Defeat Basic Economy and More With The United Explorer Card

Defeat Basic Economy and More With The United Explorer Card

BY Shep McAllister ON

At a quick glance, the United Explorer Card might look like a ho-hum airline rewards credit card, with the decent-but-boring benefits that you'd expect from any airline card. But the card comes with a few under-the-radar benefits (in addition to a lucrative welcome offer) that make it a compelling addition to almost any traveler's wallet.

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The Basics

The United Explorer Card comes with a $95 annual fee, but it's waived for your first cardmember year. For a limited time, you can also get a 40,000 point welcome bonus after spending $2,000 on purchases in your first three months, plus an extra 25,000 miles after spending $10,000 total in your first six months.

The Points

You'll earn 2 United miles for every dollar you spend on United purchases, at restaurants, and on hotel accommodations when purchased directly with the hotel, plus 1 mile per dollar on all other purchases.

Select United Airlines award flights start at just 5,000 miles, but it's more common to see Saver Fares priced at 12,500 miles one-way domestically, or 30,000 miles to Europe. Of course, more expensive flights at peak times will usually cost more miles, but there's no simple exchange rate between dollars and miles in United's program. The Points Guy values United miles at 1.3 cents each, but the value you get will vary considerably from flight to flight.  

Interestingly, you'd earn 2x points on all of those same bonus categories (plus more travel purchases) with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, or 3x with the Chase Sapphire Reserve, and then convert those Ultimate Rewards points into United miles (or not). But even if you're an Ultimate Rewards loyalist, it might still be worth adding the United Explorer card to your wallet for the perks.

The Perks

All United Explorer cardholders get access to a suite of perks that can make any United Airlines flight more enjoyable. Here are the highlights:

Upgraded Boarding (Plus Better Basic Economy)

If you have the Explorer card and include your MileagePlus number on a United reservation, you'll automatically get to board with Group 2. That lets you take your seat earlier and secure overhead bin space, yes, but if you're flying on a Basic Economy fare, it also means that you'll be able to bring a carry-on bag aboard, which isn't otherwise allowed.

United is the only major U.S. airline to not allow carry-ons with basic economy tickets, so an upgraded boarding perk can really make a difference to your travel experience in a way that it doesn't with other airline credit cards.

Free Checked Bag

You and one companion on the same reservation will be allowed to check a bag for free (normally $30 per bag, each way), as long as you paid for the flight with the United Explorer card.

Two United Club Passes Per Year

Once per year starting on your first cardmember anniversary, you'll receive two one-time passes to any United Club airport lounge, which would normally set you back $59 each (and only then if you had a valid same-day boarding pass).

In-Flight Discount

Pay for food, beverages, or Wi-Fi with your card, and you'll get 25% off.

Primary Rental Car Insurance

This is a big one. Most travel credit cards claim to offer rental car insurance, but it's almost always secondary insurance, which kicks in only after your own auto insurance policy is exhausted. The United Explorer card is one of the few that will actually take the place of your own auto insurance on eligible rentals. Just be sure to pay for the car with your Explorer card, and remember to decline the rental car company's coverage.

Global Entry/TSA PreCheck Credit

This is a pretty common benefit for high-end credit cards, but not ones with annual fees under $100. Just charge the application fee to the card once every four years, and you'll get a credit of up to $100 back on your statement.

XN Fare Class

This is a perk that United doesn't really advertise, but it's possibly the single best reason to get this card. United Explorer cardholders will be able to access expanded award availability (XN-class fares, technically) that's otherwise only available to United elites. That means you may be able to book the last seat on a plane with points instead of cash, or more commonly, you'll spend fewer points than other fliers for the exact same award seat.

The benefit doesn't extend to every flight (The Points Guy has a thorough explanation of how to find eligible fares here), but it can help you save a ton of points in aggregate, especially if you're booking flights for the whole family.

Why Apply?

The United Explorer card doesn't have a perk as flashy as the free companion ticket you'd get with some other airline cards, but its under-the-radar benefits like access to XN fares, primary rental car insurance, and free carry-ons for basic economy fliers are well worth the card's $95 annual fee.

If you fly United with any regularity, just adding the card to your wallet can pay big dividends every time you travel, even if you rarely actually use it.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Photo: Jason Leung/Unsplash

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