United MileagePlus Explorer Credit Card Review

Estimated read time: 6 minutes

Many people tend to think about travel narrowly in terms of flying. Yet any seasoned traveler will tell you that to travel well has as much to do with the airport and destination experience, as it does the in-flight one. The most stressful part of getting to a new destination is the usually the part that leads up to getting into your seat.

Chase and United Airlines had this complete travel experience in mind when they launched the MileagePlus Explorer Awards card in 2011, just after United merged with Continental Airlines to become the third-largest in the nation. This partnership means the carrier has 337 destinations in 54 countries. Using the card earns miles on all United flights purchased through the airline and on other travel spending.

While miles on purchases is pretty typical of a travel card, the MileagePlus Explorer offers other United Airlines perks, such as access to the United Club in airports and free checked baggage.

This card is a great choice if you:

  • Fly on United regularly
  • Buy tickets directly through United
  • Check bags at the airport
  • Travel frequently abroad
  • Are likely to spend A LOT on credit each year

Here’ what you need to know about this card:

Card Overview: United MileagePlus Explorer

These are the best features and benefits

Experts agree that the best things about the Explorer card are its accessible flight rewards, various mileage bonuses and airline perks. So without further adieu, here they are:

United Travel Benefits

The United MileagePlus Explorer card stands out from general travel cards because of its airport benefits. Every year, cardholders get two United Club passes, along with other perks like checked bags.

United Club passes. Access to an airport lounge makes waiting for your flight infinitely more bearable—especially if there are delays. United Clubs have comfortable seats, wi-fi, newspapers and magazines, private phone booths and, in some locations, showers. Best of all: free wine, beer and snacks.

Free checked bags and priority boarding. Now that airlines regularly charge for checked bags, it's a relief to be able to skip yet another extra fee.

Here's the catch: you have to book your flight using the Explorer card in order to get the free checked bag and priority boarding. Since you earn miles on United flight purchases, it makes sense to do so anyway.

With this card you are eligible for miles on any flight purchase through United, and can potentially become eligible for hefty bonuses that may sweeten the pot for frequent travelers who tend to book on credit.

Although United devalued its award miles in 2014, there are still good deals available especially if you keep an eye on featured Saver awards with extra availability. To get the best value out of your miles, plan ahead. That said, standard awards can be booked for any seat, any time, which takes out the hassle involved in many mileage redemption programs. There are no blackout dates, but Saver tickets do have limited availability. Miles can also be redeemed on hotels, restaurants, car rental, United Club membership, business class upgrades.

Hotel and event benefits

Like many Chase cards, the MileagePlus Explorer gets you nice benefits with the Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection. You can use your MileagePlus Explorer card to book a stay at one of its 900 properties worldwide, and enjoy nice perks, such as:

  • Complimentary breakfast for two
  • Free wi-fi
  • Room upgrade, if available
  • Early check-in or late check-out, if available
  • With Inside Access, get access to exclusive ticket deals for food, cultural and athletic events nationwide.

Travel and purchase protections

The United MileagePlus Explorer card comes with a slew of travel protections—such as trip cancellation insurance and lost luggage reimbursement—plus purchase protections.

Travel protections. If you use the United MileagePlus Explorer card while traveling, you're likely going to be covered for anything that goes awry. Like many travel cards, the MileagePlus Explorer card offers trip delay reimbursement. If your flight is delayed more than 12 hours—even if it's not a United flight—you will be covered for some of the cost of lodging and emergency changes in plans. There's also baggage delay insurance, lost luggage reimbursement limits and trip cancellation insurance. When you charge a rental to the United MileagePlus Explorer card, you automatically get primary collision damage insurance. Most credit cards offer secondary rental insurance coverage as well.

Purchase Protections. It's smart to use the United MileagePlus Explorer card when making purchases, especially pricey ones. The card may be especially rewarding for high-tech shoppers who like to make purchases online. The MileagePlus website offers consumer flexibility and an easy-to-redeem user experience. Opportunities for extra points exist for those who download the MileagePlus X app. Secure account management through the app or website is also available.

And now for the biggest pitfalls and drawbacks

The United MileagePlus Explorer card does have its downsides when compared to similar cards with different offerings. Here’s what you need to know before you decide:

Little flexibility

The United MileagePlus Explorer card only earns miles for United and Star Alliance flights. If you want more flexibility, it's not the best choice. Even if you fly on United frequently, other cards may result in more miles and better bonuses.

Checked baggage… with a catch

The free first checked bag is a great deal. If you take four flights on United a year, the baggage alone may pay for other fees associated with this card. But generally if you fly on a number of airlines, or if you don't use the two club passes, you’re leaving money on the table.

High spending

By design, this elite card rewards high-spenders who use the card responsibly. If you don’t plan to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year on credit and pay your balance each month, maybe move along to a travel card designed for a more typical consumer.

Alternative Cards to Consider

The main competitors to the MileagePlus Explorer card are other airline-branded cards, such as the American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles card and the Citi/AAdvantage World Elite Mastercard. The best card largely depends on what airline you use the most. If you live near a United hub like Newark or Los Angeles, it is likely a better choice for you. While if you're in Detroit, a Delta card will be a better bet.

Where the United MileagePlus Explorer card stands out is its United Club access, which includes free beer, wine, snacks and wifi, among other perks. The card provides two free passes every year, while the American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles only gives you a discount to the Delta Skyclub lounge, and the Citi/AAdvantage World Elite Mastercard doesn't include any such lounge access.

Final Thoughts: United MilePlus Explorer

The United MileagePlus Explorer is an all-around solid pick for high spenders who are well equipped to travel and like to fly United. But the reviews suggest that the card’s benefits leave more questions than answers. Some users were concerned about when you can and cannot use the Club passes and others were just psyched about extra miles for booking through the MileagePlus X apps.

What we love about this card is it’s easy to access your rewards from anywhere and it offers a number of valuable perks to United flyers with disposable income. But if you are looking for those perks to recoup other fees associated with card, you’ll have to use them strategically ensuring you access the United Club Lounge and make enough flights a year for the checked baggage to be worth it.

We don’t love the lack of flexibility that comes with only being able to fly United and Star Alliance, of that fact that other mileage cards, not tied to United, may offer more miles on this airline. But as far as credit cards go, United MileagePlus Explorer is not too shabby for United enthusiasts with a thick pocketbook and a strong desire to charge their travel expenses.