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Chase Sapphire Preferred® vs United Mileage Plus Explorer: Helping you do the math

by on Mon August 17, 2015 • 25 Comments

united170Right now, two entry level cards let you earn miles with United Airlines’ Mileage Plus program — the United Mileage Plus Explorer and the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card (which lets you transfer points instantly, 1:1, into your United mileage account). Each has an annual fee of $95, but that’s where the similarities stop.

The biggest advantages of the United Explorer are:

  1. One free checked bag each for you and a companion on United.
  2. Priority boarding in Group 2 on all United flights.
  3. 10,000 mile bonus after $25,000 in spend each year.

For the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card the major advantages are:

  1. 2x points on all dining and travel purchases.
  2. An EMV chip for foreign purchases.
  3. The ability to transfer points 1:1 into United, British Airways, Southwest, Amtrak, Hyatt, Marriott, Priority Club, Ritz Carlton, Virgin Atlantic, and Korean Airlines.
  4. 50,000 points to start for new cardmembers who spend $4,000 on the card within the first 3 months.

You’re going to want the Explorer Card if you really value a free first checked bag or priority boarding. But if you want maximum flexibility from the points you earn and bonuses on common spending categories like dining and travel, you’ll want to consider the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.

Here’s a table that breaks down the differences:

CardUnited Mileage Plus ExplorerChase Sapphire Preferred
Earning power
Intro bonus30,000 miles after you spend $1,000 within the first 3 months; 5,000 more for adding an authorized user within 3 months of account opening40,000 points when you spend $4,000 within first 3 months
Base1 mile per dollar1 mile per dollar
United purchases2 miles per dollar2 miles per dollar
All other Travel purchases1 mile per dollar2 miles per dollar
Dining purchases1 mile per dollar2 miles per dollar
Elite qualifying milesNoNo
Supplemental benefits
Primary car rental insuranceYesYes
Bag free on UnitedYes, first bag free for you and a companion.No
Foreign transaction fees waivedYesYes
1:1 mile transfer to United, Southwest, British Airways, Hyatt, Marriott, Amtrak, Priority Club, Korean AirlinesNo -- United miles onlyYes, online transfer for flexibility of points
Priority boarding on UnitedYesNo
Priority security lanes with UnitedNoNo
Hotel upgrades via lhrcollection.comYesNo
Lounge passesYes, 2 United Club single visit passes per yearNo
Elite upgrades on United reward ticketsYesNo
Annual fee$95 ($0 introductory annual fee the 1st year)$95 ($0 introductory annual fee the 1st year)
Secure application linkApply NowApply Now

Savings calculator to help you decide

Most of the decision to you will come down to some math.

How much is the United Explorer’s checked bag benefit worth based on how much you fly? And how much is the higher point earning power of the Sapphire Preferred® Card is worth based on your dining/travel and foreign transaction spending?

You can use our free CardFinder tool to enter your spending and travel habits, and it will show you whether the Sapphire Preferred or Explorer Card gives you more value and earns you more miles.

Is holding both beneficial?

In may cases holding both is a good idea.

If you check more than 4 bags per year (2 roundtrips for you and a companion) you can save the entire cost of the $95 annual fee of the Explorer. And if you spend more than $25,000 on it you get a 10,000 mile bonus, or 40%.

Then consider using the Sapphire Preferred® Card for your dining and non-United travel spend to get the double points on those purchases.

Note that if you are an elite Premier level flyer with United, you already get the free bag waiver and priority boarding of the Explorer. For you there are two other reasons to consider the Explorer card:

  1. The ability to get Premier upgrades to first class while traveling on award tickets
  2. The 10,000 mile bonus after $25,000 in annual spend – that makes it earn 1.4 miles per dollar if you spend $25,000

Otherwise, the Sapphire Preferred® Card’s dining / travel bonus categories are enough to hold on its own.

You could also consider the more expensive United Club Card which offers full access to United airport clubs.

Click here to learn more about the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and apply.

Click here to learn more about the United Mileage Plus Explorer and apply.

The following two tabs change content below.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Miles dont expireas long as card is open
Learn more

Partner Offer

50,000 bonus points

Intro Offer

$0 introductory annual fee, then $95

Annual Fee


Foreign Transaction Fee Waived


Points Can Transfer to Airline Miles ?

