United Explorer Card: Is it Worth the Annual Fee?

by joeheg

Airline co-brand credit cards are a fantastic way to level up your travel game. Imagine having access to some of the same perks as the most frequent flyers with status. Personally, I’m not a fan of chasing airline status, but with the United Explorer card, you can enjoy similar benefits without the hassle. While the card has some restrictions on how you can use your perks, it’s still a great option if you’re an occasional flyer with United or other Star Alliance airlines.

United Explorer Card

Annual Fee

$95 per year (fee waived for the first year)

Sign Up Benefits

There’s currently an increased sign up bonus that’s running until January 24, 2024. With it you will earn 60,000 United MileagePlus Miles after spending $3,000 on qualifying purchases in the first three months of opening an account, plus Annual Fee is waived for the first year.

If you’ve signed up for several new credit cards in the last 2 years, this card is subject to Chase’s 5/24 rule (to learn more about that, check out this list of 8 commonly heard questions regarding the 5/24 rule).

You also must not have received a new card member bonus for this credit card within the last 24 months.

The bonus on this card ranges from 35,000 to 70,000 points. If you’re a United MileagePlus member, you could always look for targeted offers by mail, email or when booking (or almost booking) a ticket on United.I like to check the U.S. Credit Card Guide to see what the best current offer is for a card and if that’s historically a low, average or high offer.

Spending Bonus Categories

The United MileagePlus Explorer card earns 2X points for airline tickets purchased from United, and on the following purchases made from United: seat upgrades; Economy Plus; inflight food, beverages and Wi-Fi; baggage service charges or other United fees on tickets purchased from United. You also earn 2x points for charges at restaurants, food delivery services, and hotel stays purchased directly from the hotel. The card earns one point per dollar for all other purchases.

No Foreign Transaction Fees

As you would hope a card used on United flights worldwide would, the United MileagePlus Explorer card doesn’t charge any foreign transaction fees.

Priority Boarding

The primary cardmember and companions on the same reservation will be invited to board United-operated flights before general boarding, after MileagePlus Premier members, customers with Premier Access and travelers requiring special assistance.

According to the United boarding process, Explorer cardholders board with Group 2, along with Star Alliance Silver members. Although advanced boarding sounds appealing, there are still at least eight other groups that board before Group 2. In case you decide to book a basic economy ticket on United, which even I wouldn’t recommend, having the credit card will enable you to board earlier and bring a bag for the overhead on the plane.

United Club Passes

Take some time to relax before your flight with two United Club one-time passes, which will be deposited into your MileagePlus account after account opening and each year for your Cardmember anniversary. Enjoy complimentary beverages, snacks, and amenities like workspaces, free Wi-Fi and more.

You could use these passes to spend some time at the United Club at Orlando Airport. While the club is basic, the staff can help you out during irregular operations.


United Club customers, including members and their guests, and one-time pass holders will need to provide a same-day boarding pass for travel on United, Star Alliance or a contracted partner for entry into all United Club locations.

United Club locations may limit entry based on capacity constraints. I have experienced this at Newark, Orlando, and San Francisco airports. Just because you have a pass doesn’t guarantee club access..

Bonus earnings on purchases through the MileagePlus X app

The app works by buying a virtual gift card for the store you want to shop at. You can read the basics here.  The bonus is that Chase United MileagePlus primary cardholders get a 25% bonus on points earned through the app. This could add up if you are a power user, which I am not.

Free First Checked Bag

Here’s where United manages to lower the bar. Let’s look at the free bag policy with the United MileagePlus Explorer card:

The primary Cardmember and one traveling companion on the same reservation are each eligible to receive their first standard checked bag free; authorized users are only eligible if they are on the same reservation as the primary Cardmember. To receive first standard checked bag free, the primary Cardmember must use their UnitedSM Explorer Card to purchase their ticket(s) (this purchase requirement is waived for flights completed during the 90 days following the account open date) and include their MileagePlus® number in their reservation.

So the cardholder and one person on the same reservation can get a free bag and to get these benefits, you need to pay for your ticket with your MileagePlus Explorer card. This means to get the free checked bag benefit, you will have to give up the better trip delay and lost baggage insurance you would get if you paid with a card like the Sapphire Reserve.

How does that free bag benefit compare to other airline credit cards?

  • American – Your first eligible checked bag is free of charge for you and up to 4 traveling companions on your reservation when traveling on domestic itineraries operated by American Airlines.
  • Delta – A fee waiver is also available for passengers traveling on the same reservation as the Basic Card Member. Maximum of nine waivers per reservation. 
  • Alaska  – Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® consumer cardholders and up to 6 passengers traveling on the same reservation.

