Which United Airline Card is Better: the Explorer or the Club?

Oct 07, 2016 | Be First to Comment!


As the second largest airline in North America, United Airlines serves 140 million passengers every year with more than 5,300 daily departures. Are you one of the many travelers taking advantage of this huge airline?

If you are, you might be considering the idea of signing up for one of their credit cards. For good reason too - doing so can save you money and help improve your overall travel experience with United. The question is, how can you pick the best United credit card for you?

United Airlines has two popular credit cards, both of which are packed with various features: the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card and the United MileagePlus® Club Card.

At first glance, these cards look pretty different, with the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card charging a $95 annual fee and the United MileagePlus® Club Card charging a $450 annual fee. But there's a lot more to these cards than how the fees break down. In fact, their value is more easily determined by looking at their travel benefits, such as free checked bags, premium travel privileges, and airport lounge passes.

So, let's dig into the details and see if one of these cards might be your new favorite travel tool.

To start, let's compare the quantifiable perks for each of the two United credit cards:

Feature Regular pricing United MileagePlus Explorer United MileagePlus Club
Annual fee - $95 $450
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 $59 each; annual membership for unlimited acces: $450 to $550 Two complimentary one-time passes per year Unlimited access to United Club locations

When the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card is better

united mileage plus explorer cardWith a $95 annual fee, the United 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 United MileagePlus® Explorer Card.

The two one-time passes to United Club lounges are valued at $59 each, which will more than 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 United MileagePlus® Explorer Card only grants priority boarding. I tried to get more information on this by talking to a United customer service representative, but they did not provide a dollar value to the service. The reason for this is because it's a part of the 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.

How to Maximize the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card

You'll get the most value from the $95 annual fee through free checked bags. Flying with a companion when each of you has a checked bag is the most efficient way to generate big savings through the United MileagePlus® Explorer card.

If you don't think you'll use the United Club lounge passes, you can sell them to help compensate partially for the annual fee.

When the United MileagePlus® Club Card is better

united club cardThe seemingly high annual fee of $450 for the United MileagePlus® Club Card is intimidating to most consumers who don’t travel often enough to justify such an expensive airline credit card. But 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'd get $480 in value. It’s also possible to get that value with four roundtrip flights where you travel alone and have two checked bags.

The unlimited access to United Club locations is worth $450 to $550 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. United MileagePlus® Club cardmembers get it as a complimentary benefit. Once again, Premier Access includes priority check-in, boarding, security screening, and baggage handling.

The United MileagePlus® Club Card has a slew of other perks including personal concierge, room upgrades at 700 hotels and resorts worldwide, platinum membership in the Hyatt Gold Passport loyalty program, and Hertz President's Circle elite status.

With Hyatt Gold Passport Platinum status, you get a 15% point bonus on hotel stays, a preferred room option based on availability, free Internet access, and late checkout privileges.

Hertz President's Circle elite status means a 25% bonus on Hertz purchases and you'll be eligible for upgrades, exclusive offers, and other perks.

These additional benefits are more difficult to quantify because there is such a great degree of variation in their value. It depends on how you use them, if at all. But if you think you will use these perks, then the fee could easily pay for itself and then some, proving to be more than worth it for you in the end.

How to Make the Most of then United MileagePlus® Club Card

Ideally, if you sign up for the United MileagePlus® Club Card, you would fly at least four times per year with United and tend to have plenty of luggage with you. It's even better if you fly often with a companion so that you'll get twice as much value from your card benefits. This is how you can be sure the value you get from the card will be worth the fee you're being charged.

The access to airport lounges and premium travel perks should also be important to your travel experience. Remember these perks also extend to at least one of your travel companions. If you're always visiting a United Club location with a companion (or would like to have that option available to you), you're going to get double the value of the United Club membership.

If you find that you typically travel light (read: you don't need to check your bags) and you don't make use of other travel benefits, this card might not be worth the cost to you.

Miles can outshine perks

The rewards programs for the two United credit cards are extremely similar. The United MileagePlus® Club Card only has a slight edge.

Both the United MileagePlus® Explorer and United MileagePlus®Club cards offer 2 miles per dollar spent on United ticket purchases. The United MileagePlus® Explorer Card offers 1 mile per dollar on everything else while the United MileagePlus® Club Card offers 1.5 miles per dollar on everything else.

Initially, it may appear that the difference isn't substantial. It's easy for the rewards program to be 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, it is also tough to put a value to the rewards program.

However, for people who plan to put a large amount of purchases on their United credit cards, the difference between the two rewards programs will be quite apparent.

See the hypothetical scenario below:

Type of spending Amount spent per year Miles earned with United MileagePlus Explorer Miles earned with United MileagePlus Club
United Airlines purchases $5,000 10,000 10,000
All other purchases $10,000 10,000 15,000
Total $14,000 20,000 25,000

The rewards difference between the two United cards will be increasingly substantial as your spending rises, especially with non-United purchases. For someone who spends a lot during the year, the extra 0.5 miles per dollar on all purchases can result in an extra free flight or seating class upgrade worth thousands of dollars. The slightly higher rewards rate makes it worthwhile to carry the United MileagePlus® Club Card around more often and to use it more frequently.

On a separate note, if you're not actually taking advantage of any of the United travel perks that are offered by these cards, then you may just be better with a general travel rewards credit card. You'll have much more flexibility in terms of the airline that you choose to fly with.

Plan ahead, look back, 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. Generally, when you notice that you're paying a lot of money for checked bags and lounge access through United, it's time to take a closer at look at which of these two cards you should consider.

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