Get the United MileagePlus Explorer Card if you want to save on bag fees or are tempted by the chance for extra award seat space. We wish it had more spending category bonuses and a less strict checked bag benefit.
Free first checked bag. You and a companion on your ticket will get a free first checked bag free on all United flights. That can save up to $50 per person roundtrip.
Better award space. You have extra access to awards at the ‘Standard’ level so you can use your miles on any United flight. This isn’t applicable to the lowest ‘Saver’ price level, but it’s helpful if you’re in a bind.
Annual fee. It’s a $0 introductory annual fee the first year, but then it goes up to $95.
Few category bonuses. Actually, only one – 2x miles on United purchases. Everything else earns a basic 1 mile per dollar spent.
Strict checked bag rule. You only get the free first checked bag benefit when you purchase your United tickets directly with your card. Similar cards from American and Delta Air Lines don’t have such a strict requirement.
With a $95 annual fee after the first year, and several other credit card options to earn United miles, there’s a lot to think about. This review will walk you through it, and we’re happy to answer any questions you have.
The MileagePlus Explorer Card earns 2 miles per dollar on United purchases and 1 mile per dollar on everything else. Plus, you earn 10,000 miles each calendar year you spend $25,000 or more in purchases on the card (not just United purchases).
There’s an introductory offer of 30,000 miles when you sign up for the card and meet spending requirements.
You can use our calculator to see how many miles you’ll earn.
While there’s a $0 introductory annual fee the first year that makes the Explorer Card easy to try, after that there’s a $95 annual fee to think about.
If you’re paying bag fees on 2 – 3 United trips a year, the card is a no brainer. You’ll save over $100 a year in bag fees.
If you’re trying to earn United miles, but don’t check bags often, it’s a tougher decision. You’re probably better off with a more flexible card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which earns points you can transfer into United miles any time. And it lets you transfer points into other airline programs like Southwest Rapid Rewards and British Airways Avios so you have lots of options. With 2x points on dining and all travel purchases, not just United, it’s a solid choice.
Where the United card can come ahead of the Sapphire Preferred is if you spend a bit over $25,000 a year on the card. When you do that, you get a 10,000 mile bonus, which is like earning 1.4 miles per dollar on that $25,000 worth of spending.
If you’re a United Premier level flier, you already get most of the card perks with no annual fee. But if you value upgrades on award tickets, or want to avoid the Premier Qualifying Dollar (PQD) requirement for earning status it could be worthwhile.
As an Explorer card holder, if you spend $25,000 a year on the card on any purchases (about $2,000 a month), you’ll get the PQD requirement waived and can earn Premier status purely based on how far your fly, up to Platinum status.
The Explorer card earns full value United MileagePlus miles.
You can use the miles to book award flights on United, Star Alliance airlines, and other United partners. Here’s a full list of the airlines you can book:
|Region||Airline||Where to check award space||Fuel surcharges|
|Asia||Jet Airways||JetAirways.com (registration required) or call United||None|
|Asia||Singapore||Aeroplan.com (registration required) or call United||None|
|Latin America||Azul Brazil||Call United||None|
|North America||Air Canada||United.com||None|
|North America||Cape Air||United.com||None|
|North America||Great Lakes||United.com||None|
|North America||Hawaiian Airlines (within Hawaii only)||United.com||None|
|North America||Island Air||United.com||None|
|North America||Silver Airways||United.com||None|
|Pacific||Air New Zealand||United.com||None|
United miles can get you awards like…
25,000 miles for a roundtrip Economy Class award within the United States
45,000 miles for a roundtrip Economy Class award to Hawaii
115,000 miles for a roundtrip Business Class award to Europe
Read our big guide to using United Mileage Plus miles to learn all about how to get the most out of them.
Just be aware you can’t pay part in cash and part in miles with United yet. So you’ll need to save up enough miles for a full award to be able to take advantage of them.
If you end up short on miles, you can always buy some via the United website, though that’s not the greatest deal. Another way to earn more miles is to open a credit card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Chase Sapphire Reserve, which earns miles you can transfer into United MileagePlus anytime.
To book awards, just go to United.com and click ‘search for award travel’
You’ll see a calendar of dates available, and prices for individual flights in miles. All you have to do is click on a price to book the flight with your miles.
The United website shows almost all of United’s partners in one place, but you’ll have to call United to book awards with Singapore Airlines and Jet Airways.
With the Explorer Card your first checked bag is free.
