United Mileage Plus Explorer Credit Card Review
Take a close look at what experts and consumers are saying about this popular travel rewards card to see whether it makes sense for you.
Many people tend to think about travel narrowly in terms of flying. Yet any seasoned traveler will tell you that to travel well has as much to do with the airport and destination experience, as it does the in-flight one. The stress is checking in and getting to your seat, not the flight.
Chase and United Airlines had this complete travel experience in mind when they launched the MileagePlus Explorer awards card in 2011, just after United merged with Continental Airlines to become the third-largest in the nation.
On top of a generous sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles, which is enough for a round-trip ticket to many of the carrier's 337 destinations in 54 countries, the card earns two miles per dollar on all United flights purchased through the airline and one mile per dollar on other spending.
Furthermore, unlike general travel rewards cards, the MileagePlus Explorer offers specific United Airlines perks, such as access to the United Club in airports and free checked baggage. With no foreign transaction fees, it's a smart card to use abroad. It charges a $95 annual fee.
This card is a great choice if you:
- Fly on United regularly
- Buy tickets directly through United
- Check bags at the airport
- Travel frequently abroad
- Are likely to spend $25,000 annually
5 things to know about the United MileagePlus Explorer card:
- The bonus miles can be lucrative. Cardmembers can earn up to 65,000 miles in the first year. That's a free round-trip ticket to Europe if you're not careful.
- It offers great airport perks: two free United Club passes annually, free checked bags, and priority boarding.
- Award miles can be used on any United Airlines flight or any of its 28 Star Alliance partners.
- It charges a $95 annual fee, including the first year.
- It has no foreign transaction fees.
1. Should you get the card?
If United is your airline of choice, then the United MileagePlus Explorer card is the perfect compliment i.e. it's worth it. The card simply makes flying with United easier, with free checked bags, priority boarding, and access to the United Club (two passes per year).
The 50,000-mile sign-up bonus is enough for a domestic round-trip, which means immediate rewards that few cards can compare with. Big spenders who can take advantage of the annual 10,000-mile bonus will get the most out of this card. So will savvy travelers who book reward tickets in advance or maximize their points through the United shopping app.
That being said, if you're looking for more airline choices, a non-affiliated rewards card is a better bet. The Chase Sapphire Preferred card is popular for its hefty sign-up bonus and flexible rewards. It earns Chase Ultimate Rewards points, which can be transferred to the United MileagePlus program.
2. Key Strengths
Experts agree that the best things about the Explorer card are its accessible flight rewards, various mileage bonuses, and airline perks.
You get some pretty hefty mileage bonuses with the United MileagePlus Explorer card. It's especially great for big spenders who can take advantage of the 10,000-point annual bonus by spending $25,000 on the card.
Reviewing the card for HighYa, JR Durbin says that compared with other cards, the United rewards are reasonable.
"You can find round-trip flights starting at 25,000 miles, which is a great deal considering you get 50,000 bonus miles if you hit the spending limit with your MileagePlus Explorer card."
Typical travel reward cards offer general rewards, like getting you bumped from economy to business class, but lack the flexibility to help you at the boarding gate.
The United MileagePlus Explorer card goes above and beyond, offering free checked bags, priority boarding, and two annual club passes—benefits that similar cards simply don't match.
3. Biggest Weaknesses
The United MileagePlus Explorer card does have its downsides, compared with, say, Chase's own offerings. Its mile redemption program offers little flexibility among airlines and introductory fees aren't waived.
The United MileagePlus Explorer card only earns miles for United and Star Alliance flights. If you want more flexibility, it's not the best choice. And even if you fly United often, the Explorer card might not be the best card when you dig into the details, says Scott Mackenzie on Travel Codex.
"The Sapphire Preferred is a better way to go for earning United miles in the form of Ultimate Rewards points…[It] includes a 7% annual dividend so that you actually earn 2.14 points per dollar.
You'll earn these miles faster because that same 2.14X bonus applies to all travel — United, other airlines, hotels, car rentals, and even restaurants.
You can transfer your Ultimate Rewards points to United at any time, and even choose to transfer them to your spouse's account with no fee."
