I receive compensation for many links on this blog. You don’t have to use these links, but I am grateful to you if you do. American Express, Citibank, Chase, Capital One and other banks are advertising partners of this site. Any opinions expressed in this post are my own, and have not been reviewed, approved, or endorsed by my advertising partners. I do not write about all credit cards that are available -- instead focusing on miles, points, and cash back (and currencies that can be converted into the same).
The very first frequent flyer program credit card was the Continental TravelBank Gold MasterCard from Marine Midland Bank (now HSBC), introduced in 1986.
Even for a geek about this stuff like me it’s easy to forget that Continental’s program became Onepass because it was one program for Continental and Eastern Airlines, both part of Frank Lorenzo’s airline empire which began with Texas International.
However TravelBank became synonymous with cash credit for airfare at Continental, rather than traditional miles. Indeed in 2007 Chase introduced the Continental Airlines TravelBank World MasterCard which earned cash credit towards travel instead of miles.
Everything old is new again as Continental and United have merged and Chase still issues the cobrand cards, and this year they launched the United℠ TravelBank Card… a no annual fee that earns a rebate to spend on travel instead of frequent flyer miles.
Signup bonus is $150 in United travel credit after $1000 spend within three months and earning is 2% back on United purchases and 1.5% back on all other purchases in the form of TravelBank cash which you can use to pay for United travel.
There’s certainly a role for just buying tickets with your rebates but you’re better off with real cash like the statement credits you earn from the Citi Double Cash Card. Use cash earned at a higher rate of return to buy tickets — or anything else.
Chase is now waiving the first year fee on the United Explorer Card. You earn 40,000 bonus miles after $2,000 spend on purchases in the first 3 months after account open isn’t the biggest we’ve seen, it’s a true net benefit not offset by a first year fee. (After the $0 the first year annual fee it is then $95.)
What’s great about the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card is the travel benefits when flying United. You get first bag for free when you use your card to purchase your ticket. You get priority boarding (avoid having to gate check your carry on, and indeed on a Basic Economy fare you can still bring on a full-sized carry on bag since the Basic Economy prohibition on full-sized carry on bags is handled via boarding group).
With this card you’ll get 2 one-time United Club passes each year for your account anniversary as well.
Cardmembers get access to last seat availability on extra miles awards as well as extra saver award availability that general members don’t have. Elites with the card can receive complimentary domestic upgrades on award tickets.
In my view the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card is best for someone who flies United regularly but not enough for elite status and for United elites who redeem miles for domestic flights.
In the former case the card approximates key benefits of status like early boarding (don’t be forced to gate check your carry on, and even still get to have a carry on if booking a Basic Economy fare) and free checked bags. In the latter case because it makes you eligible for upgrades on domestic award tickets.
On the other hand those who fly United enough to make good use of their lounges, indispensible when things go wrong and you need rebooking assistance during irregular operations, should get the feature-rich United MileagePlus® Club Card — which has its own signup bonus, something that’s been missing from the card in the past, 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.
Spending will earn 2 miles per $1 spent on tickets purchased from United and 1.5 miles per $1 spent on all other purchases. And this $450 annual fee card comes with United Club membership and travel benefits like first and second checked bag free when you use the card to purchase your ticket. It comes with priority check-in, security screening (where available), boarding and baggage handling.
The United MileagePlus® Explorer Card is a great tool for someone who flies United semi-regularly but not enough to earn elite status, and you can get it now with bonus miles and not even pay an annual fee for the first year.
Either card of course is good for someone looking to waive United’s ‘premier qualifiying dollars’ minimum spend for elite status (up to Platinum, the 75,000 mile tier) via credit card spend, as combined spend of $25,000 or more on a United co-brand credit card can take the place of that requirement for a U.S.-based member.
Both cards of course are subject to ‘5/24’ meaning they’re most appropriate for folks that haven’t signed up for 5 or more new cards in the last 24 months.