By George Hobica
American Airlines' then chairman C.R. Smith launched the first VIP airport lounge in 1936 to reward his best customers and supporters, upon whom he bestowed the honorific "Admirals." Back then, membership was at the discretion of the sales force. Today, however, anyone with enough money can join. They're expensive, but considering the chaos of the typical airline terminal, especially when flights are delayed or cancelled, well worth it--a definite step up from sitting on the floor next to the gate, fighting over the last available power outlet. In addition to comfortable workstations and cushy chairs, they offer perks like free beverages and civil reservation agents. But is that worth the price of admission ($450 per year for Delta's SkyClub, or $450-500 for American's Admirals Club)? It might be if you travel often.
However, if you're an infrequent flyer, but still want to wait comfortably and work productively, the best solution is a day pass, which costs $50 per person for Delta's Sky Club, Continental's Presidents Club, American's Admirals Club and United's Red Carpet Club.
Don't settle for the full price at first glance, however. While all airlines offer access to passengers traveling in the premium cabin on a same-day international (considered transoceanic or intercontinental) flight, each airline offers a few additional options that may entice you.
Delta offers discounted passes for $25 for those who have the Delta-branded Gold or Platinum American Express card. Companies purchasing large volumes of 50 or more can receive a further discount. In addition, customers traveling in First Class or full-fare Y class tickets on eight specific routes to/from JFK (Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Denver, and Las Vegas) can enjoy access at JFK or one of the eight aforementioned airports. This little-known perk is a great benefit for these premium transcontinental routes. Finally, a 30-day membership is available for $90 as a trial offer with the cost applicable to a full membership later.
United offers day passes online for $35, which can be printed from home. Alternatively, one-day passes can be purchased with 7,000 Mileage Plus miles at the club. Another benefit of the one-day passes is that they can be used at either a United Red Carpet Club or Continental Presidents Club. Passengers booked on United's p.s. (premium service) flights in First Class between JFK and SFO or LAX enjoy complimentary access to the Red Carpet Club and/or International First Class lounge on the day of travel. Continental sells day pass books online at a discount essentially offering 10 passes for the price of 9. These day passes have reciprocal access to any Continental or United-operated lounge. US Airways offers a discounted one-day pass when purchased online for the cost of $40. Alaska Airlines grants access to full-fare First Class passengers at any of its Board Room clubs, but also sells day passes for $45 for any of its five locations on the West Coast.
You can also buy annual club memberships using money or frequent flyer miles. Memberships run from $450 with Delta, US Airways and Alaska; $475 at Continental and United; and $500 at American. “Initiation fees” (always with the fees, these airlines) may also apply, but there are discounts if you're an upper tier member of the airline's frequent flyer program. If you're young and fly a lot, consider a lifetime membership, and pray that your airline doesn't go caput before you do. Memberships can also be purchased for a spouse at a discount.
As an added bonus, several offer reciprocal admission to other facilities although there are a few fine point restrictions. For example, Delta Sky Club members enjoy access to Alaska Board Rooms and vice versa when traveling on the other carrier. Continental and United club members enjoy reciprocal access. US Airways Club members can purchase an upgraded package that offers reciprocal access to United and Continental clubs.
For that outlay, you get an open bar in some clubs, snacks, free wireless Internet, comfy chairs and two guests. The last holdouts for free WiFi and wine/beer (United and American) have now given way so that all U.S. carriers offer these benefits. Premium spirits, wines, and beers are available for sale in many clubs with rather extensive menus on offer in the Continental, American, and United clubs. Delta is the only airline to still offer a variety of premium spirits and beers for free.
But another huge perk reveals itself when you need to be rebooked on an alternate flight because yours was cancelled or delayed. Would you rather stand in line with scores of the bumped and grumped, or go to the club, where the lines will be shorter (club receptionists are also able to rebook flights and assign seats). And for some, just having enough power outlets to charge computers and phones is reason enough to join.
It's important to note that airline clubs vary greatly in quality, even within a single airline. One location might be new and spacious, while another might have seen its last refurbishment when the Boeing 707 ruled the skies, with nary a free seat to be found.
Then there are the non-airline airport club programs. Priority Pass offers entry to 600 lounges worldwide, many of them not airline affiliated, in airports worldwide (compared to a single airline's membership that may have fewer than 50 locations). Membership costs either $99 annually plus $27 a visit or $399 annually for unlimited visits. Guests cost $27 extra, and there are often promotions for 20% off the full price making it even cheaper than a single airline's program.
Unfortunately, there are gaps in Priority Pass affiliated lounges at a few airports--no one wants to trek to a different terminal for a few free drinks--but most domestic airports are pretty well covered. This presents an obvious problem, especially at airports such as Atlanta Hartsfield where the only lounge is the Continental Presidents Club in Terminal D; or Miami where none of the airline-affiliated lounges participates. The two Miami airport-operated clubs are landside.
This is still one of the best deals around as it permits access to the broadest selection of lounges, no same-day airline flight requirements, and the lowest price.
Another good deal is the American Express Platinum Card airport club program, which allows members to use their cards to get into participating Delta, US Airways, American, and, until later this autumn, Continental lounges. Just show the card to get free access including for up to two guests at more than 100 locations worldwide, with the caveat that you must be flying on the airline of the lounge that you use that day—not the case with Priority Pass. Amex Platinum cards, whether business or personal, have a $450 yearly fee with no spending limit; essentially it's a combined Delta/US Airways/American membership, which would otherwise cost three times as much.
Finally, Diners Club cards provide access to over 350 lounges worldwide (the annual fee for the most basic personal card in North America is $95 a year). They have some interesting international locations plus more than a dozen in the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean in the network (Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York to name a few). However, if you find yourself in need of a lounge in Skopje, Macedonia--not traditionally a popular airport for layovers--you're covered too.
Bottom line, if you fly just one airline and fly a lot, join that airline's club, with United and Continental especially good choices thanks to reciprocal privileges. But if you fly on multiple U.S. carriers frequently, the American Express Platinum Card makes sense. Either way, you'll experience less stress, and work more productively. Unless you overdo it with the open bar.
What's your favorite?
Which airline has the best lounges? Which locations need improvement? If you use the Priority Pass, American Express, or Diner's Club programs, what's your experience with them? The comments are open for your posts.
Additonal reporting by Ramsey Qubein