Checked baggage… with a catch
The free first checked bag is a great deal and covers the $95 annual fee if you take four flights a year. But that's only if you fly United. If you don't make use of this perk, or the two club passes, it may not justify the annual fee.
To get the most out of the card, you need to spend $25,000 in a calendar year and get the 10,000-point annual bonus. Otherwise, it will be hard to build up miles with only a one mile per $1 reward on most purchases. If you're not a big spender, this may not be the best card for you.
No introductory fee or APR offers
While the MileagePlus card has a great sign-up bonus, there are few other introductory offers. There's no waived annual fee in the first year, as many other cards offer, and no introductory 0% APR.
Strict application rules
For people seeking to max out Chase's many reward cards, there's a catch. The company has a so-called 5/24 rule that denies applications from anyone who has opened five or more accounts in the past 24 months.
4. Alternative Cards to Consider
The main competitors to the MileagePlus Explorer card are other airline-branded cards, such as the American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles card and the Citi/AAdvantage World Elite Mastercard.
The best card largely depends on what airline you use the most. If you live near a United hub like Newark or Los Angeles, it is likely a better choice for you. While if you're in Detroit, a Delta card will be a better bet.
However, there are some other differences to consider. Both the SkyMiles and AAdvantage cards waive the annual fee for the first year, a savings of $95 over the Explorer card. Both also offer free checked baggage and priority boarding.
Where the United MileagePlus Explorer card stands out is its United Club access, which includes free beer, wine, snacks, and wifi, among other perks. The card provides two free passes every year (a $118 value), while the American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles only gives you a discount to the Delta Skyclub lounge, and the Citi/AAdvantage World Elite Mastercard doesn't include any lounge access.
5. Biggest Consumer Complaints
19 users rated the card 3.6 out of 5 stars on Credit Karma, with most of the reviews tending to the poles.
Mediocre airport perks. The most helpful negative review, by a user named crabspy, writes that
"The priority boarding benefit lets you board as a Group 2 member which is good if you have carry on bags that you place in the overhead storage. The lounge passes are pretty ehhh especially with what is in the lounge. If you are flying solo you have to fly 2 round trips to break even with the annual fee if you are checking 1 bag."
Poor customer service. A number of users, including one anonymous user, writes that "You can't speak with Chase Customer Service – they direct you to mileage plus explorer (worst customer service) and send you back and forth between chase and mileage plus."
Trouble redeeming points. User FryingDutchman writes that "Redemption is through the mileage plus people and I'm not wasting one more minute of my life on this card to explain how bad their service is and how difficult it was to plan trips around restrictions. Hours on the phone every trip. You've been warned."
More generally, thanks to United's 2017 public relations disaster—when a man on an overbooked flight was dragged off violently—the airline itself may be the biggest consumer complaint. According to CNN, some United cardmembers are cutting their plastic in protest.
6. Overview of the Card
The reason most of us get an airline card is for the travel rewards and on that front, the United MileagePlus Explorer can be a sweet deal. The card earns two miles per $1 spent on United and one mile on all other purchases.
With travel benefits on United flights, generous mileage bonuses, and easy-to-redeem rewards, it's a good choice for frequent fliers on United.
United Travel Benefits
The United MileagePlus Explorer card stands out from general travel cards because of its airport benefits. Every year, cardholders get two United Club passes, worth $118, free checked bags worth up to $100 per round-trip flight, and priority boarding access.
United Club passes. Access to an airport lounge makes waiting for your flight infinitely more bearable—especially if there are delays.
United Clubs have comfortable seats, wi-fi, newspapers and magazines, private phone booths, and, in some locations, showers. Best of all: free wine, beer, and snacks.
While another card, the Chase United MileagePlus Club card, includes full United Club membership, it also costs $450 per year. If you only fly occasionally, two club passes, offered by the Explorer card are enough.
Gray Cargill, a travel blogger at Solo Friendly, writes that as a budget traveler, she would have never had access to the exclusive lounges without the Explorer card.
Her verdict of the Newark lounge? "Clean, convenient, comfortable, and much quieter than the rest of the airport. In short, my experience was very positive."
