The First Time I Snuck Into A United Airlines Club Lounge

Having shared some of my travel mischief stories recently, including bribing a U.S. border official and hijinks at a hotel outside Fargo, I thought it made sense to tell you another story I don’t think I’ve ever fully shared here – that’s the first time I ever snuck into a club lounge.

It was a United Airlines lounge back 20 years ago, and it’s part of my early travel educating me about what airport lounges were all about and why I wanted to use them. It’s also the story of my first international premium cabin award redemption, which I used to visit my family in Australia, so my ‘sneaking in’ holds extra significance to me.

Two Airport Club Lounge Visits As A Child

The first time I ever visited an airline club lounge I was very young. My brother and I went with my grandmother to the airport to pick up from grandfather after a business trip. And since we made it to the airport early, my grandmother brought us into a lounge. I cannot say for certain, but I think my grandfather was coming into New York on Delta. I ate goldfish crackers and drank a ginger ale.

Fast forward to my second time in an airport lounge, I was 16 years old and coming back from visiting my family in Sydney. I was flying American Airlines on a DC-10, Sydney – Honolulu – Dallas and I had a six hour connection in Dallas before my flight to Fresno (backtracking!). My uncle gave me an Admirals Club pass to use, and no one questioned how out of place this teenager looked. I drank another ginger ale and reveled at the free use of a copy machine.

My First Business Class Award Trip To Sydney

My first two club lounge visits as an adult though was something else entirely. Twenty years ago I took my first business class trip to Australia – as a kid it was all coach – using 90,000 Mileage Plus miles. I didn’t spring the extra 15,000 miles each way for first class because that seemed like such an indulgence (something I reserved only for my grandmother when gifting her a ticket to see her other grandkids).

When I was booking the ticket there was wide open availability, since I went during the Northern summer. There was also availability on Air New Zealand. Since this was prior to the launch of Star Alliance, redemption wasn’t seamless – if I’d chosen Air New Zealand business class United would have given me the flight from DC to Los Angeles in economy ‘as a courtesy’.

It didn’t occur to me that I’d have lounge access at Washington Dulles on my outbound. The check-in agent never mentioned it. I met friends for dinner near the airport in LA. By the time I made it back into the airport my flight was boarding.

I didn’t sleep at all on the flight over in United’s old recliner seats. I watched a James Bond marathon on the looping video at my chair. And I drank some port and ate a whole bunch of Godiva chocolates out of the box that flight attendants left out in the galley.

Back then United used to offer an arrivals lounge in Sydney for business class passengers in the form of use of a nearby hotel room to freshen up. I didn’t take advantage of that because my aunt and uncle picked me up from the airport. I was beat but had a goal of making it through the day without rest so I could adjust to local time as quickly as possible.

I got a real second wind when my uncle asked me in the late afternoon, “how tired are you?” When I admitted I was tired but tried to ‘man up’ and say I was fine he asked, “are you too tired for good wine?” He brought out a 20 year old bottle of Penfolds Grange for dinner to celebrate the first night of my visit. I had just been reading an article in The Economist on the plane about the halo effect Grange has brought to the rest of Australian wine (since the country could so clearly produce great wine).

It was a great trip, including a stop up in North Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef, and the trip ended too quickly.

Sneaking Into United’s Red Carpet Club On My Return

On the way home the agent at check-in in Sydney gave me a lounge pass to use, so I followed instructions and went to the lounge. It was absolutely packed before the United 747 departure. I ate half a cold sandwich and poured myself a drink from the self-serve bar.

I didn’t sleep on that flight either, but the films were more engaging and I was in pretty good shape when we landed in Los Angeles. That’s when I got an idea. I had just gotten to use an airport lounge, because I was departing in international business class!

Why not try to use the lounge in Los Angeles? I didn’t have an invite but I figured I’d see what I could get away with. I walked into the Red Carpet Club and there was a long line to check in. The agents were very busy. I just strode on past the desk like belonged and nobody stopped me.

I had no idea at the time that my international arriving business class boarding pass would have granted me access.. legitimately. It was probably close to another year before I actually learned how everything was supposed to work.

United Club LAX Terminal 7 in 2012, Credit: InSapphoWeTrust via Wikimedia Commons

The Aftermath Of A Long Trip

The final flight home, Los Angeles to Dulles, was an experience I’ll never forget. Thanks to bad weather across the country we flew to Florida and up the East Coast. By the time we arrived thunderstorms had shut down Dulles. We circled the airport until approaching fuel minimums, then diverted to Richmond. Once on the ground the captain announced that they didn’t have a truck tall enough to refill a Boeing 777, so we’d have to wait for the fire department to arrive. No one was allowed off the plane, and we sat there for four hours.

After finally arriving at Dulles and waiting an hour at baggage claim (Dulles was the same, even back then) I took a cab home and couldn’t sleep, so I went into work at 5 a.m. figuring I’d leave the office early. The three and a half mile drive home that night was an adventure (especially when I thought I saw dragons in the road).

The Start Of Airport Lounge Access Forever

It was two years before I’d visit an airport lounge access, but after that I’d always have access. I flew a $55 business class mistake fare, Chicago – Puerto Vallarta on Mexicana and that gave me access to the Scandinavian lounge at O’Hare on the outbound. That trip prompted me to status match to Mexicana Frecuenta Gold I used that to access United Clubs for quite some time.

I used status matches for lounge access several times, including with airlines like Turkish with generous policies. I’ve used credit cards that bundle lounge access, and that offer Priority Pass cards to gain entry to other lounges as well.

I can only think of two trips in the last 20 years where there was an airport lounge and I didn’t have access, at least up until this past fall when major airlines started refusing to let club members use their facilities when flying another airline. Once was in Grand Cayman in 2012 (the Sir Turtle club, but I was flying American Airlines) and the second was in 2014 taking a one-cabin turboprop on Vietnam Airlines from Danang to Siem Reap.

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, 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. LAX always had long lines to get into the RCC. Even thought I had legit access, I always walked in when I saw that line.

    How come you didn’t mention the much beloved Annie when you went to the SYD RCC?
    She was legendary on Flyertalk.

  2. Some long time ago when I just happened to become AA PLT from flying, I did got a layover in LGW because of the last moment rerouting. I was flying Y. To my surprise, the agent handled me an invitation to the club. Only after that I checked the rules and realized that as PLT I do have access when flying internationally. In a similar way, my wife signed me for HHonors and I was traveling for a few years without paying much attention to points etc. Then on one of the trips I was greeted as a Diamond member and offered a coupon for a free full breakfast at Double Tree. That came to me as a surprise. .. I must be HHonors Gold before that and did not know about free breakfast.

  3. @Christian – it was! United charged that up until October 2006 actually [they announced a devaluation with 6 months’ notice right after coming out of bankruptcy]

  4. Yeah, what? This popped up on my Google feed for some reason. Was expecting an interesting story about sneaking into a lounge, not “I walked past the desk”.

    Not your fault, blog poster. Just an odd thing that this popped up on Google.

  5. I was flying home on a UAL stretch DC-8, wearing my US Army uniform. The guy next to me asked where I was headed and I told him I had a conx in ORD for a few hours. He got me in the UAL club there and left me. I had to leave the club to check-in for my next flight but wanted to be able to return to the club. So I told the desk that I was waiting for someone and that I had to leave but would be right back, she asked the name of the person I was too meet (I made up a name). On my return she said “oh that person hasn’ t arrived”, I said okay thanks and went back into the club.

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