For my personal credit card points system, I’m all in on Chase’s Ultimate Rewards infrastructure. There’s a number of reasons to love the UR world, mostly centered around the benefits of the Chase Sapphire Reserve card as one of the best premium travel cards available today, but also how well Sapphire plays with several other no annual fee cards from Chase, particularly the Freedom and Freedom Unlimited.
Despite that, I also pay $95 per year to keep the Chase United Explorer card. At first, this may seem to violate my rules of “pick a system, commit to the system” as the United Explorer card directly earns MileagePlus miles rather than UR points. Today, I’ll share the reasons why I continue to hang onto this additional card, and why the $95 annual fee makes sense to me.
Improving Recently, but No Sapphire Reserve
There was a recent article in the Wall Street Journal with United executives sounding off on their relationship with Chase, and disappointment in the performance of their United branded card with the bank. At the heart of this argument was the success of the Sapphire Reserve card, and the costs to United at the expense of their branded Chase card. I’m keeping my eye on this for long term implications as my primary redemption of UR points is through United and most often Star Alliance partners. However, in the short term, I’m hoping that United takes the route of making their card more competitive with other premium cards.
In 2018, Chase & United did improve the benefits of the United Explorer card (and a slight rebranding from the MileagePlus Explorer card), switching from 1x miles for purchases and 2x on airfare through United to the much more competitive 2x miles on travel and dining. This still significantly lags the benefits of the Sapphire Reserve, but was a step in the right direction. It did come at the cost of removing a 10k miles benefit for spending $25k on the card, essentially making it a 1.4x miles per dollar card. At this point, I really only use the Explorer card when purchasing flights for myself through United, and for one reason alone - free checked bags!
Reason 1: Free checked bags
United is my personal primary carrier, due to my preferred international airport (SFO), and my commitment to a single airline to consolidate points and get status benefits. However, baggage fees have become a way of life, and while I try to travel without checking bags when possible, for many trips that isn’t an option. With the United Explorer card, when booking with United, the first checked bag for me and a companion on the same booking are free. As baggage fees are now $30 for the first bag when traveling domestically, this gives me and my wife $120 in value for each trip where we both check a bag. Presuming we do two trips like this annually, this alone is a $240 value.
There is a bit of a downside here. You have to use the Explorer card to buy these flights, which also earns 1 point per dollar spent off less than using Sapphire Reserve, as Explorer gives 2 miles per dollar as opposed to the 3 UR points per dollar with Sapphire Reserve. However, the direct savings on bag fees is a much better return than the extra point per dollar.
Thankfully, United Explorer does offer some travel insurance benefits for purchases on their card, so I’m not entirely losing out on the Sapphire Reserve benefits around baggage delay, lost baggage or trip delay insurance for my United flights.
Reason 2: Global Entry fee
I’m a huge fan of TSA Pre security screening, as well as using Global Entry for reentry to the US. At $100 every five years, this offers a lot of value to me and my wife. However, at the price of free, it’s even better. Chase Sapphire Reserve will pay one Global Entry application fee every five years, but there are two of us. Enter the United Explorer card. As United Explorer also offers this same benefit, now both my wife and I can be reimbursed for the $100 application fee. Pretty easy math here - we get $100 benefit every 5 years, so $20 per year value.
Reason 3: Back-up No-Foreign transaction fee card
Again, United Explorer takes a back seat to Sapphire Reserve, but traveling internationally, it is critical to have a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. Most cards will typically charge about 3% for transactions not made in dollars. In addition to earning rewards points, you’re essentially saving an additional 3% on every international purchase using a card with no foreign exchange fees.
If you’re like me, you’ve had credit card numbers stolen and frozen while a new card and number are issued. That is fine if you’re living your daily life, but what happens if you’re on a huge trip overseas, and you lose access to your account? That is why I like having a backup account that offers the same benefit. The United Explorer card fills the role of my “break in case of emergency” card when overseas.
Reason 4: Other Benefits Flying with United
Baggage fees are definitely the big reason, but United has improved the benefits of the Explorer card to include a number of other perks that make flying with them even better. First, you are automatically put into Boarding Group 2. While Key & Peele have it “fairly” accurate on how airline boarding works (video below), Group 2 is still ahead of groups 3-5, and in a world where people do everything possible to avoid baggage fees, and I love getting a much better opportunity at overhead bin space.
If you’re planning to make purchases during the flight, such as snacks or drinks, the Explorer card gives you a 25% discount, so that $10 sandwich is now only $7.50. Again, not a great deal, but certainly better than not having the discount.
While most of the time I’m leveraging my Priority Pass membership to access clubs or restaurants while I wait for my flights, the Explorer card also comes with two United Club passes annually. While United values these at over $50 each, I’m not putting that much value into soup, cheese cubes and a few drinks. That said, I certainly use these every year, and try to maximize the opportunity for when I need them the most, particularly for longer layovers, as well as locations without a reasonable Priority Pass option.
Even before you fly, there are some additional benefits to having the United Explorer card. Reward ticket searching flight availability increases, and I’ll often see reward flights indicated “available to you as a Chase United Explorer cardholder.” As the availability of saver rewards tickets continues to decrease, this benefit does increase my likelihood of finding unique opportunities for premium intercontinental travel.
The last potential benefit is the Premier Qualifying Dollar waiver for MileagePlus status. A few years back, United added a required spend on flights in order to qualify for status. For Silver, the required spend, known as Premier Qualifying Dollars (or PQD) is $3000, it is $6000 for Gold, $9000 for Platinum, and $15,000 for 1K. The PQD is determined directly from the ticket price flying United, and excludes any other taxes or fees charged with your ticket.
With the Chase United credit cards, these required spend PQDs are waived for all except the 1K level when you spend $25k annually on Chase United branded credit cards.
I have personally used this benefit once, where I knew I would have the Premier Qualifying Miles (flown miles) to achieve a higher United status tier, but I wasn’t going to reach the PQD requirement. The PQD waiver is a pretty specific benefit, and I would recommend evaluating your PQM and PQD estimates for the year and determine if hitting the $25k waiver threshold offers you any benefit.
Reason 5: Bonus miles on MileagePlus X app
The MileagePlus X app is a great way to earn even more United miles, and having the Explorer card also enhances this return. As a cardholder, all eGift Card purchases on the app add an additional 25% earn. For example, if a restaurant is offering 4x miles per dollar for a gift card, I get an additional 1 point per dollar for a total of 5x earn. Both this year and last year, this benefit has given me an additional 1000+ points, so I’ll count that as another ~$20 value from my Explorer card annual fee.
Overall, there is still a significant gap between the benefits of the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the United MileagePlus Explorer card, but with certain critical benefits such as free checked bags and an additional Global Entry reimbursement, as well as a number of other smaller benefits, I still view the $95 annual fee as a solid investment supporting my overall travel goals and points use. As I used the Explorer card for less than 2% of my total credit card spend in 2018, this $95 is more of a United membership fee to access these benefits, with the bonus of being a non-foreign transaction fee card as a backup.
What do you think? Would the MileagePlus Explorer card be a beneficial addition to your credit card system?
If you want to apply today, here’s a link that you can use to add the Explorer card to your wallet, and help support our site. (Disclosure, we will benefit financially if you sign up using the link below)
Earn 40,000 bonus miles with United Explorer Card.