The United MileagePlus Explorer Card: Keep Or Cancel?

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As I mentioned previously, over the coming days and weeks you’ll see the occasional post from a fellow reader who has applied to write for OMAAT on an ongoing basis. It’s possible that posts will still be in the publication queue after we’ve announced our decision, so we’ll be publishing these anonymously. We hope you enjoy the different perspectives!


Like many of you, sometimes my main motivation in picking up a new credit card is the sign-up bonus. I applied for the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card about a year ago — primarily to boost my United balance — and didn’t look at the other benefits in as much detail. I recently re-evaluated the card to decide whether or not to keep it, and thought a summary of the process would make for a good OMAAT piece.

Today, the public bonus for the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card is 40,000 miles (worth about $560) and the $95 fee for the first year is waived, which is still a decent way to boost your United miles account.

But once you’ve gotten the card – and are still willing to fly them after their horrific customer service showings of 2017 and 2018, just to name a few incidents – the question for consumers becomes:

Are the card’s benefits worth the $95 fee each year?

At first glance, if you don’t get value out of free checked bags or occasional access to United lounges (which some might argue is a dubious benefit, but that is another post), it may not appear as useful to keep long-term.

But as aspiring minimalists who often travel to or from a small airport, my partner and I have found it surprisingly useful. Deciding whether to keep or cancel it wasn’t as easy as we thought.

Obvious costs and benefits

We started out by comparing the primary perks to the cost of the card.

1. Free checked bag(s)

If you check bags with any regularity, you could cover the cost of the card right there. Use the card to purchase the ticket, and you (and one companion on the same reservation) get one free checked bag on United flights.

If you and a companion take just one round trip a year, the checked bag fee would be $100, which covers the cost of the card. My partner and I travel light whenever possible, though, and we haven’t checked a bag while traveling in years, so that didn’t factor into our calculations.

2. Two free lounge passes

If you only travel once or twice a year (and you don’t have a card that offers Priority Pass), then perhaps you also value access to United’s lounges on those occasions. Rather than pay $59 per lounge visit, those two lounge passes can offset the card’s fee.

In general, however, we’ve found United lounges to be lackluster, and we have Priority Passes that allow us to access nicer lounges, so there isn’t much value for us here, either.

3. Bonus points for online shopping

If you’re a frequent online shopper, you can get two more points per dollar spent if you use United’s shopping portal and pay with the card.

But at the current valuation of United Miles, you’d have to spend more than $3,000 in a year to break even. Depending on your online shopping habits, this could be feasible on its own, but keep in mind that for some purchases there may be better cards to use at any given time.

For instance, if making a purchase on staples.com via the United portal, you could earn 3x points per dollar if you used the Chase Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card, giving 50% more value than the 2x points you would earn with the Explorer card.

4. Bonus points and status for big spenders

Lastly, if you spend more than $25,000 a year on the card, you will also get a 10,000-point bonus. And by spending $25,000 on the card in a given year, United waives the Premier Qualifying Dollars requirement for Premier Silver, Premier Gold, and Premier Platinum qualification, which may be useful for frequent United flyers.

As graduate students, though, my partner and I don’t even come close to spending $25,000 a year on all our credit cards, let alone on one card.

All this seems to point to canceling the Explorer card, right?

Unpacking the intangibles

Not necessarily.

When thinking about whether to keep the card, we’ve found that some of the most valuable perks of the MileagePlus Explorer card aren’t as easily calculated, and our favorite is having better access to economy award availability on United flights (partner award availability is not increased with the card).

With the card, we have found more saver award availability on more days, and better connections or positioning for international flights.

Award calendar example without the Chase MileagePlus Explorer card
Award calendar example with the Chase MileagePlus Explorer card

Recently, for example, I was searching for an award trip from London back to the US.

I found that when searching united.com without logging in, flights to Charlottesville (our home base) only had single stop routes with 15+ hours of layover, or two-stop routes over 14 hours in duration. Not fun, no matter how good the lounge.

However, if I logged into my account connected to the Explorer card, I could see award availability with only one stop and a reasonable layover.

Without the card, we would have to spend an extra six hours of traveling or have an unnecessary extra stop. Provided you’re flying economy on United, the card appears to really help connect the dots when traveling from small-to-mid-market airports, especially when traveling internationally on a Star Alliance partner.

Even for larger market airports, the card can give you access to nonstops that might not otherwise be available to you, such as this London to Dulles route on the same day as my other searches.

