The United MileagePlus Explorer Card from Chase is an airline credit card with a $95 annual fee after a fee-free first year. It earns an unlimited 2 United MileagePlus miles per $1 spent on all United Airlines airfare purchases, and an unlimited 1 mile for every $1 spent on everything else. Miles can be redeemed for United Airlines airfare with no blackout dates, seat restrictions, or other limitations.
The Explorer card’s biggest competitors are other airline rewards credit cards, such as the Chase British Airways Visa Signature, Alaska Airlines Visa Signature, Gold Delta SkyMiles from American Express, and Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard. It’s also comparable to general-purpose travel rewards cards, such as Capital One Venture Rewards, though those cards tend to have more versatile reward redemption options.
- Sign-up Bonus. When you spend at least $1,000 within 3 months of opening your account, you get 30,000 bonus miles. This reward is worth up to $600 when redeemed for airfare, depending on the dollar cost of the applicable fares. If you add an authorized user to your account and make one or more purchases within the same 3 month period after account opening, you get an additional 5,000-mile bonus, for a total sign-up bonus of 35,000 miles.
- Annual Bonus. If you spend at least $25,000 in a calendar year, you get 10,000 bonus miles – worth up to $200 when redeemed for airfare. This promotion lasts for as long as you remain a cardholder in good standing.
- Airline Rewards & Redemption. Every $1 you spend on United Airlines airfare earns 2 miles, with no caps or restrictions. All other purchases earn an unlimited 1 mile per $1 spent. There’s no limit to the number of miles you can accumulate, and miles never expire as long as your account is open. You can redeem accumulated miles for United Airlines airfare. The minimum redemption for one-way U.S. & Canada economy tickets is 10,000 miles, limited to short-haul flights of 700 miles or less (New York to Chicago, but not Chicago to Boston). Longer-haul one-way U.S. and Canada economy tickets (New York to San Francisco, Chicago to Seattle) require 12,500 miles. First- and business-class one-ways start at 25,000 miles. Depending on how they’re redeemed, miles are reliably worth up to $0.02 apiece, and sometimes more.
- Travel Benefits. The United MileagePlus Explorer card comes with a raft of travel benefits. These include free first checked bag for the primary cardholder and one companion (normally $25 each way per person); priority boarding prior to general boarding; 2 complimentary United Club airport lounge passes per year; complimentary room upgrades when available, free breakfast, and extended check-in/check-out hours at more than 700 partner hotels worldwide; and access to exclusive or VIP events, such as private cooking classes and musical performances.
- Important Fees. The $95 annual fee is waived for the first year. There is never a foreign transaction fee. Balance transfers cost the greater of $5 or 5% and cash advances cost the greater of $10 or 5%.
- Credit Required. United MileagePlus Explorer requires excellent credit. Any credit blemishes of note are likely to be disqualifying.
- Attainable, Valuable Sign-up Bonus. The Explorer card has an attainable, valuable sign-up bonus: 30,000 bonus miles for $1,000 spent in the first 3 months of card membership, plus an additional 5,000 bonus miles when you add an authorized user and make your first purchase. The total value of this combined bonus depends on the dollar value of the flights the accumulated miles are redeemed for, but it can reliably rise to $700. The American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles card’s sign-up bonus is worth less than half that, as is Alaska Airlines Visa Signature’s.
- Airport and In-Flight Benefits. The Explorer card has a nice lineup of benefits and perks that reduce the cost and stress associated with airline travel: 2 complimentary United Club lounge passes per year, first checked bag free (up to $100 value, round-trip), priority boarding, and the ability to choose any seat in your selected fare class. The Capital One Venture Rewards and American Express Premier Rewards Gold cards don’t offer priority boarding, complimentary lounge access, or free checked bags.
- Benefits at Partner Hotels. The Explorer card has some nice hotel benefits, including extended-hours check-in and check-out, complimentary room upgrades whenever available, free breakfast, and location-specific perks such as free or discounted spa services. The American Express Premier Rewards Gold card doesn’t offer anything similar.
- Bonus Miles for Heavy Spenders. If you spend at least $25,000 in any calendar year, you get 10,000 bonus miles deposited into your account. That’s good for a short-haul one-way domestic flight, or about 80% of the miles cost of a longer-haul one-way domestic flight. While $25,000 is a high bar for some people to clear, it’s definitely attainable if you travel frequently and use the Explorer card as your primary credit card – particularly if you travel for business and can get reimbursed for your airfare purchases. Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard requires you to spend $30,000 before its bonus kicks in.
- Miles Never Expire. As long as your account remains open and in good standing, the MileagePlus miles you accumulate with this card never expire. Many airline and hotel rewards credit cards require you to earn or redeem points at least once per year to keep them from winking out of existence.
- No Foreign Transaction Fees. This card doesn’t charge extra for foreign transactions – great news for frequent overseas (or north- and south-of-the-border) travelers. Citi Hilton Honors Visa Signature and Citi Expedia+, both popular travel rewards cards, charge 3% foreign transaction fees.
- Comes With an Annual Fee. After the first year, the United MileagePlus Explorer Card carries a $95 annual fee. This is higher than other comparable airline and travel rewards cards, including Alaska Airlines Visa Signature ($75) and Barclaycard Arrival Plus World MasterCard ($89).
- Miles Accumulate Slowly for Infrequent Travelers. The Explorer card earns 1 mile per $1 spent on everything except United Airlines airfare. If you don’t purchase United airfare very often, you’re not going to accumulate miles at a breakneck pace. For faster points accumulation on a wider range of spending categories, look to Chase Sapphire Preferred (unlimited 2 points per $1 spent on dining and travel, plus one-to-one points transfer to several frequent flyer programs including United Airlines) or Barclaycard Arrival Plus World MasterCard (unlimited 2 points per $1 spent on all purchases).
- Inflexible Redemption Options. You can only redeem your accumulated MileagePlus miles for United Airlines airfare purchased direct with the airline. This isn’t a problem if you live near a United hub and regularly fly with the airline, but it’s a drag if you prefer a more expansive menu of redemption options. The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World MasterCard lets you use rewards to offset virtually any type of travel purchase, while the U.S. Bank FlexPerks Travel Rewards card lets you redeem for cash equivalents too, such as gift cards and statement credits.
- No Redemption Rebate. The Explorer card doesn’t give you a rebate when you redeem your accumulated miles for airfare. Many other travel rewards cards, including Barclaycard Arrival Plus (5% redemption bonus) and Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard (10% redemption bonus), offer this extra show of gratitude.
The United MileagePlus Explorer Card is one of many airline-specific credit cards. Just about every major U.S. carrier, from Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines, to American and Delta, has at least one rewards card that rewards loyalty with accelerated miles accumulation on airfare and/or in-flight purchases.
Since it’s not practical to apply for and use every single airline-specific rewards card out there, you need to give some thought to which card is the best fit for your particular situation. This consideration usually comes down to your spending patterns, how you prefer to redeem your rewards, and whether you live close enough to an airline or partner hub to take full advantage of the rewards program.