United Now Wants $59 for a Lounge Day Pass, Isn’t That Kind of Insane?

United is going to start restricting club access to people actually flying same day. And they’ve started serving Illy coffee in the clubs (it’ll be a few more months until that’s onboard).

I still think the American Express Centurion lounges are far better (especially the food) but so does everyone else and they can be crowded at times.

American Express Centurion Lounge Miami

But United’s changes make the clubs 18% better, right?

They’ve apparently raised the price of day passes from $50 to $59, following Delta’s $59 day pass pricing move. (United increased the annual fee for its club memberships, too, following a similar move by Delta.)

Lounge Day Passes are an Anomaly

On the one hand if you want to reduce overcrowding (as the move to restrict access to those with same day travel is ostensibly supposed to accomplish), you shouldn’t sell day passes at all. American Express does not sell passes for the small Centurion Studio in Seattle to its members that do not have a Platinum or Centurion card.

On the other hand, they’re a source of revenue. But if they’re a source of revenue, airlines would likely charge less rather than more for them.

Many airlines sell lounge access at a discount through programs like Priority Pass (or Lounge Club).

Airlines have learned that if they price domestic premium cabins at a modest increment over economy, people buy the seats and they make more money (and upgrades become harder to come by). Charging 4 or 6 times the price of coach for a first class seat wasn’t revenue maximizing back when only about 10% of domestic first class seats were paid for. By reducing the price they do a better job monetizing the product.

An average day or single visit pass from a US airline will cost $50 or now $59. At that price, very few people buy them. Most US airline lounges are a (somewhat) quieter place to sit and work with free wifi separate from what’s offered in the terminal and usually cleaner bathrooms as well — plus frequently assistance with reservations in the event of irregular operations.

Complimentary booze is usually of the rail variety, with decent food and drink charged at a premium if available at all.

I’ve always thought airlines would make more at $25 than $50, but that would mean more people in the lounges.

And if they were trying to reduce crowding by making it seem more expensive, they’d likely have gone to $60. You choose a final digit of ‘9’ when you want something to seem less expensive not more (the price feels more like $50 than $60). The idea of the 9 is presumably not to scare customers away from buying the pass and entering the lounge, while the goal of reducing overcrowding is met by making it seem too expensive and scaring off some people.

Of course you can just buy your day passes on eBay, though United says you shouldn’t. With all of the day passes out there from United co-brand credit cards, eBay is saturated with them.

US Airlines Didn’t Used to Charge for Lounge Access at All

It’s an historical anomaly that US lounges charge for access at all. In general airlines around the world (outside Australia/New Zealand) do not charge for access. It’s provided free to premium cabin and elite customers.

In the US, airlines charge even elite frequent flyers traveling domestically for access. From the time American opened the first airport lounge up through 1974 they didn’t. However the federal government ordered – on anti-discrimination grounds – that airlines either make clubs available to everyone, make clubs available to everyone flying a particular class of service, or make clubs available to everyone who pays.

Paid memberships were a way of ensuring compliance with non-discrimination rules coming out of the civil rights era. Anyone who could pay – regardless of race – could access the lounges.

Once the airlines had a revenue stream associated with the lounges it became difficult to walk away from that. The lounge network starts looking like a separate business unit, with its own profit and loss calculation.

International Airlines Offer So Much More

The private cabanas of Cathay Pacific’s The Wing lounge in Hong Kong are gorgeous.

The architecture of the Qantas first class lounge in Sydney is impressive.

The dining, by celebrity chef Neil Perry, is fantastic as well.

And though complimentary spa treatments are only 20 minutes there, they’re out of this world good.

I can access both of these lounges as an American Airlines Executive Platinum. The top tier elites of these airlines can use their first class lounges as well, regardless of class of service flown.

It seems strange to pay hundreds of dollars to access US airline lounges compared to what is bundled with status elsewhere in the world. I’m not saying it isn’t worthwhile — for the handful of times a year I’m delayed by weather or mechanicals, the help I get in the lounges is worth the price of admission. But it sure is curious.

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. IMHO, Delta’s move was more justified. Skyclubs actually offer some edible food these days (chicken salad, salad, soup, real cheese, crudités) and they usually have a pretty good local craft brew on tap. If I didn’t have Amex Plat, I might pay $60 bucks to get into a Skyclub if I had a long layover. United? Not so much.