You might be able to quantify that intangible value by calculating the cost of parking at Dulles, or my time value, but I find the peace of mind of a tolerable layover and minimizing both connections and travel time to be priceless.

In addition to more efficient connections, another perk is getting a more preferential boarding group number on revenue tickets.

As someone who tries to pack light, I like to board early when flying economy to get my bag up top and allow my 5’11¾” frame to stretch out. I don’t dare put a price on that, although I’m sure someone could, theoretically.

Bottom line

All told, my partner and I have decided to keep the card for at least one more year. The big advantage that pushed us over the top was access to better award connections (especially coming from small-market Charlottesville) and ensuring overhead bin space by getting a higher boarding group on revenue tickets.

Those who travel light and out of major hubs where more frequent flights are available may not find these perks to be as valuable. That said, many others might find the card worth keeping just from the free checked bags, lounge access, and shopping portal perks.

Have you decided to keep or cancel the United card for different reasons?


As a reminder, this post was guest-written by a fellow reader. Feedback is appreciated, but please keep the comments kind and constructive.

Regarding Comments: The comments on this page have not been provided, reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser, and it is not an advertiser's responsibility to ensure posts and/or questions are answered.

Comments

  1. Well thought out and well written, but maybe not useful for the majority of OMAAT readers. I have a bet with the husband on how many “flying economy on UA what the h*ell?” comments you’re going to get. Anyway keep up the good writing but pick a better topic next time.

  2. And the ameri-centric approach of this blog continues…. sigh 🙁
    I would have thought some more internationalist posts would have made the cut, but I may be delusional.

  3. Varun, the reason this and so many other points blogs tend to be ameri-centric has to do with the United States’ laws on positive credit reporting. The fact that lenders can determine not just what American borrowers have done wrong in their credit history, but also what they *haven’t done*, means that they’re more willing to lend, which leads to credit cards with tons of perks and sign up bonuses that aren’t available internationally. While travel blogs can and should touch more on international travel, you’re not going to see that on OMAAT, TPG, or anywhere else that earns money by CC referral links.

  4. Perhaps the best written guest post. For all the United haters out there, just try using your AA miles sometime.

  5. I fly out of the Miami-Fort Lauderdale airports, so bigger cities but not United strongholds and noticed this as well. Award travel offerings dramatically improved when I signed in and my Explorer card ownership was taken into account. I agree with you that the $95 fee is worth it if only for this benefit.

  6. @Tommy yes! I can never use the AA miles for the flights I want. UAL has tons more availability. I have the old Presidential Plus Club card but it keeps earning & I keep burning those miles!

  7. I sold my 2 lounge passes on eBay for $40, increasing the value of this card. Plus, awards in economy for international track can’t be beat on *A. For example, a quick search from MSP>MUC 8/21-8/25 yielded 60k miles on UA/LH, while delta for the same dates was 112k, both in economy. I wish this card would offer 10k in MQM like delta does, though. I have both for various reasons, namely, not everywhere accepts AMEX, so having a visa in my wallet makes sense.

  8. Primary CDW on car rentals is the main reason I keep the card, in addition to increased saver award availability. Otherwise, it wouldn’t make the cut to keep it.

  9. I, for one, really appreciated this post. It was much better written than most of the prior guest posts, and I liked that it was written from a perspective that is not usually well represented on mileage blogs (low-income grad student – how refreshing to learn not everyone here spends $9,000 a month on their credit cards!).

    I also liked the focus on economy redemptions. Haters gonna hate, but a lot of us actually prefer to redeem our miles that way – either because we do not believe the perks of business class justify the additional expenditure, or because we travel with small children who are not going to appreciate those perks anyhow. More of this, please!

  10. *for the author* Very nice post!! I have a united explore card, however how do I know if I’m logged into your account with your explore card when looking at the award calendar? I normally sign into my account and when i look my account details I believe it has something on there about my credit card payments. Does this imply I am logged in?

    Thank you

  11. Well-written post, with sufficient information and the proper conclusion of keeping the card.

  12. I thought it was well written. I recently had a situation where AA cancelled a flight (had reserved 9 mos in advance) and I found availability for the day and time needed on AirCanada/UA only by having a UA card; while I don’t think either airline is known for customer service (maybe lack of customer service), AirCanada may charge for bags, and the fees were more than I would like, I still found 5 transcontinental seats for 12.5 k each on a direct routing when I needed them by having a UA card. If I recall, it even said on the UA site that the reservation featured special availability exclusively for UA card holders. (You captured this with your screen shots)

  13. sorry I don’t mean your* account i mean my* account. Sorry for my earlier post was confusing.

