Gold Delta Amex vs. United Explorer Card: Which airline credit card is best for you?

Gold Delta Amex vs. United Explorer 4X3Alyssa Powell/Business Inisder

  • An airline credit card earns you miles on all your spending, and can improve your flying experience with benefits like a free checked bag and priority boarding.
  • The Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express and the United Explorer Card are two of the most popular airline co-branded airline credit cards, and they're similar in many ways.
  • Both cards have a $95 annual fee and earn you 2x miles on purchases with the respective airline, but the United Explorer Card offers a few additional benefits like an application fee credit for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry.
  • The right choice for you depends on which airline you fly the most, which miles you value more, and which perks you need.

Nearly every airline offers co-branded credit cards at various price points, but the sweet spot seems to be an annual fee of $95. For that amount, you can at least expect to earn double miles for ticket purchases, while enjoying a free checked bag and discounts on your in-flight purchases.

But that's just the beginning, as the right airline credit card can also offer you priority boarding, airport lounge access and other perks when traveling. Let's take a look at the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express and the United Explorer Card from Chase, two of the most popular airline credit cards in this price range, and see which one is right for you.

Gold Delta Amex vs. United Explorer Card: the biggest differences

The first and most obvious difference between these two cards is that they earn miles and offer benefits with two different airlines: Delta and United. If you're more loyal to one airline, that can make the decision easy. If not, you'll want to give the cards' other benefits a closer look.

Both the Gold Delta Amex and the United Explorer Card earn 2 miles per dollar on purchases made with the respective airline, but the United Explorer Card also offers 2x miles on restaurants and hotel accommodations. The United Explorer Card also offers an application fee credit of up to $100 for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, and two one-time United Club lounge passes each year. The Gold Delta Amex doesn't offer these perks, though it does offer reduced-price access of $29 to Delta Sky Clubs.

Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express

This is one of four SkyMiles credit cards offered by American Express, and that doesn't even include the small business cards. Right now, this card's best features are its welcome bonus of both 30,000 SkyMiles after you make $1,000 in new purchases within three months of account opening, as well as 50% back on purchases made directly with Delta in the first three months, up to $300. This offer is only available until August 15, so don't wait to apply if you're interested.

Like most other airline credit cards, the Gold Delta Amex offers you double miles on airline purchases and one mile per dollar spent elsewhere. Benefits include a free checked bag for yourself and up to eight others traveling on the same reservation. You also receive a 20% savings on in-flight purchases and access to the Delta Sky Clubs for the reduced price of $29. There's a $95 annual fee for this card, but that's waived the first year.

Read more: Gold Delta Amex card review

United Explorer Card

The current welcome bonus for this card is 40,000 miles after you spend $2,000 within three months of account opening, but this card's rewards for spending and travel benefits are even more exciting. It offers you 2x miles not just on United purchases, but also at both restaurants and on hotel accommodations purchased directly from the hotel. These are two of the largest expenses faced by frequent travelers.

You also get a free checked bag for yourself and a single companion on the same reservation, but you must use your card to pay for your ticket or any taxes and fees on an award reservation. This card offers you a $100 statement credit for the application fee for TSA PreCheck or the Global Entry program, which includes PreCheck. Note that even if you're already a member of one of these programs, you can use this credit for your renewal or even to pay for someone else's application or renewal.

Other United Explorer Card benefits include two day passes to the United Club lounge each year, 25% back on United in-flight purchases and priority boarding. United card holders also receive expanded access to saver-level awards in economy class, making your miles even more valuable. Like the Gold Delta Amex, it has a $95 annual fee that's waived the first year.

Read more: United Explorer card review

Which card is right for you?

When comparing these two cards side by side, the United Explorer Card looks superior in most ways. It offers you more miles as a welcome bonus, and earns double miles offer for restaurant and hotel purchases, while the Gold Delta Amex only earns double miles on Delta purchases. It also offers several perks that are missing from the Delta card, such two United Club lounge passes per year and up to a $100 credit toward Global Entry or TSA PreCheck fees.

The Gold Delta SkyMiles Amex does have a few significant advantages over the United Explorer Card. First, its current offer can get you up to $300 in statement credits (50% back on purchases made directly with Delta in the first three months on up to $300), which may be nearly as valuable as the 30,000 SkyMiles you can also earn from the current welcome bonus. That and a free checked bag for up to nine on the same reservation, as opposed to only two with United.

You also want to compare the value of the miles that each card earns. While Delta has built a reputation for great service and operational reliability, its SkyMiles frequent flyer program isn't regarded nearly as well. It no longer publishes an award chart, and many travelers find that Delta charges far more miles for its award seats than its competitors do, especially when you're trying to redeem your miles for a premium-class ticket.

United has announced that it too will be moving to a more "dynamic" award pricing scheme later this year. But for the moment its MileagePlus miles tend to go much further than Delta SkyMiles, especially if you're a card holder who receives expanded access to saver awards in economy class.

Bottom line

None of this may matter to you if you live near a major Delta or United hub, and you're dependent on one airline to serve most destinations non-stop.

If you're committed to flying either Delta or United, then you can't really shop around. If so, you probably won't be choosing between a Delta or a United card, but just deciding which of the multiple cards offered by your preferred carrier is right for you. And in that case, Delta flyers will want to consider the Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express. It offers numerous benefits that the Gold Delta SkyMiles card lacks, and an annual companion certificate that can easily justify its higher $195 annual fee.

Click here to learn more about the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express from our partner The Points Guy.

Click here to learn more about the United Explorer Card from our partner The Points Guy.

Disclosure: This post is brought to you by the Personal Finance Insider team. We occasionally highlight financial products and services that can help you make smarter decisions with your money. We do not give investment advice or encourage you to adopt a certain investment strategy. What you decide to do with your money is up to you. If you take action based on one of our recommendations, we get a small share of the revenue from our commerce partners. This does not influence whether we feature a financial product or service. We operate independently from our advertising sales team.

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