United is Going to Start Restricting Club Access to Passengers Flying Same Day

A year and a half ago Delta significantly raised the price of lounge access and said it was to improve your experience.

By charging an extra fee for your spouse and kids it was supposed to give you ‘a more exclusive experience’.

As I wrote at the time, “Delta’s pitch is true – a higher price will ‘reduce overcrowding’. Their product simply isn’t worth the higher price in my view, and others will feel the same, so fewer people will occupy the lounge.”

I said that other airlines wouldn’t match right away but we’d eventually see some follow. You can guess which airline would follow next, since United manages by doing what Delta does. Indeed, a year and a half later United followed suit with higher club prices.

But they didn’t take away free guest access. Instead, Matthew is reporting that United is going to require a same-day boarding pass in addition to membership to access the club.

He took a photo of the sign in a lounge today:

Photo: Live and Let’s Fly

United is giving a full year’s notice so that existing club members, who have purchased their memberships on the basis of being able to access even without a same day boarding pass, aren’t getting a bait and switch on their payment. Although that doesn’t do much for those who purchased lifetime memberships.

It’s not clear yet whether United will still issue gate passes for someone to use a club meeting room, or whether they might require same day travel on United or a partner airline (think of the United ticket as a co-pay in addition to the membership fee for accessing the lounge). There are plenty of United club members who will use the lounge even when flying another airline out of the same terminal.

A passenger arriving off of a redeye flight would also not have a ‘same day’ boarding pass, as Matthew points out. A redeye passenger might value their club membership for a shower in such circumstances.

There are lounges you might want to access just because it’s a place for free booze. There are a ton of airline lounges that I would view as a club I’d be happy to visit, even if I didn’t need to be in the airport.

Lufthansa First Class Terminal

Thai Airways Royal Orchid Spa

Qantas First Class Lounge, Sydney

However I just don’t see the United Club as that kind of place.

Of course you can still buy a refundable ticket to satisfy the requirement. Visit the lounge, and then refund it.

A German man bought refundable business class tickets 36 times in a year just to have lounge access without flying. And a Chinese man used one first class ticket to eat free for a year.

Still, if you’re going to go through all of that trouble, it sure seems a waste to visit a United Club.

That US airline lounges even charge for membership turns out to be an historical accident.

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.

Since this is a paid membership club though it would be nice for members to be welcome, any time.

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. Most lounges in the USA are a waste of time anyways, they charge for a decent drink, the food is usually terrible and the shower (IF they have them) are like high school! I laugh at the fact that US travellers put up with this – clearly the US airlines have no interest in researching or copying the Air France/BA/etc etc etc models of high quality food, beverages and spas, YET they charge the same types of fares ! I guess if you dont boycott or complain they think it’s ok to treat you like sh*t and offer such low standards.

  2. I wonder if that will also apply to gifted one-day passes, such as the ones provided by Hyatt.

  3. United Clubs are fairly down-at-the-heel generally, at least if my experience is anything to go by.

    Their new policy, however, is destined to be essentially meaningless in actual on-the-ground practice. The clubs of that certain DFW-centered airline, for example, generally don’t demand a boarding pass even when presented with Citi’s card that requires one. They just swipe it and forget it. The agents, in other words, don’t want an extra step any more than the customers.

    The Centurion clubs, of course, always demand a BP, but that’s a different system entirely. They track that sort of stuff.

  4. @Tom citibank AA executive cardholders do not need a boarding pass. Citi Prestige cardholders do. That’s because the Executive card means a true membership not just access.

  5. @AdamH Great question. Almost everyone (not all) will have at least one airline’s BP so if that’s all they require, maybe it’s not so bad.

    However, if they’re trying to thin out their clubs, I doubt this is what they’d do.

  6. Great post…sadly about three times longer than necessary. The references to the German and Chinese men added absolutely zero. But, good info nevertheless.

  7. If United is trying to thin the herd in the clubs, their lousy service, crappy planes and disgruntled employes are doing that for them! No need to mess with the Club!

  8. I have used UA clubs while flying Southwest I assume this is the practice they are trying to stop?

  9. Opening the lounge was not a race issue.

    Rather, lounge memberships were given free – on a discretionary basis to airline favorites.
    Back when airline fares were regulated, someone finally filed a complaint that he was paying the same price for a ticket, but was not getting the same benefit – lounge access.
    So the regulators then required either everyone get lounge access, or the airlines charge a separate fee.