  14. Missing one benefit, the extra 25% in earning in the MileageplusX App for just having the card. You can use another card that earns more than 1 point per $, and get a double dip or triple dip by using the gift cards in a shopping portal (I look for the highest paying portal for the programs I use).

  15. You didn’t mention one of the biggest benefits for infrequent flyers, early boarding, carry-ons, and checked bags traveling on basic economy fares. If your not getting status anyways it’s hard to justify the upcharge for short flights.

  16. I agree that the XN award bucket is worth $95
    And not just for smaller airports

    We recently transferred UR points to MileagePlus to get from Europe to US in J.

    Vienna to MSP routings were all 26-40 hours! All because of a forced 12 hour layover in Chicago. (There are hourly flights between Chicago and MSP)

    The card opened up 14 hour routings instead (mixed redemption, Europe to Chicago in J then ORD to MSP in economy)

    Saving 12 hours? That’s worth $95 a year

  17. Chris says:
    March 28, 2018 at 8:54 am
    Missing one benefit, the extra 25% in earning in the MileageplusX App…

    What Chris said…+100. That added 25% could be a HUGE perk by itself if you regularly use the MileageplusX app. That and the increased award space make this card a no-brainer for someone like me stuck flying out of EWR.

  18. @ matthew

    the fares will appear as XN (which is how you know they are the special ones you have access to)

  19. The lounge pictured is the old SFO International First Lounge. Which is now only accessible to passengers booked in Polaris or *A business or higher. The lounge is not accessible via day passes, UC membership, or *A gold status.

  20. I like that there are addition articles written about economy section. Unfortunately many of us do not have million mile balances. Even with a moderate credit card sign ups, I cannot generate enough spend to maximize Amex blue business plus, freedom quarterly, etc.

    so to stretch the miles further and travel more often, I still do most of my travel in economy. so it’s nice to see some more posts and instructions on booking economy.

  21. I’ve seen this first hand. I recently had occasion to book some award travel for my father, who has this card.

    Before I had his log-in information, I took a gander at options and it was slim pickings. After I logged in as him, the options increased dramatically.

    I wound up booking he and his buddy on an LH non-stop that didn’t appear in my search 15 minutes earlier.

    I’d say that’s worth $95/year for folks that earn a lot of UA miles.

  22. You should mention that the Explorer card gets you out of United’s carry on restrictions for Basic Economy. With the spread between Basic and Regular being $25 each way (in my experience), two people on a round trip pays the annual fee.

  23. PHENOMENAL. I’ve been waiting for someone to breakdown this exact information! This is just what I needed. Thank you.

  24. Another option is to downgrade to the no annual fee ‘MileagePlus’ Card…it works for increased award availability, 25% bonus miles on MileagePlus X app, better rates for online shopping portal etc. Only downside is that you cant put any spend on it and you dont get the annual lounge passes.

  25. I may have missed mention of this, but for me the biggest reason to keep the card is the ability to receive CPU’s on award tickets when you pay for the convience fee with your Explorer card. I have been upgraded on award tickets many times with this benefit.

  26. Actually, the sign up bonus is 50,000 miles, assuming you’re already a Mileage Plus member.

  27. Sorry, I hit submit before finishing my thought. The bonus is 50,000 miles if you’re already a Mileage Plus Member; UAL is constantly sending me those offers via e- and snail mail, so I know. The 40,000 offer may be for new members or for a different membership or status tier, I suppose, but I don’t know that for sure, only what I’ve been offered. Also, from my own experience and from talking with United people at the airport, Mileage Plus members in general and cardholders in particular are often unofficially higher on the upgrade list. I know this from personal experience flying last November LAX-OGG where I was upgraded the night before flying – they contacted me and offered it, not the other way around. The shopping portal is also nice, and you can often snag extra bonus miles offers by using your card through the United portal. I’ve bought my last 3 PCs through their portal, and not only gotten discounts but earned in some cases double miles, more if using the card. The key is to really keep an eye out for these offers and specials and then maximizing your mileage return. In contrast, the shopping portals offered by other carriers are a bit anemic or restrictive. I’ve also experienced few issues redeeming my miles for flights, even on “tight” routes like California to Hawaii. Not so on other airlines. United has its flaws and faults, but this aspect of their business is actually pretty well run.

