Why I Don’t Buy Lounge Membership (Though I Do Love Lounge Access)

American is sending out emails offering $50 off new club memberships.

Now In most of the world, elite members of airline frequent flyer programs get access to their airline’s airport lounges for free. In the U.S. the norm is to charge for access.

I do think that someone flying in excess of 100,000 miles per year will get good value out of a paid lounge membership. Airline clubs are something that I use, but I don’t buy any memberships directly, there are usually better ways to get access.

The primary benefits of lounge access are:

  • Help during irregular operations. Shorter lines and more helpful agents, if a flight cancels head straight to the club. The environment is more peaceful and you aren’t just one in a long line of people who are all unhappy. Of course I often am on the phone with the airline while I’m headed over to the club. As long as it’s not Alaska Airlines where the lounge agents cannot work on ticketing due to the contract the airline has with its union reservationists.
  • A quiet place to sit, work, recharge electronics. Generally nicer and more comfortable seating, more space, electric outlets. Not every lounge of course, fortunately US Airways club at La Guardia doesn’t exist anymore.
  • Snacks and drinks. Offerings vary, and it used to be you had to pay for cocktails in the U.S. with most lounges but that’s changed, at least house wine and beer tends to be free with better stuff coming at a premium. United clubs have more substantive free food than American ones (where you’ll most often just find an apple). Some lounges have food for purchase, I actually like the offerings at American’s Miami D30 club, at D15 I’ll just order a package of sushi rolls.

For me, the seating and clean bathrooms justify ensuring I have access. Better productivity and better hygiene. And if you get above-and-beyond extra help during irregular operations once a year the club can pay for itself.

But I do not have any airline club ‘memberships’. Instead, looking at how I can currently access the American Airlines clubs, I count:

  1. American Express Platinum card. This gets me:
    • American lounge access when flying American (ends March 2013)
    • Delta lounge access when flying Delta
    • US Airways lounge access regardless of airline I’m flying (ends March 2013)
    • Priority Pass Select, which provides great access to a variety of lounges internationally (such as the Gol Smiles domestic lounge in Sao Paolo) and also to Alaska Airlines lounges in the U.S. (such as this one in Portland)

  2. British Airways Gold status. I was a british midland Gold member, British Airways acquired bmi. Bmi used to get me access to United lounges, but now my BA status gets me access not just to American’s Admirals Clubs but also to their Flagship lounges (first class lounges).

  3. Skyguide Executive Privilege Club. This program, which I paid $20 for 12 months of members, will reimburse paid lounge access 12 times per calendar year (for the cost of certified mail postage for each reimbursement).

  4. Traveling Internationally. Lounge access in US programs generally comes along with mid-tier status when flying internationally, both on the airline whose status you have and on the airline’s alliance partners. American’s Executive Platinum status allows first class (Flagship) lounge access when on an international itinerary.

If I didn’t have access through the above methods, I still wouldn’t buy the membership. Instead, I would:

  1. Redeem Business ExtrAA points. As I discussed last week, I double dip earning miles for my flights in my frequent flyer account and points in a company small business account. American offers lounge membership for about half the points earned within a year in that business account from my personal travels.

  2. Consider Getting the Citi Executive Mastercard. 25,000 miles after $1000 spend within 4 months basically covers the $450 annual fee, which gets you Admirals Club access, first checked bag free, no foreign currency conversion cost, priority boarding, and 10,000 elite qualifying miles after $40,000 spend in a year. The card is a better deal – at least in the first year – than buying a lounge membership.

Lounge access has real value for a frequent traveler, unlike most international airlines the US carriers charge for it, but there are almost always better way to get it than purchasing an annual membership directly.

(The link to the American Express Platinum card does offer me a referral credit.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. UA is my airline of choice due to their Asia route network and their volume of flights to the west coast from HNL, with an excellent upgrade percentage, even post merger.

    I buy the United Club membership because they actually have a decent lounge in HNL and it is the only lounge in the Diamond Head concourse where UA has their gates. I use the $200 Amex Plat credit to offset the cost, which really makes it $175. Granted i also pay $450 for the Amex, but the FHR program, Priority Pass, and other benefits essentially makes it a cost neutral proposition in my view.

  2. It’s a minor point but when you send in your lounge receipt to Skyguide Executive Privilege Club for reimbursement you are *not* required to send it certified mail, a stamp will do just fine. (there is nothing in the T&C that I read that required certified mail)

    It’s also worth noting that the lounge must be on their list of approved lounges.

  3. @Carl – for Star access A3 *G is the easiest and best way to achieve club entry. You get gold after 20,000 miles (19,000 really as you get 1,000 for enrolling) in a year (not a calendar year – a year from your first flight). It good for at least 3 years, and the consensus is that it remain current as long as you credit at least one flight in 36 months to A3.

  4. I recently received the 2 United lounge passes that come with the Chase United Mileageplus Explorer Visa – do you know if one needs to be flying United to use these? The T&Cs on the Chase site do not specify one way or the other, which I suppose leads me to believe that one does NOT need to be flying United, but curious if anyone has first-hand experience.

