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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.
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
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.
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.
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.