Still confused? Have a question?

Leave a comment below -- we'll reply shortly -- no need to use your real name. Or, use the email form at the top of the page for private advice.

"These responses are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered."

25 thoughts on Chase Sapphire Preferred® vs United Mileage Plus Explorer: Helping you do the math

  1. adam

    Lets say I have 30,000 United Mileage Plus Points and 40,000 Chase Sapphire Points. Is it possible to combine them to make a single rewards purchase at 70,000 miles, or do they have to be separate? Thanks.


      @Adam – You can move as few as 1,000 Sapphire points (or as many as you want) into your United MileagePlus account and combine them there for a MileagePlus award. Just be aware you can’t move the points back into your Sapphire account once you transfer them out to United.

  2. george

    I have United MIleage Plus Club Card for which I got bonus miles last year, when I opened. If I close after 1 year and open Mileage Plus Explorer Card, can I get the bonus offered?

  3. george

    I have Chase Mileage Plus Club at $395/year which ends soon. Don’t really benefit. Can I just close and open Chase Mileage Plus Explorer Card which is only $95/year

  4. spells83

    Hi, I travel frequently using All Nippon Airways (a star alliance member, with United). Their Frequent Flyer Program is not as good and I was tihnking of switching over to United. However while I fly star alliance a good amount, I don’t like United and will most likely fly United partner airlines. I was wondering if the Chase Sapphire Preferred card would be better for me? I spend about $800/month on my credit card but about $3,000 on international flights each year-so my main focus with the frequent flywer program and credit card would be the ability to earn and redeem as many miles as possible. Thanks!

    1. MileCards

      @spells83 – If your goal is to earn as many United miles as possible with your spending then yes that’s a good idea.

      If you are planning on using your miles for coach travel, United is a good choice. But if you are planning on using your miles for business class on partner airlines besides United then earning United miles is not a great choice. That’s because United is about to start charging a higher rate for business class tickets on partner airlines.

      So in summary if you want to redeem your United miles for coach travel on Star Alliance airlines it’s a good choice, and the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a good idea because of the dining and travel spending bonuses. It also gives you the option to transfer to other airlines like Southwest, British Airways, or Virgin Atlantic.

  5. Al


    I work overseas and come back to the states at least once a year, some times 2 or 3 times. Consequently, I spend less than 60 days total in any one year in the sates. And as I am a premier member (some years 1K, others silver) I get all the priority benefits and I purchase business tickets and can check in 2 bags 70lb each.

    Now, I just got both the Explorer and Sapphire cards and already put $16,000 or s on the explorer card as I got it first and abut $7,000 on the Sapphire card. and I wonder what is the best for me, keep both cards or only one of them, and which one ?

    Thanks in advance


  6. Dan

    I will be moving from NY to Nashville, TN this summer and will need to fly back, probably to HPN (Westchester, NY) for work/family/etc once a month, which should cost approximately $250-$300 for the round trip ticket, plus bag fees.

    I already have two Chase Freedom cards that I use for all my daily spending (gas, food, gym fee, etc) and the rewards on that card are pretty solid through the Ultimate Rewards system. So I’m trying to figure out which card I should get between these two. Honestly, I probably only put about $1,000 a month on my card and always pay it off on about a weekly basis to avoid carrying balances.

    The upfront cash savings of the UA card eliminating bag fees seems to be the best bet for me since I’m guessing with my spending rate the 20% off UR flight purchases won’t kick in much for me as I won’t have enough rewards to purchase all my flights with that anyway. Foreign transaction fees also don’t matter to me because I don’t travel out of the country often, or really even at all up to this point.

    Can I use UR points from my freedom cards to purchase flights with a UA card? Is there anything else I should be considering for this decision?


    1. Dan

      Just thought of something else, actually.. UR allows you to pay partial cash, partial rewards, so if I pay partial but mostly cash, will the ticket cost 20% less or it only discounts 20% when you pay with UR points?

      Thanks again!

    2. MileCards

      @Dan- First, the Explorer sounds like a must if you plan to check bags more than 3-4 times, even if you don’t use it for your other spending.