  28. I got a mailer offering 50,000 miles, offer expiring 3/31/2018. I just applied. I was not instantly approved but said they would mail me a decision. I fear rejection. I have good credit except that I applied to 4 Citi cards since December so 4 hard credit report inquires.

    I previously had a Chase MileagePlus Explorer card, but that was cancelled by me 5 years ago. I want to come back.

  29. This is a useful post — I went through the same thought process, and decided to keep the Explorer card (I already have a CSR) solely for the extra award availability. However, the author is wrong on a key point — you get the extra award availability from major airports also, and in business class as well.

    I just checked — I priced an award ticket IAD-HEL and it offers a few routings noted as “Exclusively available to you as a MileagePlus Chase Cardmember”.

    Generally, but not always, I found that those routes include some United metal availability that isn’t otherwise available, like if going to a destination UA doesn’t fly to directly, then it will open up an IAD-CDG or IAD-FRA flight, and then use a partner like LH for the second leg (the second leg being one where there was already availability to start with).

    Also on the topic of the free lounge passes, they are also useful in airports without any Priority Pass lounges, most notably DCA in my case, and I also use it at ATL. The PP options in ATL are either in the international terminal or an hourly stay, and UA’s lounge in ATL is surprisingly nice as it was recently renovated (no Polaris, of course!)

  30. I didn’t read through all the comments but a nice and rare benefit to the card is that the rental car insurance is PRIMARY, where as most cards it’s secondary. Meaning you must turn an accident into your insurance and then what your insurance does not cover you credit card covers. With the United card, they totally pick up the tab and your insurance is none the wiser!

  31. After getting the Chase Sapphire Reserve card last year, I decided that I wanted to get rid of the United card because of the annual fee and my new priority pass lounge access. Rather than totally getting rid of the card, I just called them and downgraded the card to one without an annual fee. After having done this, I logged in to book award travel. I had the same experience that you wrote about, of having more saver flights and better connections when logged in than when just on United.com and not logged in. Maybe I would have had even more options with the annual fee card, but at least it is helpful to know that more options do show up with any United card.

  32. Thank you so much for a very informative article!! I signed up for the MileagePlus Explorer card in Nov. 2017. I received a 60k Miles signup bonus as well as a $100 statement credit after my first purchase (which essentially covered my annual fee). As someone who flies quite often from EWR with United, the priority boarding has been well worth the $95 annual fee. It has given me peace of mind during the boarding process to know that I will be able to store my carry-on luggage on top and don’t need to check anything in (which makes it quick once I land). This card is well worth it for those near a United hub. Thank you again for a well-written and helpful article. As a fellow graduate student, this is an article I can relate to as I don’t spend thousands a year on my cc to fly business.

  33. How do you travel without checking a bag? Just wear the same outfit? Shoes? No liquids or razors or do you just keep buying the same stuff over and over again?

  34. I’ve kept the card for checked bag and couple lounge passes which are only worth redeeming domestically at newer lounges like Lax, which still pales compared to most foreign star alliance lounges, or if you get stuck with delay. Bigger question for me is that they only offer 2x miles for tickets whereas chase sapphire reserve is 3x.

  35. ^^ Kevin Wiiliamson above. How do you travel without checking a bag?

    Shoes is the way to save space. Bring a spare pair of shoes takes a lot of room.

    For men, if you don’t have to wear a suit, this saves space.

  36. For me, the best perk of the Mileage Plus card is no foreign transaction fees. These can really add up, and fewer CC have no foreign transaction fees.

  37. A very well-written post full of excellent information. I have been wondering whether to apply for a United card in the first place. I have been having trouble sorting out the advertised benefits of the card from the costs. This post helped me realize that the United card is not relevant for me. I think the post author’s decision-making process could be applied fruitfully to other cards, too, so it was doubly helpful for that reason.

  38. Jim said
    “you get the extra award availability from major airports also, and in business class as well.“

    Are you sure about this?
    For 6 months I’ve been looking at award space from US to Europe (using departing cities MSP, ORD, EWR, IAD, DCA, JFK, BOS, DTW… going to LON, CDG, ZRH, PRG, VIE, AMS, BCN, MAD,etc)…US to Thailand, and US to Australia and didn’t find any of that

    I did find better mixed redemptions as I said above such as VIE-ORD (in J) then extra flights ORD-MSP in XN

  39. Perhaps the most important benefit for me has not been mentioned. No forex transaction fees. The free card charges for forex. I more than cover the cost of the card with what I save on forex for overseas charges.

