounge. Amenities include travel assistance, free Wi-Fi and refreshments. United values this access at over $100 per year.

25 percent back on United® in-flight purchases

Whether you’re buying a snack or need Wi-Fi for your trip, cardholders qualify for 25 percent back as a statement credit on in-flight purchases made on United flights.

Travel protection

The Explorer card comes with numerous travel protections that can help save you money and give you peace of mind if your travel doesn’t go as planned. This includes insurance for trip cancellation and trip interruption, which reimburses you up to $1,500 per person and $6,000 per trip if your trip is canceled for certain reasons. It also has baggage delay, which covers you for essential purchases you have to make when your luggage is delayed for six or more hours. Plus, if your trip is delayed or your luggage is lost, you can get a reimbursement up to a certain amount per passenger.

Rates and fees

After your first year, the annual fee for this card is $95. Not every airline card waives the fee for the first year, so this can be a valuable incentive to give the United Explorer card a try.

The Explorer card doesn’t charge fees for foreign transactions. And the APR for both purchases and balance transfers is typical for a travel rewards card, ranging from 19.49 percent to 26.49 percent variable, depending on your creditworthiness.

For balance transfers, you’ll pay the greater of $5 or 5 percent of the total transaction. Airline and travel credit cards typically charge a higher balance transfer fee and—like the United Explorer—lack 0% intro APR offers. So if you’re looking to move some debt to a new card, it’s best to look for either a dedicated balance transfer card or a general-purpose rewards or cash back card that has an intro APR offer on balance transfers.

How the United Explorer Card compares to other travel cards

Airline credit cards make the most sense if you’re a loyalist of the brand and its partners. But if you’re not loyal to United or airlines in general, here are two other cards that may be a better fit.

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United℠ Explorer Card

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4.1
See Rates & Fees, Terms Apply

Annual fee

$0 Intro for First Year, then $95.

Intro offer

60,000 Bonus Miles

Rewards rate

1X–2X

Recommended credit

Good to Excellent(670 - 850)
American Express Image

Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card

Annual fee

$0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $99

Intro offer

40,000 Miles

Rewards rate

1X–2X

Recommended credit

Good to Excellent(670 - 850)
Capital One Image

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

Annual fee

$95

Intro offer

75,000 miles

Rewards rate

2X–5X

Recommended credit

Good to Excellent(670 - 850)

United Explorer Card vs. Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card

If you like the perks of the Explorer card but aren’t sure if United is the right airline for you, the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card is another personal travel card with a great welcome offer and similar annual fee.

The Delta SkyMiles Gold edges out the Explorer in a few key areas. It has better everyday value because on top of 2X miles for dining purchases, cardmembers also earn bonus miles at U.S. supermarkets. Plus, the welcome offer is a bit easier to obtain: You’ll only need to spend $2,000 in your first six months to earn 40,000 bonus miles. You also get the first checked bag free for up to nine passengers per reservation, which is significantly larger than United’s two-person limit.

On the other hand, the United Explorer Card makes things easier for its cardmembers. It has more travel partners to choose from, and you won’t have to do anything extra to earn the annual credits and club passes. Just keep your account open. With the Delta SkyMiles Gold, you have to spend $10,000 each year before earning the $100 Delta flight credit.

Despite the differences, both cards have many of the same perks that make them solid picks among airline cards with modest annual fees. The choice will likely come down to which features matter most to you and which airline is most convenient.

United Explorer Card vs. Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

If you prefer to just shop for the best airfare and don’t pay much attention to the airline you fly, then a travel rewards credit card could be better.

The Capital One Venture Rewards card earns an unlimited 2X miles on all of your eligible purchases. That gives you more chances to earn rewards, especially on your everyday purchases like groceries, gas and all of your other expenses.

The Venture Rewards card also offers 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel. Compared to the United Explorer and other cards that only offer 2X miles in a few bonus categories and 1X miles on all other purchases, the Venture’s high-earning travel categories, combined with a flat rate of 2X on everything else, will make it easier to rack up miles.

There are a couple of downsides to the Venture Card. It lacks specific airline perks like free checked bags. It has two free lounge visits per year, only valid at Capital One Lounges or at 100+ Plaza Premium Lounges through their Partner Lounge Network. But the card’s flexibility and high flat rate on all purchases should appeal to occasional and frequent flyers who aren’t tied to one airline.

Best cards to pair with this card

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is a general travel rewards credit card that lets users transfer points at a 1:1 ratio to United and many other loyalty programs. It comes with an impressive rewards program that earns bonus points in both travel and everyday spending categories. This includes 5X points on all travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards and 3X points on dining, online grocery stores and select streaming services.

Considering travel includes a broad mix of areas like airfare, hotels, rideshares, parking and car rentals, the Sapphire Preferred makes it far easier to earn high rewards on travel purchases—rewards which can then be transferred to United. Meanwhile, you can use your United Explorer card to take advantage of the airline perks that aren’t offered with the Sapphire Preferred, like the free checked bag and 25-percent discount on in-flight purchases.

Bankrate’s Take: Is the United Explorer Card worth it?

The United Explorer Card might be the best United credit card for avid travelers who find themselves traveling on United-operated flights or who already have miles with the United MileagePlus program. And thanks to its impressive list of airline-specific perks and $0 intro annual fee, the card also has a lot of potential for new or occasional travelers who don’t mind sticking with one airline.

*All information about the United Quest℠ Card review: Credits, United Explorer Card, United Club Infinite card has been collected independently by Bankrate and has not been reviewed or approved by the issuer.

For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Gold card, please click here.