The only bummers were the paltry snack selection and crappy free beer choices. But you can pay extra for better booze.
Free checked bags and priority boarding. Now that airlines regularly charge for checked bags, it's a relief to be able to skip yet another extra fee. United normally charges $25 for the first checked bag.
The primary MileagePlus Explorer cardholder and a companion get that fee waived. That's up to a $50 savings on every flight. If you fly United often, it pays for the $95 annual fee.
Cardholders also get to board their United flight ahead of the general boarding call, which means you'll get first dibs on overhead storage.
Here's the catch: you have to book your flight using the Explorer card in order to get the free checked bag and priority boarding. Since you earn two miles on United flight purchases, it makes sense to do so anyway. (Even if you use your Explorer card and the miles to book an awards ticket, you still need to pay any taxes and fees).
Generous mileage bonuses
If you use the United MileagePlus card enough in the first year, you can earn a whopping 65,000 miles. That's enough to fly round-trip from the continental US to South America or Europe — around an $800 value based on economy seat prices to London.
Otherwise, you earn two miles per $1 spent on United and one mile per $1 spent on all other purchases. Unlike some other travel reward cards, there are no other special earning categories.
It's not the best point allocation, but the mileage bonuses make up for it.
There are three mileage bonuses:
Sign-up bonus: Earn 50,000 miles when you spend $3,000 in the first three months.
Authorized user bonus: Earn 5,000 miles when you add an authorized user in the first three months.
Big spending bonus: Earn 10,000 miles when you spend $25,000 in a calendar year.
According to Nick Ewen, writing for The Points Guy, this is "incredibly lucrative," especially compared with the standard 30,000 miles that many cards offer. He calls it a good value proposition.
By comparison, the Delta Gold SkyMiles from American Express awards 30,000 bonus miles for spending $3,000 in the first four months, with occasional promotions that are more lucrative. That's a one-way ticket to Europe.
The Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard is of similar value to the United card, awarding 60,000 miles for spending $3,000 in the first three months. That's a round-trip flight to Europe.
Keep in mind that these mile bonuses are only worth it if you are able to pay off your credit card bill each month. You should never spend beyond your means simply to score points. Otherwise, it's cheaper just to pay cash for flights.
MileagePlus is an excellent rewards program. For 12 straight years, readers of Global Traveler Magazine have rated United MileagePlus the Best Overall Frequent-Flyer Program.
They have also awarded it the Best Frequent-Flyer Bonus Program and one of the best for reward redemption.
United miles can get you all over the world. The airline flies to 337 destinations in 54 countries. Since United is a member of the Star Alliance, MileagePlus awards can also be redeemed on 28 partner airlines that span 191 countries.
United miles are easy to redeem on United.com using your MileagePlus number. Its interactive award chart shows how far your miles can take you.
Although United devalued its award miles in 2014, there are still good deals available, especially if you keep an eye on featured Saver awards with extra availability.
To get the best value out of your miles, plan ahead. Saver awards go for nearly half of the Standard award level mile allotment. For instance, a one-way Saver ticket from New York to Hawaii is only 22,500 miles, while a Standard ticket is 45,000.
Standard awards can be booked for any seat, anytime, which takes out the hassle involved in many mileage redemption programs. There are no blackout dates, but Saver tickets do have limited availability.
Be savvy and look for "sweet spots" when using your award miles, advises Caroline Lupini on Frugal Travel Guy:
"Since the award chart treats the entire mainland continent of North America as a single zone, that means you can score some pretty great value on flights to and from Canada. Basically, you can fly round-trip from anywhere in the US, to anywhere in the continental US or Canada, for as low as 20,000 miles or 25,000 miles for distances of more than 700 miles."
The program is even better with the Explorer card. United keeps extra award seats for cardholders, so you'll be able to get a better deal.
Normally, United miles expire after 18 months of inactivity. That never happens when you use the United MileagePlus Explorer card.
Miles can also be redeemed on hotels, restaurants, car rental, United Club membership, business class upgrades.
