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If you fly United even a handful of times per year, the United℠ Explorer Card offers some high-value perks that can make award travel more affordable, and more accessible. Benefits like free checked bags, complimentary United Club passes, primary auto rental insurance, free roadside assistance, and priority boarding more than account for the annual fee.
But the card’s most valuable perk is poorly understood and often overlooked:
“MileagePlus Premier® members and qualified MileagePlus Chase Cardmembers are eligible for exclusive award travel availability.”
In other words, if you have the card, you get access to extra award seats that aren’t available to everyone else.
A big reason this benefit doesn’t get much attention is that United leaves out a huge detail in their marketing materials. United advertises “No Blackout Dates” as one of the key benefits of the card. This means you can use miles to book the last seat on a flight—effectively giving you the same options with miles as you have when paying with cash.
Unfortunately, booking the last available seat will require a lot of extra miles. Those tickets are known as Everyday Awards, and they typically cost at least double the number of miles needed for a Saver Award.
So what is United leaving out? Cardmembers also get access to additional saver-level award space in economy that is typically reserved for United Premier Platinum and Platinum 1K elite members.
How to Find Expanded United Award Space
To unlock United's hidden award space, simply sign in to your MileagePlus account before searching United for award flights. United will recognize your status as a co-brand cardholder and display additional fare classes when you search for awards. Flights featuring expanded award space will be highlighted like the search below, and will explicitly call out that the award space is “Exclusively available to you as a MileagePlus Chase Cardmember.”
The expanded award space is labeled as a different fare class from the award space available to all MileagePlus members:
- Additional Economy Saver Awards are labeled: (XN)
- Additional Business Everyday Awards are labeled: (JN)
For example, when we display the flight details for this itinerary, the fare class for Economy Saver award space is labeled (X), which is the standard fare bucket for Economy Saver awards. But you’ll also notice the AUS-IAH economy segment on the Business Saver award is labeled with the (XN) fare class, which is only available to MileagePlus Chase cardholders and Premier elite members.
Without access to the (XN) economy seat on the one-hour flight from Austin to Houston, you can't book the 60,000 mile business-class ticket all the way to Frankfurt.
The expanded award space can help you piece together much better itineraries on multi-segment, international awards. More award availability often leads to shorter connection times, and fewer stops to reach your destination. You can find routes with additional Saver level award space open only to United cardholders or Premier elite status holders on this dedicated page of United’s website.
The additional Business Everyday Award space with the fare class (JN) is also only available if you hold the United Explorer Card or another co-brand card. Everyday award space requires a lot more miles, but it may come in handy if business class is a priority and cash fares are expensive.
Which United Co-Brand Cards Qualify for Additional Award Space?
- 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open
- $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95.
- Earn 2 miles per $1 spent at restaurants and on hotel stays
- Up to $100 Global Entry or TSA PreCheck™ Fee Credit
- 25% back on United inflight purchases
- Check your first bag for free (a savings of up to $120 per roundtrip) when you use your Card to purchase your ticket
- Enjoy priority boarding privileges and visit the United Club℠ with 2 one-time passes each year for your anniversary
- Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on purchases from United, and 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases
- 2X miles per $1 spent on purchases from United
- 2X miles per $1 spent at restaurants and on hotel stays
- 1X mile per $1 spent on all other purchases
An important point to emphasize here is that the United℠ Explorer Card is a product to keep for the benefits, not as a card you spend money on outside of purchasing United tickets for the Free Checked Bag benefit. Earning just 1 mile per dollar on non-bonus spending and 2x on United spend, you'll earn a lot more United miles with an Ultimate Rewards earning combo of cards, optimized for all spending categories, which then transfer to United at a 1:1 ratio.
Other United co-brand cards that open up expanded award space include:
If you play the points and miles hobby in two-player mode with a spouse or partner, only one of you needs to hold a MileagePlus co-brand card for this strategy to work, as you can transfer Ultimate Rewards points to the ‘enhanced' account to book the expanded award inventory.
Even if the person traveling is not the member able to book the expanded awards, United allows you to book for anyone with a MileagePlus account, so this benefit can effectively let you book travel for anyone.
Does Expanded Award Space Include Partners?
The short answer is no. Holding the United Explorer Card or any other United card only opens up additional award space on United-operated flights, including regional subsidiaries like United Express. But the expanded award availability can make partner awards more accessible. In many cases, the extra availability eliminates the need to purchase a separate ticket to position to an international hub where saver-level partner flights are available.
What Miles Can I Use To Book Expanded MileagePlus Award Space?
You can only book the expanded award inventory using United miles, or points transferred to MileagePlus from your Ultimate Rewards or Marriott Rewards accounts. Ultimate Rewards points transfer to United at 1:1, and Marriott Rewards points transfer at 3:1.1 with an additional 5,000 United miles awarded when you transfer in blocks of 60,000 Marriott points.
There is no way of booking the expanded award space with partner miles from the likes of Singapore KrisFlyer or Avianca LifeMiles. Partners can only access the saver-level fare buckets for economy and business—not the expanded (XN) and (JN) fare classes reserved for United cardholders.
Just for holding the United℠ Explorer Card, you automatically gain access to additional award space at both the saver and everyday award levels. While the extra saver availability is restricted to economy awards, we still rate it one of the card’s most valuable features. If you fly United often, this card's benefits should more than cover the annual fee. Since the card is subject to the 5/24 rule, it won't be an option right away for everyone, but you should definitely consider putting it on your shortlist of cards to pick up in 2020.
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