As the second largest airline in North America, United Airlines served 140 million passengers in 2012 with more than 5,300 daily departures. For travelers who fly frequently on United Airlines, signing up for one of the two United credit cards can help alleviate travel cost while improving the overall travel experience.

As both cards are packed with various features, compare the two cards to which one should you get?

United Airlines Credit cards image

Alan Wilson / Flickr source

United Airlines offers only two credit cards: the United MileagePlus Explorer Card and the United MileagePlus Club Card.

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:

FeatureRegular pricingUnited MileagePlus ExplorerUnited Mileage Plus Club
Annual fee-$95$395
Checked bags1st: $25, 2nd: $35, 3rd and after: $100 eachFirst checked bag is free for you and one companionFirst 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 $89Priority boarding after Premier members, but before general boardingComplimentary Premier Access services where available
United Club lounge passes$50 each; annual membership for unlimited acces: $500Two complimentary one-time passes per yearUnlimited access to United Club locations

When the 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.

Tip: Whether you’re traveling with a friend or the whole family, you can travel comfortably by signing up for one of these credit cards offering free perks. Check out the article on the best credit cards that help you save money on family travel.

When the 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.

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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.

Here is a complete list of the best airline credit cards.

  • sfomsp

    Uninformed review – you’re missing some basic facts about the power of each card that weigh the decision here.

    • DC

      Why not share these facts and benefit all of us instead of pointing out what the author missed.

    • LiberalGilt

      Moron makes a statement and doesn’t back it up with facts. God what a doper.

  • It’s possible to get the annual fee waived for the first year on the $395 card if you have status with United – just FYI.

    • MikeC

      doctorofcredit – do you have any more details on getting annual fee waived for first year if you have status with United ? I wonder if my United SILVER status would make any difference…

      • badlo

        It did for me. Just got silver status in December and got the card as a targeted offer in January. Not sure if they were running a promotion but I got the first year waived