  40. I’ve had this credit card since 2012. Flew out EWR terminal C yesterday. Was refused entry to the clubs with my digital one-time pass at gate 74 and again at the pop-up at gate 124.
    I had to double-back to gate 71 to catch the shuttle bus to the terminal A club (where I was turned away months ago) but happily entered.
    With so many using this card and the closing of clubs to create Polaris lounges, access for us (especially around hubs) is getting harder…

  41. Great post, and perfectly timed. I’m coming up on my 1st annual fee for this card and am debating what to do. I got a whopping 70,000 mile bonus (+5000 for authorized user, plus 3000 generated by spend, so 78,000 all told) when I got the card a year ago. It was enough miles for that second ticket to take my Asian fiance home to Michigan for the summer (I live in Asia), plus the United Excursionist Perk extra stop on the West Coast. The main value I get from the card at this point is the extra booking availability. I didn’t know it also had extra perks when booking basic economy (thanks to everyone who mentioned this). I was wondering whether downgrading just to the MileagePlus Card would still get this perk, two comments above seem to say it does.

    Question for everyone: With the passes now coming in electronic form, there’s a good question as to whether they can still effectively be sold to and used by people buying online. Does anyone have any experience with this yet? Selling them is the best value use in my situation.

    A few other points:

    *Like others above, I ABSOLUTELY LOVE seeing articles not geared towards people spending $9000 or more a month on a card and/or obsessing over the best version of champagne in business or first classes. Like they said, lots of us need to stretch our signup bonus miles as well as possible to get economy tickets to interesting places.
    *Like many also said, this article is well written and very relevant. Thanks!
    *I live overseas, so information about how to maximize points and card usage from over here is always useful (my cards are all US cards). The equation is very different…
    *More articles like this, please!

  42. I personally don’t find the post that helpful even though it’s well written. Maybe it’s useful for “Travel 101” or something, but most people, I believe, come here looking for more advanced knowledge than just a summary of benefits of a particular card. But even in that summary one of the benefits (extra earnings on MileageplusX App) was missed. I know about it and I am not even a United card holder.

  43. Jorneys on Quest, please allow me to disagree with this statement of yours:

    <>

    Some of us, dare I say most, are not into stretching bonuses for ECONOMY class redemptions. Most are interested in business/first class redemptions as well as reading Lucky’s reports. If it’s economy class you are after, nothing wrong with that, but this blog is not the best fit for you.

  44. Which United card says you can redeem an award seat by paying Standard Miles if any seat is available on the flight? Is it this one, or maybe the United Club card?

  45. David, sorry, no card offers that – even the top of the line Club card says: “As the primary Cardmember, you will also enjoy expanded award availability when you use miles to book any United-operated flight, any time, at the applicable Everyday Award level – with no restrictions or blackout dates”. Everyday = Standard, not saver.

  46. @Best_Champagne_Please,

    Hi, and thanks for the courteous response! I think there’s plenty of room for all here, and that while it’s quite true that plenty of readers find the most value in champagne and first class fares, others such as myself, Weiskel, JL, Claire, Bruce, and Points Curious find great value in posts by both Lucky and other authors based on our living more thrifty lifestyles (myself included), being new to this hobby (not me any more), or both. Let’s also remember that, like some who responded positively to this post, you too were once a beginner at points and miles (even if you never knew a life in which first class and champagne weren’t so high on the priority list that you chose to go by this name ;^). Friendly jests aside, though, I’d also point out responses by PeteyNice (who was talking about getting value from basic economy, whether she uses this herself or not), David, Matthew, Donna, Morgan and others (who were quite positive about the post and its content).

    As for your comment that this might not be the right blog for me, I’m sorry but I have to strongly disagree. As a thrifty traveler, I have derived great monetary value, to say nothing of enjoyment, from this and similar blogs for the years in which I have been a regular reader. Value is a very relative concept, and I assure you I have derived plenty of what I consider valuable here just as I’m sure you have.

    In any case, as far as I can see, there seems to be a good number of people who have found value in this post, so unless you believe there’s not actually plenty of room here for all, might respectfully I suggest that a little more open-mindedness and acceptance of the diversity of readership reflected in this article could go a long way, and possibly broaden your horizons in the process?

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