The United Explorer card isn’t the flashiest card out there, but its low-ish annual fee gets you access to some impressive perks that you wouldn’t expect to see from an entry-level airline card.
As you might expect, spending money with the United Explorer card earns United MileagePlus miles, which can be used to book United Airlines flights. One-way United flights generally start at 12,500 miles, though rates as low as 5,000 miles will be available on select routes starting in November, and cardholders often have access to special “XN”-coded rates that aren’t available elsewhere. More on that later. All told, The Points Guy boils this down to a valuation of 1.2 cents per point—not the best in the industry, but certainly not the worst.
You’ll earn two points per dollar on United Airlines purchases, plus two points per dollar on restaurant purchases and hotel stays, and one point on all other purchases. None of those rates are particularly exciting, especially since you’d get three points per dollar on all of those bonus categories with a Chase Sapphire Reserve (and could transfer said points to United, if you wished). But as with most airline cards, the value here is more in the perks than in the earning capabilities.
The card does carry a fairly standard $95 annual fee, but it’s waived in the first year, so you’ll have plenty of time to earn points and get value out of the card before you have to pay for the privilege to hold it.
Airline credit cards make their bones on perks, and the United Explorer has a solid set of offerings:
- One free checked bag for the cardholder and one guest on the same reservation, when you book your flight with the card.
- Priority boarding.
- A $100 TSA Precheck or Global Entry credit every four years.
- 25% back on purchases of food, beverages, and Wi-Fi onboard United-operated flights.
- Two one-time United Club passes each year on your cardmember anniversary.
The TSA Precheck/Global Entry credit and club passes are both impressive inclusions on a $95/year card. Anyone who’s spent a long afternoon in an airport waiting out a delay would probably tell you that the lounge passes are worth the annual fee on their own. Just note that you’ll need a same-day boarding pass on a United or Star Alliance flight to get into the lounge; you can’t just pop in because your Southwest flight got delayed.
But perhaps the most valuable perk of all is one that United doesn’t even advertise on the United Explorer Card’s application page: access to XN-coded award rates on select routes. These are essentially saver-level awards that are only available to cardmembers and elite status holders. So even if normal flyers only see expensive award rates on a given flight, you may have still have access to a saver rate just by being a cardmember. The Points Guy has a more thorough explanation of the fare class here.
If you fly United a few times per year, and especially if you live near an airport with a United Club Lounge, the United Explorer is an obvious addition to your wallet. Even if its welcome bonus is ho-hum and its earning opportunities are limited, the perks are easily worth the annual fee, especially since it’s waived for your first year.
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