  10. This seems like an unfair unilateral change in the agreement United made with its lifetime club members. I wonder whether they will end up allowing lifetime members to continue to access the clubs without a boarding pass. That wouldn’t cost United much and it would avoid a possible contract law challenge.

  11. “That US airline lounges even charge for membership turns out to be an historical accident.”

    That explanation is totally convoluted because it implies that without that “historic accident” US airline lounges would not be charging for membership, which is a pipe dream considering the airlines’ drive to charge for every ancillary service, no matter how miniscule. Simple logic says that the airline lounges would be charging for membership today even if the purported “historic accident” had never happened.

  12. I couldn’t figure out this story based on the headline. I thought “of course it’s same day boarding pass”. I hadn’t thought of this though. I wondered why people paid for UA club memberships based on the quality (or lack thereof) of the clubs themselves. If I was a US based flier I probably would, but you can bet I’d get as much booze out of those clubs as possible. Otherwise what are you paying for? There’s really no food, membership doesn’t grant you access to the Global First lounge, the wifi is good I’ll give them that and there’s premium pay drinks. I only go into the UA clubs because they are there, wifi/booze are the draw. But in the airports where I don’t have access I usually just show up later or explore the terminal because it’s likely an airport I’ve never been to, other than MIA.

    I had never though of flying AA but using the UA club since they’re almost never near each other. Wouldn’t be a big change for me, but I could see how some would scrap their membership due to this.

    UA, upgrade the food and people will pay more, at the very least offer pay food! It’s very nice to be able to go into the AA lounge have a drink and eat real food, even if it’s 8-10$. You won’t let me bring food in, there’s hardly any food to eat, so there’s a problem. Best food I saw in a UA club was IAH in the terminal Air Canada is at, they had almost a full breakfast available, it was amazing since all other UA clubs seem to only have mini bagels and 2 kinds of cereal.

  13. @Brett

    An unpublished benefit of United Club membership was the ability to get a gate pass at any airport with a United Club, ostensibly to visit said club. But you could instead meet arriving friends/family/business partners at the gate if you wanted to…

    AA Admirals clubs require a booked business meeting in the club to get a gate pass. DL will not issue gate passes at all for club access.

  14. I wonder how much of a response this is to Southwest pax using the United Club, especially in DEN where WN has built up quite a schedule of flights. Funny enough, the only Admirals Club I have used when not flying AA/oneworld/codeshares has been the DEN AC when flying Southwest or United.

  15. @seat21d: That’s a good working hypothesis, but I’m pretty sure Southwest customers aren’t using the United clubs at IAH or ORD. 😉

    Where this will really bother me is flying internationally. Buying a refundable ticket to gain access would be less dishonest than United’s unilateral devaluation of lifetime member benefits.

  16. Requiring a same day BP for access is just common sense. Airline lounges are generally over-subscribed anyway. I gave up on AAdmirals Clubs for that reason. AMEX Centurion lounge is a better deal, although some are getting crowded too, particularly during summer when everyone is traveling with families or an entourage. The value prop for airline lounge membership has eroded badly over the past decade IMHO. Sometimes the best respite is a vacant gate area, which can be more peaceful than an airline lounge.

  17. I’ll be cancelling my $450 United MileagePlus Club Card once next fee is due. Lounge access anytime I wanted to visit was the only benefit to keeping this card, imo. With Citi Prestige and AmEx Platinum, I have enough lounge access. Plus the internet at the United AUS club is horribly s-l-o-w!

  18. I’m missing something, here. Chase, why/how would anyone want or need lounge access if they are not flying? Who on earth would go to an airport for the United Club lounge?! And, if the BP doesn’t have to be on United, then I don’t see who this is keeping out. Can someone explain this? thanks.

  19. Can these lounge day passes (ones you get with the explorer card) be used on partner lounges – such as Lufthansa in FRA? Or just United marked clubs?

  20. I am responding just now to this the Aug 2016 deadline appears to have passed and I have started to notice long lines backed up at the United Club counters as the attendants appear to be enforcing the same-day boarding pass check. Adding to the same-day boarding pass requirement, I was recently told by an attendant at DFW that the requirement actually calls for a same-day departing boarding pass. To clarify, that would mean you are not allowed to use the lounge at the destination airport, even if it is the same day. Does this sound right?

    I find this particularly frustrating as I gain access to the United lounge via my Amtrak Acela Club card with promises, “Unlimited access to ClubAcela®, Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge℠, First class lounges and United Club locations.” None of the terms of service or requirements mention a same day boarding pass.

  21. Be friendly to whomever is working the counter, scan your membership bar code, and you’re in!

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