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United Club Card or Explorer Card? Which MileagePlus credit card is best for you?

by on Mon January 27, 2014 • 1 Comment



United offers two credit cards that earn miles directly in your MileagePlus® account: The United MileagePlus® Explorer Card and the United MileagePlus® Club Card. The best for you depends on several factors we’ll discuss below. Here are the biggest differences between the cards:

  • Annual fee: The  MileagePlus® Club Card annual fee is $450 vs the Explorer Card at $95.
  • Mile earning: The United  MileagePlus® Club Card earns 1.5 miles per dollar spent, while the Explorer Card earns 1 mile per dollar spent, though it also earns a 10,000 mile bonus when you spend $25,000 on the card in a calendar year. This is an important feature, and we discuss it below.
  • Club access: The United  MileagePlus® Club Card offers full United Club membership with unlimited access, while the Explorer Card offer 2 day passes per year.
  • Free checked bags: The United MileagePlus® Club Card offers your first and second bag free while the Explorer Card offers just one free. That’s a big difference on some international flights, where a 2nd checked bag can cost $200 or more round-trip.

To justify the higher annual fee of the Club Card you’ll usually need to be able to answer ‘yes’ to any one of these three questions. We’ll expand on why below.

  • Do you plan to visit United Clubs several times a year?
  • Will you check a 2nd bag on more than 4 domestic roundtrips a year or 2 transatlantic / transpacific roundtrips a year?
  • Do you expect to spend more than $60,000 a year on the card?

Cheapest United Club Access

If you value United Club access and plan to visit several times a year, there is no cheaper way to enter them than the United  MileagePlus® Club Card. It offers full United Club membership and in fact you will receive a separate lounge membership card so you can be sure you get the full benefits of standalone United Club membership.

On its own, without the credit card, United Club membership costs up to $500 a year. Even as a top-tier 1K member who flies 100,000 miles a year, membership without the credit card costs $400 a year. All of these options are more than the $395 annual fee of the United Club Card.

Additionally, as a United Club credit card holder you can get a $3 discount on premium wines and liquor, something not available to those with standalone membership.

So there really is no better way to get club membership than to hold the United Club  MileagePlus® Card. Additionally, if you are a 1K member of United MileagePlus, you’ll get a $60 annual rebate on your annual fee so the card will cost you just $335 per year.

1.5 miles per dollar isn’t always the best choice

If you *don’t* value United Club access, then you’ll need to evaluate your spending to see which card will earn you the most miles at the lowest price.

The United Club Card earns 1.5 miles per dollar spent on the card, a 50% bonus over the United MileagePlus Explorer’s base 1 mile per dollar. That sounds like a no-brainer, right?


The United MileagePlus Explorer Card has a hidden bonus.

Each calendar year you spend $25,000 or more on the card you will earn a 10,000 mile bonus.

That’s a big deal, and effectively earns you 1.4 miles per dollar on your first $25,000 in spending each year, almost as much as the United  MileagePlus® Club Card.

So how do you know which will be more valuable?

First, think about how much a United mile is worth to you. We think United miles are usually worth somewhere between 1.5 and 2 cents a piece. That means about 10,000 miles are worth $150 to $200 in travel. That makes sense, since for example a $400 domestic roundtrip ticket can be had for 25,000 miles, which makes each mile worth 1.6 cents each. Your own value may vary, but let’s see how the math works out if you value miles at 1.5 cents each.

If you do that, you would need to spend $60,000 or more per year on the United MileagePlus® Club Card to earn enough extra miles to offset the $300 higher annual fee.

That’s because of the big annual bonus on the Explorer Card and its $300 lower annual fee. You can see how the math works out below.

At $60,000 a year in spending ($5,000 a month) the value for each card is about even; at lower amounts like $30,000 a year in spending ($2,500 a month) the Explorer Card is a better deal by hundreds of dollars in possible value. All of this assumes you don’t put any value on club membership.