  2. I have free access to the United Club and if it’s a 2+ hour layover, or I have a call to make, that’s still where I’ll go. But for shorter stints, I prefer Vino Volo. I’m closer to the action, have access to a more interesting wine selection, and the process of being seated and served is more pleasant / more efficient. No hunting, just see and sit.

  3. I was going to bring up the same thing about Ebay. Delta passes are hard to find because their CCs don’t hand them out, but United’s are a cinch

  4. If somebody is buying a day-pass, they probably intend to stay for a long time and have as much food/drink as possible. The price increase will only deter non-gluttons, whose money would be better spent at an a la carte airport bar. Ironically, the price increase may turn the lounge into more of a frat party than it was before.

  5. “In general airlines around the world (outside Australia/New Zealand) do not charge for access. It’s provided free to premium cabin and elite customers”

    Even in Australia lounge access is free to elites and premium cabin passengers. There is an option to buy an annual pass but it is complimentary to gold and above and domestic premium cabin ticket holders.

  6. Other airlines are going in a different direction. My wife has the AA card with Admirals access. She just got a mailer saying that she could add an authorized user (me) who would also get access.

    This makes the annual fee far more reasonable.

    Also, I have *G on TK (via status match several years ago from CO). That gets me into UA clubs for free. (It is also much easier to maintain status on TK for me — I only fly 30-35K a year or so now that I’m semi-retired.)

  7. Connecting in Toronto now for Ottawa! I was VERY wary of flying Porter Airlines from NYC to Ottawa. Often times with cheaper airlines there is a high cost to low price in the form of crazy fees everywhere you turn. I didn’t even bother joining Porter’s frequent flyer program. Having flown them now I am super impressed! Their bag weight limits are the most generous in Canada. I received a snack basket AND a drink in a REAL GLASS onboard! I’ve only received that as a Platinum flying American in First Class. And now here in Toronto there is a free lounge to wait for my connection with FREE snacks and complimentary bottles of water and pop as well as coffee. In America, we don’t even get domestic lounge access as a top tier elite. WOW WOW WOW. I’ve been telling all the Porter staff I can find how impressed I am! AND I’m joining their frequent flyer program today!

  8. Every time I use a domestic US carrier’s lounge I tell myself, this is pathetic- but at least I didn’t pay for it. I would NEVER pay $59 for a United, Delta or AA lounge in the US. Not $50 or in most cases not $25 either. Can’t imagine getting that much value unless I spent a whole day there, and that wouldn’t be much fun. There are many foreign lounges where I might drop around $20-$30 if I had to for a long layover if I had no other way to get in, and where I wouldn’t mind a 4-5 hour layover– but for any of the domestic carriers to expect someone to drop sixty bucks for a glass of house wine or a bad cup of coffee, some soup and crackers and a whirl of the snack tower dispenser is obscene. Hope I never get that desperate.

  9. I am lucky that though I fly UA quite a bit, domestically and internationally, i tend not to use their lounges. I have a pile of day pass voichers that go un used. Many of the lounges are just unpleasant and some like those in IAD it seems impossible to get functioning wifi. Where I can I use the centurion lounges and if travellimg internationally will use a foreign carrier lounge. The exceptions are at IAH, EWR and the very impressive LHR lounges.

  10. Don’t understand why there is always this complaining about prices and when they go up…. If the price goes up by 18% why request the service goes up by 18%, some price increases have underlying factors such as wage increases, food & beverage prices increases, etc. I am not a UA fan at all, but when did they increase last to measure the 18% YOY…. At the end the customer chooses, if you don’t like the UA price increase, don’t buy it or buy elsewhere but don’t complain if you can choose….

  11. Usually I fly 150,000 miles per year and one of the reasons why I am attached to TAM Fidelidade is because of the weird access policy on VIP lounges in USA. Event being a Executive Platinum in AAdvantage I cannot access the – blergh! – AAdmirals club for domestic flights? Well, using the same status in TAM I can, and check their lounges in Latin America, you will cry. 🙂

  12. Sausage fingers here … because they are amazing. Free good food, free good spirits and wines, sodas and everything else. From what I know it is the same in Iberia lounge in Madri, British Airways lounge in Miami and so on. The american based airlines have to change a lot on VIP lounges and customer service to become acceptable, they are always expensive, with a crap service and only the employees can make the difference as you can say in Miami and San Francisco, where the bartenders at AAdvantage lounges are the difference.

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