Hotel and event benefits
Like many Chase cards, the MileagePlus Explorer gets you nice benefits with the Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection. You can use your MileagePlus Explorer card to book a stay at one of its 900 properties worldwide, and enjoy nice perks, such as:
- Complimentary breakfast for two
- Free wi-fi
- Room upgrade, if available
- Early check-in or late check-out, if available
- With Inside Access, get access to exclusive ticket deals for food, cultural, and athletic events nationwide. (Recent events have included a chocolate experience with pastry chef Jacques Torres, a round of golf at Pebble Beach, and a chance to meet Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon).
Cardholders also get a special benefit depending on the property, which can be pretty sweet.
For instance, at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York, you'll get a $100 food and beverage credit to use at the Jade or Rose Bars, or toward in-room dining. The Ritz Paris provides round-trip limousine transfers from the airport.
Chase's Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection is very similar to American Express Platinum Fine Hotels & Resorts. The Amex portfolio has over 975 properties, slightly more than Chase's portfolio.
Omar Zaman did a comparison for Travel Codex and found little difference. Amex FHR is perhaps slightly less expensive and offers more options, but it's debatable which program is better overall.
Travel and purchase protections
The United MileagePlus Explorer card comes with a slew of travel protections—such as trip cancellation insurance and lost luggage reimbursement—plus purchase protections.
Travel protections. If you use the United MileagePlus Explorer card while traveling, you're likely going to be covered for anything that goes awry.
Like many travel cards, the MileagePlus Explorer card offers trip delay reimbursement. If your flight is delayed more than 12 hours—even if it's not a United flight—you will be covered for meals and lodging purchased with the card, up to $500 per ticket.
There's also baggage delay insurance ($100 a day for 3 days), lost luggage reimbursement (up to $3,000 per passenger), and trip cancellation insurance (reimbursement up to $10,000).
When you charge a rental to the United MileagePlus Explorer card, you automatically get primary collision damage insurance. Most credit cards offer secondary rental insurance coverage as well.
Important to note! Primary insurance means it will apply before your own car insurance, so you won't always have to file a claim with your insurance company and risk higher premiums.
Make sure you decline the rental company's insurance in order for this benefit to kick in. This can save you around $30 a day.
Purchase Protections. It's smart to use the United MileagePlus Explorer card when making purchases, especially pricey ones. You can claim up to $10,000 on items that are damaged or stolen within 120 days of purchase.
As a cardmember, you can be reimbursed if the price drops on an item you bought with the card. You can also be reimbursed for returns. If a store won't take an item back within 90 days, you can be reimbursed up to $500.
7. Credit Limits, Rates and Fees
The United MileagePlus Explorer card has similar fees and APR to other travel rewards cards. With no foreign transaction fees, it's a good option for people who go abroad regularly.
Mandatory fees. The annual fee of $95 is not waived during the first year. By comparison, both the American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles card and the Citi/AAdvantage World Elite Mastercard cost $0 the first year and $95 thereafter.
Don't fret though. If you fly regularly with United, which would make sense if you're considering the card, the free checked bag perk will pay for the annual fee in the long run.
Foreign transaction fee. Like most travel reward cards, the United MileagePlus Explorer card doesn't charge a foreign transaction fee, so you can use the card when traveling to get the best exchange rate, rather than losing a small percentage at a currency converter service.
Balance transfer fee. Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater. This percentage is slightly higher than the SkyMiles or AAdvantage cards.
Cash advance fee. Either $10 or 5% of the amount of each transaction, whichever is greater. This is higher than the SkyMiles card but the same as what AAdvantage charges.
APR and balance transfers. The United MileagePlus Explorer card charges 16.74% to 23.74% APR depending on your creditworthiness. The APR is the same for balance transfers. Cash advance APR is 25.74%. (These numbers vary with the market based on the Prime Rate).
Better than others? This is a bit less than what the American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles card and the Citi/AAdvantage World Elite Mastercard charge. However, there's no introductory offer on balance transfer APR, which some cards have. For instance, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard has a 0% balance transfer APR for the first 12 months.
Credit line. Anyone approved for the card gets a minimum credit line of $5,000. That is on par with competitors. Credit lines depend on your credit score and income, so this will vary user to user.
