Why The United MileagePlus Explorer Card is a Keeper

 

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I just recently got an email from Chase and the new benefits that will be rolled out for the MileagePlus Explorer card. Starting from June 1st, cardholders will get 2x the miles on hotel and dining purchases (previously 1 mile/$1), $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA Precheck, and 25% off in-flight purchases. This is in addition to the two United Lounge passes that Chase gives every year upon renewing the card. All these perks are appealing and in the realm of basic economy, having an airline card assures you of being allowed to carry a bag that can be checked in or carried-on (if you book a basic economy fare). What happens if you don’t have an airline-branded credit card and you book the basic economy fare? You can only bring a bag that can fit under your sit. Anything that goes into the overhead bins would have to be paid for and airlines are starting to enforce this policy at the gate.

Many airline credit cards are popular for churning. This means you sign up and get approved for the card, rack up the bonus miles after hitting the minimum spend threshold and cancel the card within a year.  Then you’re free to apply those miles to that destination you’ve been saving up for. Since I find myself traveling between Chicago and the East Coast several times a year, I’ve held on to the United MileagePlus Explorer card as well as the Citi American AAdvantage Platinum to save on baggage fees and for the convenience of priority boarding (on super busy routes such as LGA to ORD, it assures overhead bin space). If there was only one credit card you wanted to pay an annual fee for, I wouldn’t recommend an airline-branded card since you’re married to that one airline if you want to reap the benefits. A credit card such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Reserve would be the better option since you have multiple airlines whose frequent flier programs you can utilize via transfer. But if you’re willing to pay for two cards and you live near a United hub (Chicago, D.C., Houston, Denver, San Francisco, Newark/NYC, and Los Angeles), the United MileagePlus Explorer credit card might be one of the most appealing airline-branded credit cards available. In addition to the benefits I outlined above, United offers exclusive mileage redemptions to cardmembers only.

The example itinerary I used is Chicago (ORD) to Cancun from July 29th-August 4. In both instances, we’re going to use award redemptions.  The first example is the redemption available if you are a Chase United MileagePlus credit card holder.

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This is the segment from Chicago to Cancun. Two non-stop options available exclusively with the MileagePlus credit card for 17.5k miles.

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These are the options for the return. Three non-stop options if you hold the credit card. 35k miles for the roundtrip for one passenger.

Now let’s look at redemption availability if you want to book this same trip using United miles but you don’t hold the United MileagePlus Explorer credit card:

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If you want the non-stop option, it will cost 25k miles rather than the 17.5k miles seen above.

 

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They do have one 17.5k redemption to get to Cancun but look at that disgusting itinerary. Not only are you departing at 6am but you have to switch airports in D.C. By the time you’re in Cancun, you’re spent.

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The return trip to Chicago would cost 25k miles. There is no 17.5k option available for the return.

As you can see in the example above, having the Chase MileagePlus Explorer card means you’re using only 35k miles (plus the applicable taxes) with the benefit of having a non-stop flight on both legs of the journey. Without it, you’re using at a minimum, 42.5k miles and likely 50k miles if you want to have a non-stop each way and a productive first day in Cancun. How much is that 15k miles savings worth? The Points Guy values each United mile at 1.5 cents. 1.5 x 15k = $225. This is just an estimate but even if you valued it a bit lower, it becomes obvious the miles you saved by having the card is worth far more than the annual fee of $95 you’d be paying to keep the card. Again, this card isn’t for everyone and those who would benefit the most are travelers who live near a United hub. If you are an SPG or a Chase Sapphire Preferred/Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholder and you find yourself transferring Ultimate Rewards points or SPG points into United often, pairing the MileagePlus Explorer card with either of the three only enhances their value.

 

 

Photo source: http://www.chase.com

 

Travel Itinerary: 3 Days in Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor Maine

Acadia National Park had been on the bucket list for quite a while. Acadia National Park encompasses a large area of Mt. Desert Island off the coast of Maine. This beautiful setting is known for its stunning vistas, scenic hikes, views of the ocean from atop Cadillac Mountain. This is also the first place in the U.S. where you can see the sunrise between October and early March. If you’re there in the peak of summer, you can take a swim at Sand Beach when the water temperature is more tolerable. We drove from Albany, NY and it took us about 7 hours to get there. Acadia National Park is about a 4.5-hour drive from Boston and about an 8-hour drive from New York City.  If you’re not close enough to drive, you can also fly into Bangor International Airport which is about 50 miles from the town of Bar Harbor. We used Bar Harbor as our base camp and gateway into Acadia National Park.