  5. I think one excellent card to consider for lounge access is the United Club Card. This includes a FULL Uinted Club membership. You get a regular membership card like paying members and thus can enter any US Airways and United Club irregadless of whether you are flying US Airways and United. In addition, you can use any * Alliance business class lounge as long as you are flying a *Alliance carrier. Between the United Club Card and the Amex Platinum (which includes Priority Pass) one would not not need to get any lounge membership and get in free to a lounge at virtually any airport worldwide.

    As a bonus the United Club card includes many of the benefits of Premier status with United as well as automatic elite status with both Hyatt and United.

  6. I meant to say the United Club card provided elite status with both Hyatt and Avis. The biggest plus of the card though is that charges earn a 50% bonus which means EVERY purchase earns 1.5 Mileage Plus.

  7. I am surprised Gary didn’t mention A3*G in the main post since Gary recently wrote a long informative post on the subject. When I saw the thread title, I immediately thought of Aegean.

  8. @mark my post was sorta keyed off of getting a $50 discount email from American, so I was talking primarily about AA lounge access sorry if I was confusing (but then again I was trying not to include too much extraneous detail 😛 )

  9. Oh and for what it’s worth months later I finally got my EY Gold card today, I grabbed the status since EY downgraded their car service benefit for non-elites.

  10. I bought a lifetime+spouse membership from Eastern Airlines for $900 about 25 years ago when they were in financial trouble. That became a Continental membership, and now it’s a United membership. Over the years airline partnerships blossomed and even more lounges became available. I haven’t used the membership a lot, but it’s nice to have.

    Would I buy a membership today? No way. But a young person in a travel-intensive career should consider buying a lifetime membership. The challenge is that it may be the airline’s lifetime rather than yours.

  11. Gary I bet you dont know about this one. AA or Delta Club access for a year for FREE with 50K spend on the Merrill Lynch signature card from BOA. ZERO annual fee. No need to pay 450 when you have this card. At 50K spend it has some other perks. Once you hit the 50K you call and tell them which one you want-Delta or AA membership. It acts as a FULL membership to either club.

    Dont know if I can link in the message but Ill try
    https://card.ml.com/RWDapp/ml/merrillplus#

  12. Don’t forget about Lounge Club which gives you 2 free passes each year you are an Ink Bold/Plus card holder 🙂

  13. It also depends on your travel patterns. For me, 90% of my travel is international premium (usually paid with money, but also with miles), which, of course, comes with lounge access. The only time I would need to pay for lounge access are the 2-3 domestic trips I do each year. Of those, it is not a given that I will depart from an airport with a lounge (or, if there is a lounge, if it will be in the same concourse from which I will depart, i.e. flying Eagle out of LGA). For the 2 trips where I would not have lounge access, but could access a lounge, paying the daily fee is cheaper than a membership, even one discounted due to having status.

  14. Domestic first class comes with lounge membership only on Alaska (paid or award, but not upgrade). Domestic first class, except for a handful of premium routes, does not otherwise include lounge access.

  15. Re: “A quiet place”

    Somewhat a pet peeve of mine but there inevitably seems to be at least one person who feels compelled to pull out their cell phone and carry on a loud and prolonged conversation for all to hear.

  16. @HikerT – funny, that was my experience in the AA JFK Flagship lounge this morning, a guy was talking quite loudly about firing someone.

  17. CO Pres Plat Card – Lounge plus EQMs 1k/5k spend
    Used to be limited to 28k a year; now 75k a year
    Can be ahead f all the Golds and Silvers

  18. Interesting commentary but as noted above doesn’t really provide solutions for UA domestic flights, WN (I know Gary doesn’t fly WN but many of us do) or for family travel. No way into a UA lounge without paid membership unless you can get mid-tier status on another *A carrier. WN doesn’t have lounges and generally can’t access other lounges without a paid membership or a same-day ticket. And Priority Pass doesn’t work well for larger families (though it’s great for individuals). So I am still waiting for the solution for UA/WN domestic flyers …
    The other elephant in the room is the lack of lounges at smaller airports like OAK & BUR and the not so small like OGG. It would be nice if Priority Pass took the initiative to actually fund lounges as you find in other countries (Servisair) but that doesn’t seem to be a priority for PP, airlines or airports.

  19. I’m with Carl. Gary’s list doesn’t really address frequent UA flyers who may never find themselves near a UA lounge and would exhaust the 12 Skyguide reimbursements quickly. And with credit to MDDCFlyer, the A3 solution only works if you’re willing/able to fly an extra 20K miles to credit to that program. I’m not sure I want 20K miles sitting in another account, and I have a hard enough time getting the 100K I need for 1K on United. A3 is good for less frequent travelers who don’t need United’s Premier Silver status, IMO.

  20. @Scottrick – I wasn’t attempting to focus this post on UA flyers, see the lead… but the 12 Skyguide passes can actually be 24 for a single membership fee

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