That means, on flights where there is a charge for the very first bag you check, you won’t pay that fee. Flights within North America and some flights to big leisure destinations in the Caribbean and Central America have a fee for the first bag, usually around $25 per bag.
But the first bag free doesn’t mean you get the fee covered on flights where the first bag is already free for everyone, but there’s a charge for the second bag.
For example, if you fly to Europe United doesn’t charge for the first bag, but if you check a 2nd bag there’s a fee.
The Explorer card doesn’t get you out of that fee for the 2nd bag.
For flights that have a first bag charge make sure you do four things, or else you and your companion won’t get the free checked bag:
That’s fine, as long as you’re buying United flight numbers. You’ll know your ticket is passed through to United by looking at your billing statement. If you see a long series of numbers that starts with 006 like this, you have a United ticket purchased with your card.
One unpublished benefit of the United MileagePlus Explorer is access to extra Saver level award space on United flights.
As an Explorer card holder when you search for award flights while logged into your MileagePlus account, you’ll get access to special inventory normally reserved for United’s most frequent fliers.
Here’s an example of the space you’d see for a Newark to Los Angeles trip without the United Explorer card. The dates in blue have Saver award seats available for 12,500 miles one way.
And here’s an example of what you’ll see as a United Explorer card holder logged into United.com. You’ll see the dates circled in red have flights where Saver level award space is only available for Explorer card holders and United’s most frequent fliers.
This is a great perk that can really unlock the value of your miles. The catch is since it’s unpublished there’s no word on how long it will last, but it’s been available for several years now.
The Explorer Card gives you 2 free United Club passes each year.
You can use them to get into any United Club, and you can give the passes to family or friends, so there’s no need for you to travel with them. But there are plans in the works to make the passes electronic, which might make them harder to gift to friends.
Also keep in mind…
You’ll get them in the mail under separate cover from United about 4 weeks after your account is opened. And you’ll receive them again every 12 months as long as you keep your Explorer Card account open.
Whenever you fly United, you’ll get priority boarding.
You don’t have to buy your tickets with the card to get this benefit. It applies anytime you fly United and have your MileagePlus number in the reservation. And anyone traveling in the same reservation as you will also see priority boarding on their boarding pass.
But don’t jump to the front of the line when you get to the gate.
Priority boarding means you’ll board ahead of ‘General Boarding,’ but you’ll be behind United’s most frequent fliers and people flying in first class. On some flights that can be almost half the plane, so be patient.
Yes, if you’re traveling with them and in the same reservation, they’ll get priority boarding.
The MileagePlus Explorer Card is loaded with travel protection benefits. Here are some of the more useful benefits, pulled from a sample guide to benefits, but be aware they could change anytime, so call the number on the back of your card to double check before relying on them.
When you book a rental car with the Explorer Card, you’ll get primary coverage for collision damage. That means if you have damage, you don’t need to file a claim with your own car insurance first. The card coverage will pick it up with no deductible.
Most rentals worldwide are covered, and if you’re concerned about your car rental company giving you a hassle, you can call to request a ‘proof of coverage’ letter to have ready when you’re at the rental car counter.
This is an underrated benefit. If your flight gets delayed more than 12 hours, and you’re stuck out of town, you can get a hotel and meals reimbursed, up to $500 worth. The coverage kicks in on flights with any airline, not just United, as long as you pay for the ticket with your card.
Just make sure you keep receipts and document as much as you can to make things go smoothly when you file a claim. There are some tips here on how to get proof of your delay for the claim.
Let’s say you book an expensive trip for your family – flights and a cruise. And one of you gets really, really sick just before you depart. And the doctor says there’s no way travel is in the cards.
With the Explorer Card, you’re covered to get a full refund of your travel, even if the airline or cruise line won’t have mercy.
This coverage won’t help if you decide you want to simply cancel your trip because you’re not feeling well. Or if you’ve moved or other plans change. But for really serious situations, it can get you out of a jam.
Even better, your family is covered on travel you purchase with the card, even if you’re not traveling with them, up to $10,000 per claim. And each person who needs to cancel counts as a separate claim, covered up to $20,000 total for the whole trip.
The Explorer Card has you covered for your first checked bag fee, but it also has you covered if United or any other airline messes up and delays your bags more than 6 hours.
The airline will probably throw you a toothbrush and not much more. But with the Explorer Card you can get reimbursed for clothes, toiletries, chargers, and other essentials you need while the baggage is delayed, up to $100 per day for 3 days. Just buy your ticket with your card and the coverage is automatic.