      But since the tickets you’re buying are only about $300 each your goal should be to maximize the dollars off you can get from tickets, rather than a 100% free award ticket each time.

      Here’s what I mean:

      You will earn about 24,000 points per year with the Arrival (2x points on $12,000 in spending), and there is a 10% points discount on travel purchases. That will earn you $264 in travel credit. The cool thing is you retroactively apply the credit to your statement, and like the Chase card can partially pay off a purchase with points.

      If you use the Chase program to pay for tickets, you’re going to earn closer to 15,000 points per year since most of your spend probably won’t be on the big bonus categories. That will get you $150 or so in tickets.

      If you choose to earn United miles, you’ll need 25,000 before you can redeem a ticket at all. From your flying you’ll earn almost 25,000 miles per year assuming you connect in Chicago. So you can use the Explorer occasionally to top off to 25,000 miles when you’re close.

      So, recommendation: United Explorer for the bag fees, bonus, and to top off your account when you’re close to 25,000 miles. Barclaycard Arrival for the rest. Chase Freedom if you happen to spend in a 5x category, you can always use those points for dollars off random trips.

  7. Steven

    Hi, I have two questions on the Chase Sapphire Preferred card:

    1) Can I transfer the bonus points to a different person’s United Mileage Plus account? Or do both the Chase Sapphire card and the United Mileage Plus have to be for the same person?

    2) If I plan to travel to Europe for a flight that needs 55,000 United miles based on UA’s chart, and book it via Ultimate Rewards portal, do I need only 55,000 x 0.8 = 44,000 bonus points to do that?


  8. Michelle

    I’m still debating whether i should apply for the Explorer or the Sapphire, but I have a question. What does 40,000 points equal to? Is it 1 point = 1 mile? I am not sure which to get. I don’t really fly with the UA all the times. I fly with AU, US Airways, AirTran when I go to Florida. When I go to Canada, I fly with the UA. I use my credit cards mainly for gas and dining. Thank you.

  9. Michelle

    I’m still debating whether i should apply for the Explorer or the Sapphire, but I have a question. What does 40,000 points equal to? Is it 1 point = 1 mile? I am not sure which to get. I don’t really fly with the UA all the times. I fly with AU, US Airways, AirTran when I go to Florida. When I go to Canada, I fly with the UA. I use my credit cards mainly for gas and dining.

  10. Stiga9

    I have both because for ME, it is perfect. And for anyone who is similar to my spend and travel, listen up why its perfect:

    First off, the combination of the two is perfect for anyone who travels a lot, but more importantly, does not travel enough to gain elite status. Because with even the lowest elite status (silver), you get free checked bags (with companion)! So IMO, it wouldn’t make sense for anyone with status to get the Explorer card. Personally, I achieve around 15K-23K miles a year, and I do not plan or want to spend the extra (what frequent flyers call a Mileage Run or MR) miles just to gain status. I travel because I have to (family/vacation/business). A MR to me is a waste of money and time.

    For the Explorer card, I only care about the baggage fees and Primary CDW car rental. The other mumbo jumbo doesn’t apply to my lifestyle (I give away my United Club passes and I don’t give a darn when I board the plane – the plane takes off when everyone is seated anyway, its not like the first 20 people to board gets a free signed Mickey Mouse hat or anything). The less time i literally spend time on the plane, the better. Priority boarding to me is like getting in the car, then waiting 30 minutes for your driver to come and take you to where you need to go, or getting to class early, but the professor won’t start until all 70 people show up. Always enough of that rant…

    I flew two DOMESTIC RTs with companion last year, that equals to $200 worth of bag fees. Already, I saved $105 from the Explorer card ($200 bag fees – $95 annual fee).

    Now one may ask, “I could of gained many more miles using my Chase Sapphire Preferred (CSP) for the 3x miles compared to Explorer’s 2x miles while purchasing my tickets”. The answer to that is the amount of miles you lose is not even close to comparison in the $cash$ value you gain from free bag checking (assuming you check more than 4 bags a year). in addition…

    I flew one RT internationally with companion last year as well. Since bags are checked free for int. travel, I used my CSP and got 3x miles ($2000 tickets = 6000 miles = at the least worth $60). So there, I totally made up my “so-called lost” miles from using the 2x travel on my Explorer domestically. Now the no ForEx fees is nice on the CSP (especially dining 2x no forex!), but since i do a lot of public transit usage while traveling, i’ve noticed I would have to use my chip & PIN card from another cc because they don’t accept striped cards.