8. Website, App and Digital Services
Cardholders can access their charges and account statements on the easy-to-use Chase.com. They can also securely manage their account through Chase Mobile Banking, the company's smartphone app.
Most users find Chase Mobile Banking easy to use. With over a million reviews on Google Play, it has 4.6/5 rating.
One user writes: "It's made for simple minded people like me, so that we can understand how to use it."
The United MileagePlus website is easy to use to earn, track, and redeem miles. An interactive award chart helps you calculate the number of miles you need to take a flight.
It also has an online MileagePlus shopping portal where you can earn extra miles on purchases.
MileagePlus X app
Released in 2014, the MileagePlus X app lets you rack up extra points when you shop. You can earn 3, 4, or 5 times as many points per dollar on purchases made through the app at participating stores, restaurants, and websites.
This applies to any MileagePlus member, but when you have the Explorer card, you'll get a 25% bonus on top. These miles can add up quickly.
On The Points Guy, Ryan Martin broke down how he was able to pay for a round-trip flight to Hawaii by using the app to make everyday purchases:
He spent about $4,500 in a year on restaurants offered in the app and earned 32,625 miles. Other purchases brought the total number of miles to 52,775 in a year.
9. How to Apply
Right now is a great time to sign up for the United MileagePlus Explorer card, since it offers a 50,000-mile sign-up bonus. It's always wise to keep an eye out for other promotions in the future.
According to Huffington Post, applicants need a good credit score, above 650 on average.
10. How to Close Your Account
To close your Chase credit card, call the customer service number: 1-800-432-3117. You can't close it online. If you're on the fence, it's worth asking whether you can get a retention bonus or if you can downgrade the card to keep your credit line intact.
If you cancel your United MileagePlus Explorer card, you will get to keep all miles that have transferred to your MileagePlus account. They will expire after 18 months of inactivity, according to the loyalty program's rules.
Is United MileagePlus a credit card?
United MileagePlus is a loyalty program open to anyone. When you fly United, you can earn frequent flier miles through the program. The Chase United MileagePlus Explorer card is a credit card that accrues miles on United for use through the program.
Will my miles expire if I cancel the card?
No. The miles will be in your MileagePlus account for you to use. However, they will expire if they go unused for 18 months, in accordance with the loyalty program's rules. So you just have to redeem or earn more miles before then.
How do I get a free checked bag?
The primary cardholder has to buy United Airlines tickets using the card, not an authorized user. Both the primary cardholder and a travel companion on the same reservation are eligible to check their first bag for free.
Does it make sense to get the Chase Sapphire Preferred with the United Mileage Plus Explorer card to maximize benefits flying with United?
Taking out a card just for the sign-up bonus is not generally recommended. You're going to have to pay two annual fees, if you keep the cards and lose the bonus after the first year. But if you can stomach the annual fees or have a plan to keep one and cancel the other, after earning the sign-up bonus, which takes spending $7,000 in three months to qualify, then it's not the worse idea. But should you put $7k on your credit cards in three months?
Can I exchange my Chase Freedom credit card for a United MileagePlus Explorer card?
It appears that you can only exchange the Freedom card for a Sapphire Reserve or Preferred card. Although, calling customer service (1-800-432-3117) to appeal your case can't hurt. Consumers have noted that if they do the exchange, they won't get the sign-up bonus, but have the annual fee waived for the first year.
What happens if I can't spend $3k in 3 months?
You'll lose the sign-up bonus and you'll still have to pay the annual fee. So, make sure you can spend $3k! Occasionally, there may be an special offer to have the annual fee waived for the first year. Check the offer carefully to confirm.
Do my United Club lounge passes work overseas or with other Star Alliance members?
Nope. Passes are not valid for use at United Arrivals Lounges, United Global First Lounges or Star Alliance Lounges. To see where they do work, check out United Club locations.
So, you like travel reward cards?
then you'll probably enjoy taking a look at these reviews and articles:
- Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card Review 2017
- Top Credit Card Choices for Frequent Flyers
- Signs You Need Help With Credit Cards
Do you have the Explorer card by United?
How do those Club passes work for you?
I'd love to know how you feel.
Tell me in the comment section below.