The United MileagePlus Select card is no longer available for new applicants. But if you have one, it’s a pretty special card. It earns 3x miles on United tickets, 2x miles on restaurants, gas, groceries, home improvement, and Star Alliance airline tickets.
Plus, it earns 5,000 miles each year on your account anniversary, and you get up to 5,000 Premier Qualifying Miles a year for purchases you make on United.com. Every $1 you spend on United.com earns you 1 Premier Qualifying Mile, which can help you qualify for status all the way up to Premier 1K.
It’s hard to recommend canceling a United Select card if you fly United often. What you’re missing out on are the free first checked bag and priority boarding, so if you spend $100 or more a year on those, it might be worth adding an Explorer Card to your wallet just for the benefits, and using the Select for your spending.
Get the United Club Card if you are a really, really big spender or your want unlimited access to United Clubs.
With a $450 annual fee you get full United Club membership and up to 2 free first checked bags, which can save you big on international flights where a second checked bag can cost $100 or more.
It also earns 1.5 miles per dollar spent, and that’s worth the big fee if you spend more than about $100,000 a year on the card. Otherwise, it’s only really worth it for the club membership and extra bag fee savings.
If you don’t care about the free bag benefit and want to earn United miles, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is probably your better bet.
It earns 2x on all dining and travel spending, not just on United.
And it earns Chase Ultimate Rewards points you can transfer into United MileagePlus miles anytime for no additional charge. You an also transfer Ultimate Rewards points into 10 other airline and hotel programs, including Southwest Rapid Rewards and Marriott Rewards, giving you incredible flexibility to book rewards.
Read our big guide to using Ultimate Rewards points to learn more.
You miss out on the extra award availability on United flights for Explorer Card holders, but you gain the flexibility of all the other Ultimate Rewards point partners. Plus, you can also turn Ultimate Rewards into real cash. Every 10,000 points is worth $100 in cash as a statement credit.
If you spend a lot on travel and dining, it’s hard to beat the earning of the Chase Sapphire Reserve. Like the Sapphire Preferred, it earns Ultimate Rewards points you can transfer into United anytime.
And with 3x points on travel and dining, points add up fast. There’s a hefty $450 annual fee, but Chase throws in a $300 credit every year that you can use to reduce the cost of any travel expense you purchase with the card, from airfare to hotels, and even parking and tolls.
The credit is applied automatically to your statement whenever Chase detects a travel purchase, so there’s no need to call or keep track.
Plus, you get Priority Pass lounge membership. That won’t get you into United Clubs. But it will get you and all of your traveling companions into over 900 airport lounges world wide for no additional charge.
You’ll want good to excellent credit to qualify for this card, though you don’t need a perfect 800+ score.
One other thing to keep in mind even if you have pristine credit is that some people report Chase might not approve people with otherwise good credit who have opened 5 or more bank cards in the last 24 months.
We’ve seen a targeted bonus available by invitation only as high as 70,000 miles during June of 2016, but typically we’ve seen introductory offers for this card hover around 30 – 50,000 miles.
Yes, there is, and it also offers 2x miles at restaurants, gas stations, and office supply purchases, plus all the other benefits of the personal Explorer Card, so if you have a small business this is a better deal overall thanks to the extra category bonuses.
No, currently there are no cards open for new applicants that will earn you Premier Qualifying Miles via spending. If you still have a United MileagePlus Select or United Presidential Plus card, you have options to earn Premier Qualifying Miles via spending.
There isn’t a no annual fee United MileagePlus card you can apply for outright. But you might be able to request a downgrade to a MileagePlus credit card with no annual fee after you’ve held a full featured MileagePlus credit card. The catch is the no annual fee version doesn’t include the United travel perks, and earns miles at a slower rate.
The MileagePlus Explorer Card won’t get you flight upgrades unless you decide to pay for them with miles.
No, United miles can’t be redeemed for cash. But you can use them to purchase gift cards. $100 gift cards generally cost about 15,000 miles.
All your United miles will be intact even if you cancel the card, including miles you earned from the card. Once you cancel the card, your miles will expire after 18 months of no activity. But any earning or using your miles counts as activity, and there are lots of easy ways to keep them from expiring without a credit card.
Unfortunately no, the Explorer Card only waives the first checked bag fee. Award and change fees are not waived by holding the card.
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Or, consider other cards for 50,000 or more miles or points that transfer into United miles with additional flexibility for your everyday spending.
$750 for air / hotel / car bookings. Or transfer points to United, Southwest, Hyatt, and more.
No annual fee.