Less Expensive Ways to Access the United Club

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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.

Day Passes:

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.

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  1. I’ve also picked up one-day passes on ebay pretty cheaply (about $15 each), which is more than worth it for me to have a couple drinks and let the kids play.

  2. MP, please let us know how your Turkish status match attempt comes back. I’ve set up an account (and have received a few promotional emails already from Miles & Smiles) and I’ve emailed them very nicely requesting a status match, as well as a follow-up email a few weeks later, and then another separate request a few weeks after that, and I’ve gotten no response either way. While it wouldn’t be preferred if they said that they wouldn’t match me, it would still be better than to just be left hanging!

  3. Yeah, Ebay is a great way to pick up discounted day passes. I rarely pay more than 1/2 price for one or two passes, and if you’re willing to buy more than that you can get them for much cheaper. Often you can find package deals with day passes and drink chits bundled together at a steep discount.

    Another benefit is, if you’re going through an airport that doesn’t have a lounge in your program, you can just pick up a day pass with whoever does. I recently flew through SLC, no United club there but the Delta club was great (Mmm Biscoff cookies).

  4. Immediately after I posted earlier, I checked my email and there was one from Turkish, responding to my request from 42 days ago, asking for a copy of my Gold membership card and my statement in order to further consider my request. Never mind that I had included them with my earlier email, but at least they did get back. We’ll see if I can get an answer before the new year.

  5. I have given up on Turkish airlines: after a couple of emails from them asking for the same info as Gardy, I have had radio silence from them for at least two months.

    eBay is a great place to pick up discounted club passes.

  6. But Helena, it’s so enticing. Others have said it’s pretty easy to get matched, so I keep holding out hope. Especially since I’m only going to make Silver for 2013…

  7. Tom, not promoting stores or brands; however, I found Biscoff cookies at Kroger and Wal-Mart stores in the Houston area (I also like the cookies)

  8. I third the two prior comments about Ebay. I have never had a problem getting or using passes for Delta, AA or United, usually for $10-$20. Whenever I book a flight on one of these airlines, I will look on ebay as soon as I book until I find a good deal. If I end up not using the pass since my flights were all ontime, I have always been able to sell it back at about the same price (just paying ebay/paypal fees). Last year my 7 lounge visits, to three different airline lounges, ending up costing me only 90 dollars.

  9. I have a low travel year this year, and a united club membership through my (free!) club card that expires in August. The other club card benefits don’t warrant keeping it after its annual fee comes due, unfortunately. So, I’ve targeted the travel miles I do have planned at Aegean. I’ll have gold status with them before my united club membership runs out.

    I also find that I prefer the USAir lounges where they are available. They have interesting corn chips in small bags – perfect for grabbing 2-3 and tossing them into your carry-on!

  10. the folks at turkish do have a problem with communications but stick with it. my American exec plat got me star gold with Turkish. it took three tries with email correspondence but worked.

  11. It may be the airports I fly in/out of (typically smaller airports and easy to get in/through), but I don’t exactly see the value of club membership. We usually get to the airport, go through security and have just enough time to use the restroom, grab some food for the flight and watch a few airplanes (something my kids enjoy doing) before it’s time to get on the plane. I generally have direct flights or tight connections, so there’s no benefit to me there, either. Am I really missing out? Or just very efficient compared to most? 😉

  12. I couldn’t imagine paying $100 to access the United lounges. One of the worse lounges (been to several) I have ever seen. Just horrible!

  13. I have 2 day passes thru the credit card signup. It will be me, my husband, our 2 year old, and our 4 month old travelling. Do the kids get in free with us, or do we need day passes for them, too?

  14. -The resell market can also be good for passes.
    -The lounges aren’t for everyone, but if you travel a bunch and are somewhere that has a nice club it can be a nice place to wait for your flights.
    -The day passes are technically one per person. It is hit or miss in terms of children getting in “for free” with an adult on a pass.

  15. Just buy fully refundable international BF or GF tickets and get free access whenever you want. Morally questionable, howevver.

  16. Domestic lounges of the US legacy carriers are weak sauce. Even the Air Canada ones are markedly better. Take your point on being a haven for families though…

  17. Does anyone have any experience trying to bring in a family when one parent is a United Gold member? Officially it seems that only one guest should be allowed, and only with United Club membership may the family be brought in. Any anecdotal evidence to the contrary?

  18. Does anyone know which airlines give access to business or first class passengers?

    Gardy and Rick – I’ll give Turkish another go.

  19. One more way to get discounted access: Chase United credit card holders get free access to VIP lounges in San Francisco, Short Hills and Houston. Free passes are given out if you bring a toy for Toys for Tots:

    “Every Tuesday, you can drop off a new, packaged, unwrapped toy for Toys for Tots* – and you’ll receive two United Club passes as our thanks to you. Limit one pair of United Club passes per Cardmember. Guests of Cardmembers are not eligible for this offer.
    *Suggested retail value of no less than $15”

    Here’s the website: http://www.chaseviplounge.com/index.html

  20. @Helena – those VIP lounges aren’t at the airport – at least not the SF one (didn’t look at the others). They are for Holiday shoppers sponsored by Chase trying to get people to use the MileagePlus Explorer cards

  21. @jim6 – My point was that a donation of a toy to Toys to Tots at the VIP lounges will score you a couple of passes to the on airport United Club Lounges.

  22. The Ritz Carton Rewards Card will get you lounge access, but it doesn’t tell you which lounges until after you get the card ($395 annual fee, with a $200 cash back for annual airline incidental fees)

  23. After about 2 months and couple of polite e-mail reminders from me, I finally have an email from Turkish Airlines confirming my status match to Elite (aka Gold). I checked the airline website and that also shows elite status. Status expires December 2014! Now will need to wait for my Card.

  24. It’s good to know I’m not the only one having trouble with silence from Turkish Airlines. But given how bad their website is, I’m not surprised. Actually, given how they run their airline I’m not surprised. I took 5 domestic flights in Turkey this spring, and none left on time. I asked someone if that was normal, and they just laughed and observed that it’s vastly improved from how it used to be.

    Their lounges are nice, though.

  25. @Up&Away I think for you, you just don’t find yourself with much downtime at the airport. When I travel, I’m the sort of person who gets there very early. For example, I will be flying United from Newark, NJ to Berlin, Germany this March. Having made such international journeys before, I’ve noticed the gate area doesn’t really get too many people until about an hour or so before the flight, even though the airline recommends being at the airport 3 hours before flight time. My flight leaves at 6 PM, and I have a car service getting me to the airport between 2:30 and 3. I love having downtime at the airport, because it ensures that I will have plenty of time to check my bags, go through security (which at Newark can be a nightmare depending on day and time of travel, especially in the main terminal C which is also where international flights leave from), get a bite to eat, and contact anyone I still need to before I board. This upcoming trip, I’ll definitely be utilizing the club passes I have from my MileagePlus card (first time I’ll have passes for a trip in a long time), so I’ll get to spend about 2 to 2 and a half hours in the United lounge, which I am rather happy about. So I guess it’s all about how much time you like to spend at the airport, and how you like to spend that time.

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