United Club CardUnited MileagePlus¨ Explorer Card
Annual card spending$60,000 $60,000
Value per mile$0.015$0.015
Miles earned per dollar spent1.51
Annual bonus miles010,000
Annual miles earned90,00070,000
Value of miles earned$1,350 $1,050
Less annual fee$395$95
Value earned$955$955
United Club CardUnited MileagePlus¨ Explorer Card
Annual card spending$30,000 $30,000
Value per mile$0.015$0.015
Miles earned per dollar spent1.51
Annual bonus miles010,000
Annual miles earned45,00040,000
Value of miles earned$675$600
Less annual fee$395$95
Value earned$280$505

If you want to run the numbers for yourself, check out our CardFinder for United credit cards. You can enter your monthly spending and how much you think your United miles are worth. Then it will show you how many miles you’ll earn and how much travel value you’ll earn each year, factoring the cost of the annual fee.

Do you check a 2nd bag? It could cost $100+

United checked bagsMost of us try to avoid checking a bag if at all possible. Besides the minimum $25 per bag fee, the hassle of getting to the airport earlier and having to wait at baggage claim makes it a choice we’d rather not make.

But sometimes we just have to check bags. Maybe it’s because of gifts, or having to pack supplies, or visiting family abroad.

Most of us need to check just one bag if we do. So for those cases the Explorer Card works just fine. You’ll be taken care of for the first checked bag fee whenever you fly.

But if you’re in the smaller group of people who checks 2 or more bags when you fly, then the United  MileagePlus® Club Card may be worth it just for its free 2nd checked bag.

2nd checked bags are almost always more expensive than the 1st checked bag.

They cost $35 versus $25 for the first bag each way on domestic flights. And on international flights they can be even more expensive.

For example if you’re going to Europe, while the 1st checked bag is free on United, the 2nd checked bag will cost you $100 each way. That’s $200 round-trip. But the United MileagePlus® Club Card will save you from having to pay a 2nd checked bag fee.

So for those trips, just 3 times a year checking a 2nd bag can offset the extra $300 in annual fees you pay for the Club Card vs the Explorer Card. Plus you get full United Club access.

There are other perks with the Club Card

The United  MileagePlus® Club Card also offers some extra travel perks like the ability to use priority security lanes, Hyatt Platinum status (free wifi and some room upgrades), and Avis First status (some car rental upgrades).

Both cards offer Primary car rental collision damage coverage, which is a rare benefit among cards.

You can read more about each card’s benefits here:

> United MileagePlus Explorer Card benefits guide

> United Club Card benefits guide

Consider the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Chase Sapphire Preferred CardFinally, if you don’t value club access or checked bag benefits, consider the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. It earns points you can transfer 1:1 into your United MileagePlus® account at any time. And you can also transfer points into your accounts with Southwest, Marriott, Hyatt, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, and more, offering you lots of flexibility.

It also earns 2x points on dining and travel spending, and a 7% bonus on the points you earn each year. For many people, especially if you spend less than $25,000 a year, the Sapphire Preferred could earn you more miles than either of the United branded credit cards.

It’s worth using our CardFinder tool to see whether the Sapphire Preferred will be a better value for you than the Explorer Card or MileagePlus® Club Card for earning United miles.

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 the first year, then $95

Annual Fee


Foreign Transaction Fee Waived

Yes - transfer to United MileagePlus, Southwest Rapid Rewards, Marriott Rewards, and more

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."

One thought on “United Club Card or Explorer Card? Which MileagePlus credit card is best for you?

  1. David

    I actually carry both the Sapphire Preferred and the Club card. I spend enough on dining and other travel to make the extra 2x bonus there worth it. Club access is kind of mandatory for me so the extra annual fee doesn’t really factor into my calculations. The drink benefit has been nice, but mad that they downgraded the drink selection at the clubs. Having to pay now for what used to be free drinks is an insult to the membership fee.


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