As the second largest airline in North America, United Airlines served 140 million passengers in 2012 with more than 5,300 daily departures. Travelers who fly on United frequently may consider a United credit card to help alleviate their travel costs and improve their travel experience.
United Airlines offers only two credit cards: the United MileagePlus Explorer Card and the United MileagePlus Club Card. Both cards come packed with features, but which one should you get?
The MileagePlus Explorer Card has a $95 annual fee, while the the United MileagePlus Club Card has a $395 annual fee. Although these cards offer frequent flyer miles on spending, their value is more easily determined by looking at their travel benefits, such as free checked bags, premium travel privileges and airport lounge passes.
Let’s compare these quantifiable perks for each of the two United credit cards:
|Feature||Regular pricing||United MileagePlus Explorer||United Mileage Plus Club|
|Checked bags||1st: $25, 2nd: $35, 3rd and after: $100 each||First checked bag is free for you and one companion||First and second checked bags are free for you and one companion|
|Travel privileges (priority check-in, security screening, boarding and baggage handling, where available)||Domestic flights: $9 to $59, international flights: up to $89||Priority boarding after Premier members, but before general boarding||Complimentary Premier Access services where available|
|United Club lounge passes||$50 each; annual membership for unlimited acces: $500||Two complimentary one-time passes per year||Unlimited access to United Club locations|
When the United MileagePlus Explorer Card is better
With a $95 annual fee, the MileagePlus Explorer Card offers great value for someone who flies with United at least two times per year. If you fly twice per year and check a single bag each time, you’ll get back $100 in value.
But, if you fly with a companion with a single check bag for each person, you can recoup the cost of the fee in a single round trip booking.
Fly more often with checked bags and you’re extracting greater value from the MileagePlus Explorer Card.
The two one-time passes to United Club lounges are valued at $50 each, which will cover the cost of the annual fee. However, it’s worth noting that one-time United Club passes are often sold by others for a much lower price. For instance, one-time passes can be bought on eBay for less than $15 each.
As for premium travel privileges, the MileagePlus Explorer Card only grants priority boarding. A United customer service representative did not provide a dollar value to the service as it is a part of its Premier Access program, which includes priority check-in, boarding, security screening and baggage handling. The cost varies based on which of the four services are available at a particular airport.
When the United MileagePlus Club Card is better
The seemingly high annual fee of $395 for the MileagePlus Club Card is intimidating to most consumers who don’t travel often enough to justify such an airline credit card. Again, depending on your travel habits, the annual fee may or may not be worth paying.
With two roundtrip flights where you travel with one companion and bring along two checked bags per person, you would have gotten $480 in value. It’s also possible with four roundtrip flights where you travel alone and have two checked bags.
The unlimited access to United Club locations is worth $500 alone. If you don’t fly with checked bags, you’d have to visit a United Club lounge at least eight times to recoup the annual fee. Again, one-time passes are available for cheaper when purchased from a third-party. Lounge access is nice to have but your decision to sign up for the MileagePlus Club Card should not be based only on this perk.
Premier Access ranges from $59 to $89, assuming that an airport is able to provide the full suite of travel privileges. MileagePlus Club cardmembers get it as a complimentary benefit.
The MileagePlus Club Card has a slew of other perks that are more difficult to quantify, including personal concierge, room upgrades at 700 hotels and resorts worldwide, platinum membership in the Hyatt Gold Passport loyalty program and Avis First membership.
Ideally, if you sign up for the United MileagePlus Club Card, you fly at least four times per year with United and tend to have plenty of luggage with you. The access to airport lounges and premium travel perks should be important to your travel experience.
The card is not worth the cost if you tend to travel light and don’t find any substantial value in the other travel benefits.
Miles outshined by perks
Both the United MileagePlus Explorer and Club cards offer 2 miles per dollar spent on United ticket purchases. The MileagePlus Explorer Card offers 1 mile per dollar on everything else while the MileagePlus Club Card offers 1.5 miles per dollar on everything else.
The ability to earn miles is overshadowed by the cards’ respective perks because the value of the miles can vary highly, depending on spending and on how each person redeems the earned miles.
Furthermore, the redemption of United miles are independent of which card you have. The cost of miles for award flights differ by destination and cabin class.
Plan ahead, then pick your card
Taking the time to review your past travel patterns and any upcoming trips will help with your decision in picking the right United credit card for you.
Pay extra attention to the baggage that you carry with you and how often you fly with others because the savings on baggage-checking fees will be most noticeable with the airline’s credit cards.
Calculate the fees you’ve paid, or are likely to pay in the future, to see if you’d actually end up saving money with one of the two United credit cards.