As you may or may not have read, the cost for an annual membership for the United Club is increasing beginning in January 2013. The previous cost for a one-year membership was $475 for a non-elite member and the new cost will be $500. Memberships with a spouse are going by as much as $100. A $25 increase for an individual membership isn’t terribly substantial by itself, but it does bring about a good time to talk about the different ways you can access the United Club for a more affordable rate.
Why you might want a United Club membership
Of course not everyone wants or needs a United Club membership, but I am personally a large fan of having access to the airline club of your choice if you fly with some regularity. Airline lounges are generally a bit less chaotic than the general airport, they offer free internet, free drinks (including alcoholic drinks, but gratuity is encouraged), free snacks, etc. They also are invaluable in cases of irregular operations when you need help getting re-accommodated on a different flight. The line at the gate may immediately be a mile long following a flight alteration, but the lounge often offers a much shorter line and with more experienced agents.
For family travelers, I have found the lounge to be even more important than for single travelers. Some of the larger United Clubs (such as the ones I frequent in Houston) have family rooms that offer some basic toys, a TV, and (most importantly) a door that shuts so you don’t have to keep telling your toddler “stay here, don’t touch that, no come back, wait, don’t go over there”. They can play in a safe and confined space without disrupting other passengers. It is brilliant, and much appreciated. You can also access snacks and drinks for the kiddos and a beer for yourself, which is also much appreciated. Everyone can get on the plane in a better mood! The restrooms in airline lounges are also often less crowded, larger, and nicer than in the general portion of the airport. Again, this is a major plus for family travelers.
Cheapest Way to Access the United Club
While you can certainly buy a United Club membership outright from United (preferably before the price increase), there are other, more economical ways to access the club. Last year, I bought a US Airways Club membership during a time that US Airways was offering a discounted price. I believe I paid about $300 for the annual membership. Since a US Airways Club membership entitles you to visit United Clubs, it was a way to save about $100 over buying directly from United. The standard annual price from US Airways is $450, but they have historically run a couple of sales a year, so keep your eyes open for those. Of course, there is talk of a possible US Airways/American Airlines merger that would likely affect the ability to access United Clubs via US Airways Club membership, but that’s not a done deal, and even if it were, mergers take time so I would not worry about that potential right now in regards to club membership.
You can also access the United Club with a United Club credit card from Chase. This card comes with a hefty $395 annual fee, but that is less than the going rate for club access from United. Additionally, the standard offer for that card comes with a $95 statement credit for the first year, bringing the real price down to $300. Many folks are also targeted for the first year free with the United Club card (log into your MileagePlus account to see if you have an offer for a fee-free first year). Obviously getting that card fee-free for the first year is a very affordable way to get United Club access! I got the Club card recently and that is how I will be accessing the United Club for the next year. I’ll have a separate post on why I decided to get that card and some of the pretty cool benefits that come with it other than just United Club membership.
Star Gold Status from Foreign Airline:
If you have Gold elite status with a Star Alliance carrier that is not based in America, then you can access the domestic United Clubs when traveling on a Star Alliance carrier. Having Star Gold status on an American-based Star Alliance carrier like United or US Airways won’t help you with getting into the clubs domestically. However, there remain some pretty simple status matches and challenges going on with Aegean and Turkish if you want to try to get Star Gold status via one of those airlines for the purposes of domestic United Club access. I will likely try and match my Star Gold status via United with Turkish… just in case. Not sure if I will ever actually need it for anything, but couldn’t hurt.
If you aren’t going to access the club on a regular basis, or just don’t want to spring for an annual membership, you can access the club using day passes. If you have the MileagePlus Explorer card you will get two free day passes annually. You can also purchase a day pass from United for $50 at the club. It is also sometimes possible to get expiring day passes from those who aren’t going to use theirs – online networking on miles and points forums like Flyertalk and Milepoint is a good thing. A potentially even better deal is to join the SkyGuide Executive Club and then submit your $50 fees for day passes for reimbursement through that program (up to 12 per year – max of one per month starting in 2013). My husband actually joined last year, but that whole process is personally too much for me to want to mess with for lounge access.
Go as Someone’s Guest for Free:
You can also always look in Flyertalk for others who would be willing to guest you into the club on the day you are traveling. There is certainly no guarantee of access using this route, and wouldn’t really work for whole families, but it can be an option when you are traveling by yourself and don’t mind if access doesn’t work out.
Assuming my budget permits, I hope to continue to have club access for many years to come. Domestic airline lounges are very basic compared to some of the fancy international lounges, but they are much better than nothing. If I had to guess, I would say that my membership was used for at least 40-50 entries last year (counting individual people/individual times that I got into the lounge). That means that each entry cost about in the neighborhood of $6 – $7.50 per person, and that is a price that is worth it for me and my family. If you are interested in lounge access, I recommend estimating how much you will use it and then decide which method of access is the most cost effective for your family.