    Point of story, I use my CSP on EVERYTHING and use my Explorer strictly on UA tickets Domestically for Bags and Car Rentals.

    Some ask me “You gain 15K-23K miles a year, what if that one year you somehow hit 25K?”. The answer is simple, If I do somehow get the Silver (never had in the 15 years of travel), I will simply cancel the Explorer for one year. If I don’t make Silver that following year, I will apply for the card again!

  11. Joe Houlihan

    What does Primary car rental collision insurance cover if a car is rented in Britain or Ireland. Which card has the best coverage and what are the do’s and don’ts when renting – using the card. Thank you, Joe Houlihan

    1. MileCards

      @Joe- Credit card collision insurance covers damage to the vehicle you rented. But doesn’t cover damage to other vehicles or property, or injuries to yourself or others. You will need your own ‘liability’ policy for that, or purchase it from the car rental agency.

      Ireland is unfortunately excluded from credit card coverage (lots of tourists get into scrapes on the narrow roads) so you’ll have to rely on what the rental car company offers for purchase.

  12. X Q. Pan

    I don’t understand “Get 20% off airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises when you redeem through Ultimate Rewards℠.” The “Ultimate Rewards” has the same airfare prices If we redeem directly through other sources?

    1. MileCards

      @X Q Yes the prices are similar, but the 20% discount refers to 20% fewer points are required when you use the Ultimate Rewards portal for flights.

  13. PX

    Hi, I have the Chase United Mileageplus Explorer card and am still in the first year. If I cancel the card before the second year starts (because I don’t want to pay the $95 annual fee plus I think my purposes fit the Sapphire Preferred better), do I still get to keep the 30,000 miles or so that I have? Thanks.

    1. MileCards

      @PX – Yes, you’ll get to keep the miles even if you cancel. Just note that they expire if you don’t have any activity in your account after 18 months. Any posting or use of miles resets the clock for another 18 months, so it’s not hard to keep them from expiring. But having a United credit card account means they never expire as long as you pay the fee on the card each year.

  14. Jason

    I have a question. I’ve got both the United card and a Chase Sapphire. I got both because of their signing bonuses. I don’t have enough for flights yet, but I’m planning a trip from the US to South America. It seems like I’ll get better point returns by using the UR portal and buying them with my Chase Sapphire card. The question, though, is do I get the extra stuff from United just because I’m a card holder? Like, will I get preferred boarding even if I didn’t buy the ticket on that card?


    1. MileCards

      @Jason – You will get more points per dollar spent on airfare by using that UR portal to buy your tickets, that’s correct. For flights you purchase that are on United you will get the priority boarding as long as you put your Mileage Plus number in the reservation and keep that United card account open. The free bag though may not apply, as officially you need to buy the ticket with the United card to get that benefit.

      1. Jason

        Thanks for the reply. The free bag doesn’t matter much this time because we’re flying international, and according to the United (actually Copa, but they’re partners since the Continental merger) site we get 2 checked bags anyway.

        I was really hoping to be able to use miles for one of our tickets (my wife and I are traveling), but I think I waited too long to book the flights because now there isn’t anything that won’t take 2 days. The good news is I’ll have more points for next time. 🙂


  15. svetlana williams

    Hi, I am very upset with the Mileage Plus Explorer card that I got by switching from Chase Mileage plus business card simply for a reason that they promised me no foreign transaction fee because I went to Italy to study for one year. Before me changing one card to another I specifically made this request. And I have been promised “no foreign transaction few”. However, when I open on line statement today I had been charged hefty fees. They only gave me 100 $ reimbursement times one despite average $300 fees since Sept. I feel that my right been violated. Is it any way I can change this card for without these fees, I guess Sapphire cared is the one.
    Thank you.
    Svetlana Williams


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