I’ve always had a major wanderlust, and started to visit far-flung destinations as a young adult. However, with no established credit history I had to use savings. The cash-only system meant I was not only forfeiting consumer protections that come with credit cards, but it left me vulnerable in emergency situations. For example, I was once robbed of every baht I had in Thailand and had to sell my clothes for food and a sweltering, bedbug-infested room in Bangkok. Clearly a credit card would have been helpful!
So I built up my credit rating and researched the best travel credit cards. When I learned that Chase’s United℠ Explorer Card offered 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 in the first 3 months, plus a whole slew of other perks, I was excited to apply. It has a $95 annual fee, but Chase waives it in the first year, so it was nice to put that cost off.
Big bonus, small spend
One of the best aspects of the United Explorer Card is the relatively low minimum spend to earn the welcome bonus (worth about $450 in travel). At just $2,000, I knew I could charge that amount in three months after opening the account. I didn’t need to buy unnecessary things, and instead just put my normal expenses on the card, then paid the bill in full.
After scoring my bonus, I kept using the card to maximize the rewards. I charged everything that was within my budget and let the miles accumulate. For things like groceries, hair cuts, clothes, and movies I earn 1 mile for every dollar I spend with the card. But restaurant meals, flights, and hotel rooms really drive the rewards up, since they are 2 miles for each dollar I charge.
After having the card for about a year I collected enough miles for a trip for two to Mexico—all for charging what I was going to spend with cash anyway. That was the first of many free flights.
This card was also attractive because it’s affiliated with United Airlines, which has its hub in San Francisco, my home city. United flies pretty much everywhere, domestically and internationally, so it helps me avoid changing planes. I’ve always had great service experiences with United and wanted to have a credit card that rewarded me for flying with them. It’s super simple to use the miles for flights. The United website shows the price in dollars and miles, so I’ll know right away if I have enough to redeem the rewards.
Every year this card gives two passes to the United Club airport lounge. When I fly across the country or outside the U.S., having free access to the lounge is fantastic. It’s especially helpful during long and unexpected delays, as I can work or relax in peace and enjoy something to eat and drink.
Some of my favorite moments have been traveling with my daughter, and heading over to the Club to start the vacation off right. When I first got my card, the Club passes were paper and I’d have to be sure to find and bring them with me. Now they’re now delivered electronically which is a huge improvement.
Free checked bag
Whenever possible I bring my luggage on board the plane because I loathe waiting at the baggage carousel, however sometimes I can’t bring everything in a carry-on. As a (very) amateur hockey player, I’ve flown to places like Montreal, Canada for adult hockey camps. Obviously I can’t bring a large bag of gear into the cabin. Being able to check it at no extra charge saves me $35 each way.
And when I pay for someone else’s ticket with my card and travel with that person, their first bag is also complimentary. That saves a grand total of $14, which I’m much happier to spend on a nice meal or tickets to a game or a show.
Something not advertised are the fun special events that come up every now and then. For example, back in 2016, Chase sent a message to all their cardholders announcing the Chase United VIP Lounge. It was located in the Westfield San Francisco Centre during the Christmas season and anyone with a Chase card could go. The lounge was full of comfortable seating, stocked with sodas, coffees and snacks, and there was festive music playing. It was a really special experience.
And of course, the ability to charge necessities in a crisis, especially when I’m far from home, is crucial. If I had my United Explorer Card with me in Thailand all those years ago I wouldn’t have ended the vacation on such a sour note—and would have kept all my jeans.