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Walk through the halls of a United Airlines concourse and you’ll probably see the gleaming glass or burnished wood doors of one of over 40 United Clubs along the way.
Blocking your entry is a desk of uniformed representatives ready to inspect your credentials more carefully than an immigration agent at passport control.
Getting in isn’t hard, but it isn’t always cheap.
Otherwise you need to be a full blown member of the United Club to get in, which costs $550 a year ($450 if you get it via the United Club credit card, or somewhere between $450 and $550 if you’re a United Premier level flier and don’t want a credit card).
What do you get for your membership?
First off, let’s run down what you really get behind those doors…
There is oatmeal, fresh fruit, yogurt and scones at breakfast time…though not as neatly plated as in these publicity photos
In the afternoon you’ll find hot soup, cold salad, crunchy snacks, and sometimes a plate of salami
They make for a satisfying snack but are nothing you’ll want to make a meal out of.
At the bar you’ll find some liquor, wine, and beer available for free. But it’s not the kind of stuff you’d want to serve company.
Or you can pay for premium wines, and some of them are the kind you would serve company. For example you can buy a glass of Stag’s Leap Artemis for less than $15. That’s a lot less than you’d pay at an airport bar for similar quality wine. And it’s why the lady in the photo is smiling.
Chairs are comfortable and it’s (in theory) easier to find a place to charge your batteries than in the terminal.
And you’ll get some other benefits…
What you shouldn’t expect is a 5 star hotel experience, a feeling you’re with the upper crust of society, or even a guarantee there will be a quiet seat. Clubs can get crowded, but that’s nothing unique to United.
What are your alternatives?
Airport bars and restaurants are getting nicer than ever.
And many airports now offer free wifi, so getting connected isn’t hard, but you’re probably just surfing your phone anyway.
The challenge is the best airport bars and restaurants can get crowded quickly, like the lounges.
If you insist on a lounge, there are lots of new lounges that aren’t tied to any single airline.
The Platinum Card from American Express ($450 a year, plus a $200 annual airline fee credit) gives you access to many lounges, including its own Centurion Lounges (for you and two guests or your kids), Delta SkyClubs (extra charge for guests), and the Priority Pass lounge network (extra charge for guests).
The Centurion Lounge for American Express Platinum Card holders blows away the United Club and every other U.S. airline club in terms of food, drink, and atmosphere.
They make you feel like you’re checking into a 5 star hotel, pour $20 bottles of wine for free, and offer hot food substantial enough to count as a meal, with quality as good as what you’d find in an airport cafe.
You’ll find locations at New York – La Guardia, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami, Dallas, and Seattle airports. The New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Seattle clubs are all in the same terminals United uses, so if you frequent those airports they’re worth considering as an alternative to being a United Club member.
And there’s a club speculated to be coming to Houston Intercontinental airport that will also be accessible to the United terminal.
The Priority Pass lounges help round out the mix.
Priority Pass partners with the Alaska Airlines Board Rooms and independent operators ‘The Club’ and ‘The Lounge’ which are expanding their lounges at airports across the country.
You’ll find options in many major airports like Los Angeles, New York – Kennedy, Miami, Las Vegas, and Seattle. They tend to be a bit generic, but give you the basics like free wifi and basic liquor, and tend to be less crowded than regular airline lounges.
Priority Pass also gives you access to hundreds of international lounges, so you can find a lounge at just about every major airport outside the U.S.
Another option is the Citi Prestige Card, which costs $450 a year, but has a $250 annual air travel credit, and gets you access to all Priority Pass lounges. The Citi Prestige one ups the American Express Platinum by letting you bring two guests into Priority Pass lounges for free.
The Platinum Card’s Priority Pass membership makes you pay $27 for additional guests.
Who should use the United Clubs?
With all of these alternatives, pay for the United Club if you insist on a lounge and fly United a lot, and by a lot we mean about once a month or more.
But if you don’t fly a lot, or tend to use airports where there’s an American Express Centurion Lounge near the United terminal, then it’s probably not worth carrying full blown United Club membership and you may want to consider a Platinum Card.
Your net cost to hold a Platinum Card is just $250 a year when you factor the airline fee credit, which is a fair trade for not having convenient lounge options in key United terminals like those in Newark, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington-Dulles.
If you’re thinking about Delta, their SkyClubs are a little snazzier with better ‘free’ liquor. American Admirals Clubs are a lot like United Clubs, though you can buy heartier food in the lounge.
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