These airlines allow at least 4 companions and even up to 9 passengers on the same reservation to get a free checked bag (even if you don’t pay with the card).

The only other major airline that makes you pay with the card to get the free bag benefit is JetBlue and they at least allow up to three companions on the reservation.

  • JetBlue – You and up to 3 travel companions on the same reservation, who have purchased Blue fares, will each receive their first checked bag free on JetBlue-operated flights that do not include the first checked bag free. All ticket purchases must be made with your JetBlue Plus Card, and the primary card member’s TrueBlue member number must be entered at the time of booking.

As much as I don’t like United’s restrictions on the benefits of their MileagePlus Explorer card, they also offer some benefits that make the card appealing.

Earn Premier qualifying points (PQP)

If you are trying to earn MileagePlus Premier status, you can give yourself a boost by earning PQP with the Explorer card. You’ll earn 500 PQP for every $12,000 you spend on purchases with your Explorer Card (up to 1,000 PQP in a calendar year) that can be applied toward your Premier status qualification, up to the Premier 1K® level. Visit united.com/premier for details about earning Premier status.

25% In-Flight Savings

Cardmembers receive 25% back as a statement credit on purchases of food, beverages and Wi-Fi onboard United-operated flights when you pay with your Explorer Card. You will also receive a 25% credit for premium drink purchases at United Clubs.

Global Entry, TSA Pre, or NEXUS Credit

You will get a statement credit of up to $100 once every four years to reimburse the application fee for either program when the fee is charged to the Explorer card. This is one of the only cards that includes a NEXUS payment as a reimbursable expense.

Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver

Decline the rental company’s collision insurance and charge the entire rental cost to your Card. Coverage is primary and provides reimbursement up to the vehicle’s actual cash value for theft and collision damage for most rental cars in the U.S. and abroad.

This PRIMARY coverage is a HUGE benefit and something most other cards don’t offer. Primary coverage means you don’t have to report the damage to a rental car to your insurance company, so if you get into an accident, the card will cover you. For a while, this was one of the only cards to offer this coverage, although now you can get the same coverage from the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Sapphire Reserve cards. This was the one reason I kept my United MileagePlus Explorer card.

Travel Coverages 

  • Baggage Delay (6 hours) – $100/day x 3 days
  • Lost Luggage –  $3,000
  • Trip Cancellation/Interruption – $1,500 per person and $6,000 trip
  • Trip Delay  (12 hours or overnight) – $500 per ticket

Purchase Protections

  • Purchase protection (120 days)  – $10,000 per claim, $50,000 per year
  • Extended Warranty – Additional warranty for 1 year on eligible warranties of 3 years or less.

Use of Miles on Partner Airlines

While you can use your miles to book flights on United, you can also use miles to book award travel on Star Alliance and other partner airlines. This is the way that I’ve used most of my United miles. I was able to book us on Thai Airways business class from Australia to Japan with a stopover in Bangkok for 40,000 miles each. Sharon appreciated all the legroom we had on that flight.


Another redemption with United MileagePlus was to get two tickets from Orlando to London (via Dublin) on Aer Lingus. This flight cost 70,000 miles each, and this time, I was the one who appreciated the legroom.


We also used miles to pay for a short hop from Frankfurt to Salzburg on Lufthansa. We found Saver space for 8,000 miles each, which is better than the almost $200 per ticket they wanted for the flight.

Expanded Award Availability

This is an often-overlooked perk of having this card.

As long as tickets are still available for sale for the applicable cabin on any United-operated flight, MileagePlus members can use miles to book award travel on such flight.

Having this card can give you access to flights that are otherwise unavailable with points when you search for award seats using your United miles. However, the award pricing is higher for these tickets. If cash prices are too high, then using some miles to get that “gotta-have-it” ticket can be a great option.

Final Thoughts

The United Explorer card offers many of the perks available with other co-branded airline credit cards. You will receive preferred boarding, even if you have purchased a basic economy ticket. A free checked bag is also included, but only for the cardholder and one additional guest on the same reservation if you pay for the trip with the card. On a positive note, the card provides primary rental car collision insurance and gives you extra access to award seats on United flights. Additionally, you will receive two passes into a United Club lounge every year if you are flying on United that day. While the lounges may not be spectacular, the staff may be able to assist you if you have any issues with your flights. United also has a vast partner network through the Star Alliance, although booking awards on those flights has become more expensive over the last few years.

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