United Explorer Card review: Bonus miles, free checked bags, TSA PreCheck, and more

If you fly United even just a few times a year, this card can be worth it. REUTERS/Louis Nastro
  • The popular United Explorer Card offers 2 miles per dollar spent at restaurants, hotels, and United, and 1 mile per dollar everywhere else.
  • Benefits like a free checked bag, a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck credit, and United lounge passes, and access to more award flight space than non-cardholders all add huge value to the card.
  • The sign-up bonus of up to 65,000 miles (40,000 miles after you spend $US2,000 in the first three months, and an additional 25,000 miles after you spend $US10,000 total in the first six months) on a new account is worth more than enough for a free domestic round-trip flight (just pay taxes and fees).
  • If you’re a United loyalist, the Explorer card can be a no-brainer. If you fly United occasionally but want to use travel rewards for other things as well, you should consider a card that earns Ultimate Rewards points, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.
  • Read more personal finance coverage.

The United Explorer Card is a great way to save money and get better access to United awards while earning United MileagePlus miles with every dollar you spend. Regular United customers will love a free first bag for the cardholder and a companion on each trip, a statement credit worth up to $US100 every four years for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, and other benefits.

United Explorer Card details

Annual fee: $US0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $US95

Sign-up bonus: Up to 65,000 miles – 40,000 miles after you spend $US2,000 in the first three months, plus an additional 25,000 miles after you spend $US10,000 total in the first six months

Miles earning: 2x miles on United purchases, on hotel stays, and at restaurants, 1 mile per dollar on everything else

Foreign transaction fee: None

This travel rewards card carries a $US95 annual fee, waived the first year. But when you consider that you’ll cover that with the free checked bags in one or two trips each year alone, it’s easy to see how you’ll get a lot more than $US95 out of the card each year. Here are some other considerations if you think this may be a good card for you.

Keep in mind that we’re focusing on the rewards and perks that make these credit cards great options, not things like interest rates and late fees, which will far outweigh the value of any points or miles. It’s important to practice financial discipline when using credit cards by paying your balances in full each month, making payments on time, and only spending what you can afford to pay back.

Earn miles with every purchase

Cardholders earn 2 miles per dollar on purchases at United Airlines, restaurants, and hotel accommodations purchased directly from the hotel. That puts this card on par with the popular Chase Sapphire Preferred Card when it comes to earning miles if your primary airline is United.

Outside of those bonus categories, you’ll earn 1 mile per dollar. The Points Guy values United Miles at 1.3 cents each. If you spend about $US7,308 per year on the card (or $US609 per month), you’ll break even on the annual fee with miles at the 1x rate alone. If you use the card just for United, restaurant, and hotel purchases, you’ll only need to spend an average of $US304 per month to break even on the fee before benefits.

Read more: A hidden United benefit will extend your trip for next to nothing

Sign-up bonus

New cardholders can get a sign-up bonus of up to 65,000 miles. They will get 40,000 bonus miles after $US2,000 in purchases within the first three months of opening a new account, and another 25,000 miles after spending $US10,000 total in the first six months. A domestic round-trip award generally starts at 25,000 miles, so the bonus alone gets you a free round-trip flight.

A better experience flying United

If you rarely fly United, there are much better travel rewards cards out there. But if you fly United at least a few times per year, you might consider getting the United Explorer Card even as a secondary credit card, or one you only use with United. Here’s why:

Free checked bags

Get a free checked bag each trip when you pay with the card for you and a companion. That’s worth up to $US120 per round-trip. You could pay for the card’s annual fee and more in one trip!

TSA application fee credit

Global Entry includes TSA PreCheck for an application fee of $US100 every five years. This card will pay for your cost (up to $US100 for Global Entry or $US85 for PreCheck alone) up to every four years.

25% statement credit on board

For in-flight (on United) food, beverage, or Wi-Fi purchases with this card, you’ll get 25% back as a statement credit.

Priority boarding

Members of your party get Group 2 priority boarding. That helps you beat out groups three, four, and five for coveted overhead bin space. You may also get a free upgrade when available, but these are not all that common so don’t hold your breath waiting on the upgrade.

United Club Passes

United lounge one-time passes cost $US59 each. You get two included each year with the card. That’s another benefit worth more than the annual fee alone.

More award space

When you hold this card and try to book an award on United, you’ll want to make sure to log in before searching. Just holding one of the United cards give you access to exclusive award space non-cardholders can’t get. This was hugely helpful in my big trip to Israel last year, and pretty much any time I want to use United miles.

Travel savings and benefits

As a travel rewards card from Chase, the United Explorer Card offers benefits that extend to any travel and any purchase you make with the card. That includes benefits like primary rental car insurance, baggage delay insurance, lost luggage coverage, trip cancellation insurance, and trip delay reimbursement. These last two benefits can be HUGE if you ever need them.

At the checkout counter, this card adds purchase protection for 120 days and an extended manufacturer’s warranty by up to a year where eligible.

The card also includes access to Visa’s concierge service. If you’ve never tried it, it’s pretty cool. They will research and/or book travel, gifts, and other online purchases for you at no additional cost for arranging the services.

Other credit cards to consider

The United Explorer card is best for those who plan to fly United at least a handful of times per year, as many of its perks only apply to travel on the airline. If you fly United several times a year and you value airport lounge access, you could also consider the United Club Card, which has a $US450 annual fee but offers United Club membership and two free checked bags.

If you want the option to use credit card rewards to book award flights with United but on other airlines as well, you should consider a Chase card that earns Ultimate Rewards points.

You can transfer Chase points to United at a 1:1 ratio, so you’ll still have the option of using rewards to book United flights, but you can also transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards to other airline partners like Singapore Airlines and Virgin Atlantic, as well as hotel chains including Hyatt and Marriott, and you can also book all sorts of travel directly through Chase.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred has a $US95 annual fee, though unlike on the Explorer card, it’s not waived the first year. It earns 2x points on all travel and dining, and it’s currently offering a sign-up bonus of 60,000 points after you spend $US4,000 in the first three months.

If you’re open to a higher annual fee, the Chase Sapphire Reserve is a great option for travellers, including United flyers. It charges $US450 per year, but you get up to $US300 in annual statement credits toward travel, plus Priority Pass airport lounge access, and you earn 3x points on travel and dining (except on purchases that count toward the $US300 travel credit).

A good card for United flyers to keep on hand

I’ve kept a United card myself for years just for the benefits I get when flying on United. I’m not the most loyal customer to any airline, but I fly United at least a few times each year and always get my money’s worth from my United card. You might even want the card just for the free checked bags.

Overall, United offers a very strong suite of cards to choose from. The United Explorer Card does a great job at delivering huge value for a reasonable annual fee (that’s even waived for the first year). Even if it isn’t your main card you use every day, it could still be well worth applying.

Click here to learn more about the United Explorer card.