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Day 1: Cadillac Mountain

We arrived at Bar Habor in the late afternoon about 2 hours before sunset. We stayed at the Hampton Inn which is located just 5 minutes away from the park entrance and used that as our base camp for this trip. Since it was a clear day, we decided to enter the park and drive up Cadillac Mountain to catch the sunset. The cost to enter Acadia National Park is $25 per vehicle and the pass is good for 7 days. Park Rangers routinely check for the passes (it must be hung over the rear-view mirror) so please purchase them prior to entering.  DSC_0066DSC_0118

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The spectacular sunset from Cadillac Mountain

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Overlooking the town of Bar Harbor from Cadillac Mountain

Incredible sunset views and plenty of photo opportunities. Cadillac Mountain has plenty of pull-outs so utilize them and take your time driving up the mountain. For dinner, we came across a tavern called Thirsty Whale. Their lobster rolls were delicious and highly recommended.

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No one does lobster quite like Maine. Here’s a lobster roll from Thirsty Whale in Bar Harbor.

 

Day 2: Jordan Pond and Bubble Rock Trail

Our second day in Maine was overcast with a slight drizzle at times, but nothing that would keep us from further exploring Acadia National Park. On this day, we decided to hike the trail around Jordan Pond and climb up South Bubble Rock. Jordan Pond is actually a small lake and there is no swimming allowed as it is the main source of drinking water for residents in the area. You are allowed to bring a kayak or small boat and utilize it on Jordan Pond. The circular trail around Jordan Pond is 3.4 miles and isn’t difficult at all. We saw people of all ages, from 5-year-olds to senior citizens. The hike up Bubble Rock is a different story. It’s only 0.4 miles but it’s all vertical and there are areas where you have to climb. I wouldn’t recommend this trail for kids or those who aren’t fit enough to climb vertically. Please wear proper hiking shoes if you decide to do this hike or any other at Acadia. They do get precipitation often and gym shoes on slippery rocks is a recipe for disaster. Once at the top, the views are magnificent.

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Jordan Pond

 

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Part of the trail around the perimeter of Jordan Pond.

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Atop Bubble Rock. The hike to get here isn’t long but it is steep. The views at the top are amazing.

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We all made it.

For dinner, we stopped in town at went to a restaurant called Geddy’s. Their haddock sandwich was delicious. Seafood from Maine really is on a whole different level.

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The town of Bar Harbor, Maine. 

Day 3: Bowel Trail, Beehive Trail, Sand Beach, Cadillac Mountain

Day 3 gave us perfect weather and we took full advantage of it. First on the agenda was the top of Beehive Trail. There are actually two ways to get to the top. The first is taking the most direct route which is Beehive Trail itself and vertically climbing straight to the top. There are handlebars as you get higher and if you’re afraid of heights or you’re a novice hiker, this route isn’t for you.   The other way to get to the top of Beehive Trail is by taking the longer Bowel Trail. The hike is longer (1.4 miles) and you gain elevation gradually. This trail also offers multiple picture opportunities and allows you to loop around a small lake. If you do hike the Beehive Trail to the top, you have to hike Bowel Trail on the way back down as Beehive Trail only has one-way traffic going up. From the top of the trail, you’ll get spectacular views of the ocean, the park, and many islands around Mt. Desert Island.

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A view on the Bowel Trail

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Egg Rock Light, a lighthouse built in 1875 and still active today as seen from the trail. I used a zoom lens to get this close up shot. Still looks beautiful.

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View from the top of Beehive Trail. Sand beach in the background

 

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View of  Sand Beach from Beehive Trail

After we were done hiking, we walked across the street to Sand Beach to get an up-close look. The water looked very enticing but given that it was still early May, the water was still too cold to go for a dip. Perhaps late June through early September would be a good time to go for a swim. The beach is very clean and the water as blue as it looks in the picture.

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Sand Beach at Acadia National Park

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Sand Beach

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The rocky shore of Acadia National Park

Since we were going to pass Cadillac Mountain on the way back, we figured we would stop by and soak in the views from vantage points we missed the first day.

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Cadillac Mountain

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We stopped at a pull-out and walked a few hundred yards over the granite to get this view on Cadillac Mountain

For dinner, we went back to Geddy’s because of the wonderful experience we had the day before. This time we all opted for the fish and chips. And man, it did not disappoint.

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fish and chips with coleslaw and tartar sauce

This was our trip in a nutshell. I want to point out that there is a very steep and difficult trail called the Precipice Trail which is closed between March and August due to falcons nesting between that time. If you happen to go outside of this timeframe and you’re physically fit to hike the trail, check it out because I’ve heard nothing but great things about it. Whale watching season was still a few weeks away during our visit but if you’re in the area and are interested, it’s a great opportunity to potentially see humpback whales, minke whales, and finback whales. If you plan on visiting Acadia National Park, budget at least 3 days. 4 or 5 days would be optimal in case a day or two isn’t productive due to the weather. This was a memorable trip and Acadia National Park is a setting with endless beauty and plenty of things to do. We had a blast and we hope to visit again soon.