I never planned to be loyal to one airline. But I found myself on United Airlines flights more often than not when flying long-haul routes, first from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and then after a cross-country move in 2016 from Dulles International Airport (IAD). So, I decided to go all-in and get an airline-affiliated credit card, namely the United℠ Explorer Card.
Since then, my expert colleagues at The Points Guy have been teaching me how to maximize my travel rewards with cards offering flexible points, not to mention the joy of chasing high sign-up bonuses on new cards. But I’m not giving up my United Explorer Card anytime soon — here’s why.
Low annual fee
As a premium credit card beginner, I’m still getting my head around paying upward of $500 for the privilege of charging purchases to a fancy card. The United Explorer Card is not snooty like that — I get to keep it in my wallet for a reasonable $95 annual fee.
Some newbies might think that $95 is a hefty fee to own a credit card, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But the card pays for itself with just one flight (see below), and the freebies start piling up afterward.
Free checked bags
With my United Explorer Card, I’m entitled to one free checked bag for myself and a travel companion on each flight. With United charging $35 for the first, standard-sized checked bag, that’s a value of $140 per round-trip flight. With one round-trip flight (1 1/2 if I’m flying alone), I can more than cover the cost of the card.
As a frequent cruiser, I often check a bag because it’s next to impossible to fit all the formalwear, swimwear and gymwear I need for a weeklong cruise into a carry-on. And don’t forget about the full-size bottles of sunscreen I need to protect my pasty skin against the strong Caribbean sun. You can bet I make the most of my card’s checked bag benefit.
Much of my business travel is booked by others, so I don’t always have a say in which airline I fly. So until recently, I was flying a lot — but not enough to reach elite status on United. That’s where my United Explorer Card saves the day.
It gives me Group 2 boarding, the same as I now get as a Premier Silver elite member. I board after all the “important” people — the upper-tier MileagePlus and Star Alliance loyalty program members and passengers in first and business class — but before all the economy-class flyers with no status. That means I don’t have to worry about finding a spot for my carry-on, and I don’t have to stand around in a crush of travelers waiting to board. Plus, I get to feel special.
2 United Club passes
Until I joined TPG, I did not own a credit card that gave me lounge access. So, I value the two free United Club passes I receive annually with my United Explorer Card, which usually cost $59 apiece.
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These have especially come in handy in Fort Lauderdale, where I’m frequently disembarking cruises early but not scheduled on a flight home until later in the afternoon. I’ve spent hours in the conveniently located United Club enjoying free snacks and complimentary Wi-Fi, getting work done while I wait for my flight to board.
These days, I happily use my Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card for access to Priority Pass and Plaza Premium lounges worldwide. However, at my home airport of Dulles, those lounges are not convenient to the United gates and often restrict access to Priority Pass guests when full of international travelers. I’ve already used my two United Club passes this year when I couldn’t get into the other lounges or just wanted a more convenient location to await my flight.
Now that the Capital One Lounge at Dulles is open, I might not need the United Club at my home airport as much, but I’m sure there will be airports where I’ll be happy to have those two free passes.
My United Explorer Card is my go-to card for all United purchases, not just the checked bags.
I get 2 miles per dollar spent on United purchases (such as my airfare), so I can essentially earn miles twice for every trip — the miles I get for flying and the miles I get for paying with my Explorer card.
When I purchase food, drinks or Wi-Fi on flights, I get 25% of the cost back as a statement credit on my monthly bill. That means all those expenses are cheaper for me than non-cardholders.
Expanded redemption options
As an Explorer cardholder, I can access more United economy-class saver award availability than is available to the average customer. That means I can sometimes find cheaper awards or awards on flights that wouldn’t otherwise be open to others.
I’m sure my colleagues would take me to task for not maximizing these opportunities. But I’m a mom, and personal travel typically involves booking flights for a family of four. I usually redeem my MileagePlus miles for planned domestic travel when the cash prices are too high.
I was saving up miles for my family’s first international trip this holiday season but didn’t have enough miles. Instead, I used 120,000 miles to fly the four of us to a family event in Los Angeles, saving me a ton of cash.
Other travel perks
The United Explorer Card offers an array of additional perks, some of which I use and some I don’t.
Of those, my favorite is the $100 credit I get once every four years to apply toward Global Entry, TSA PreCheck or Nexus. I use mine to pay for Global Entry (which also gives me PreCheck access). This perk usually comes with more expensive cards, so it’s huge that Chase and United offer it on a card with a $95 annual fee.
My card also provides me with travel protections on trips I book with my card, though — knock on wood — I’ve never had to use these. I also don’t have to pay foreign transaction fees when I use the card abroad.
I also earn 2 miles per dollar spent when I book accommodations directly with a hotel or eat out at restaurants. I don’t do this often (I’m a vacation rental girl), but when I do, I appreciate the extra miles.
The United Explorer Card was once my go-to card and is now a secondary card for me, but still a major asset in my wallet. The card pays for itself with free checked bags and two United Club passes, so even if you only fly United a couple of times a year, it can be a smart card to hold.
Even better — if you sign up now for a new card, the annual fee is waived for the first year. So that’s $95 you don’t have to make back in travel perks. You’ll also receive 60,000 MileagePlus miles after spending $3,000 on the card in the first three months. That could potentially get you enough miles for two round-trip flights — with free checked bags, thanks to your card.
To learn more, read our full review of the United Explorer Card.
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