United Thinks Their Clubs Are So Good, You Should Be Paying More

There are some amazing airport lounges around the world. And then there are United Clubs and Admirals Clubs. They’re better than much of what you’ll find in South America, Southern Europe, China, and India. But they’re also expensive while the world’s best lounges come with elite status or class of service on your ticket or can be accessed with a Priority Pass card.

Spa in the Qantas First Class Lounge, Sydney

United raised the price of its clubs last summer, raised the price of day passes earlier this year (and started refusing access to holders of day passes at some lounges), and restricted paying club members to accessing lounges only when flying same day.

They’re charging more even as amenities may be inconsistent, such as failing to properly renew their alcohol licenses at Newark.

Empty soup in United Club Houston

Now United thinks they should charge even more for their lounges (HT: Milecards)

O’Hare United Clubs see around 1.7 million visitors per year, or 4,500 to 5,000 people per day. United said memberships are up 4 percent over last year, a year in which the price of memberships rose to $550, from $500.

“People are still buying,” Samartzis said, adding that the airline would consider further increases or tiered membership pricing. “I don’t think we’ve hit the sweet spot yet.”

Remember you can buy cheap day passes on eBay just don’t expect to use them at lounges which are open during renovations.

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.

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. United Clubs are the absolute *pits*, as compared to LH’s SEN lounges or any other lounges for that matter – even in India!

    One cannot even obtain a decent snack there – although the “offerings” were slightly improved lately.

    Come to the Mumbai T2 GVK lounges – you’ll be absolutely amazed at the food you can get – it’s close to 5 star dining… (Oh yes, you *will* (or should be, provided United doesn’t change their lounge allocation) be allowed into the GVK Lounge in BOM when flying in biz to EWR and/or with *G status)

    Other Indian domestic lounges might not be all that great, but UA’s are definitely much worse, period.

  2. Lounge memberships are often company reimbursable so there’s little incentive to make it “worth it” since those using it aren’t actually paying for it. This is what happens any time the payer and the user of services are different people — inflated costs and no incentive to innovate. Look at healthcare and education for larger scale examples.

  3. U do need a trip to BOM & DEL and check out the lounges. Prob one of the best u can find in South Asia. Comparison with United jus not warranted in your opening para.

  4. I dropped my United Club membership after having it (including President’s Club and Red Carpet Club membership) for over 20 years. It isn’t worth the membership price. The clubs are still the “pits” IMHO (even the remodeled ones) and the staff service is generally abysmal (more “we can’t do that” vs. “sure, no problem”). The main reason I dropped the membership is that they value letting more people in with a credit card pass than the paying members and the clubs are just flat out too crowded and noisy…like a concourse/gate area

  5. I’ve been paying for UA Club since the merger, and paid for CO’s President Club before that. I’m only Gold Elite since the merger, dropped from many years of Platinum on CO. I might make Plat this year yet, but either way, the price hikes are ridiculous.

    I used miles last spring to renew mine, when I heard the crazy price hike. What pisses me off is that I don’t even drink! I use the clubs bc with UA, I have to connect through ORD or IAH. Most of those connections to and from DTW involve a small aircraft. I Often encounter trouble with those flights, and I like the help I get in the clubs. The showers are nice, but they’re not consistent. And the clubs are embarrassing compared to European clubs.

    With the price hike, I expected better amenities. UA is truly been disappointing this past year, with flights and clubs. Im happy that at DTW, we have the Lufthansa Club. It’s small, but much nicer than UA.

  6. Anyone visiting a foreign air carrier’s club lounge (LH, SQ, TK, etc.) realizes how paltry UA lounges are by comparison. Rather than trying to meet a higher standard, UA is concerned with “upping the ante” on their club charges. Is anyone really surprised as to why these US-based air carriers are so adamant to keep out foreign air carriers from doing more business in the US?

  7. Come on Gary, you are a supply and demand person. The lounges are overcrowded and increasing the price is probably the only way to fix that. And maybe use some of the extra revenue to improve quality.

  8. The real “problem” is that the UA lounges ARE getting nicer! Heck, when I was at ORD a couple weeks ago, I could have salad and soup, make myself a decent sandwich and wash it down with a complimentary craft beer. None of that was available 2 years ago. I suspect that some of the folks who “walked away” from the lounges when they truly sucked might now rejoin. Which means more crowds. Which means UA is going to have to raise the membership cost to keep the numbers down. 🙂

  9. @iahphx – what complimentary craft beer? Rare where even Blue Moon is comp (wasn’t at ORD T2 last month).

    I find the comp booze is better at out stations. Hubs they gouge you.

  10. Yet another headline that has nothing to do with the facts.

    UA doesn’t think that the clubs are so nice people so need to pay more. They think that the clubs are too overcrowded, so they want to price the low end customer out. Go for it I say.

  11. At London Heathrow, the United Club is far better than the LH senator lounge or the Air Canada Maple Leaf lounge. The United Club is by far the best lounge in the Star Alliance terminal there, with a great food selection. The lounge in Hong Kong is great too.

    I think what you really mean is that UA’s lounges in the US aren’t very good – that is true. They have gotten a bit better (and I would argue that the food selection in United lounges right now is sometimes a bit better than in AA or DL lounges) but certainly not at the level one sees in airports internationally.
    It all varies by market. Domestic lounges (like ANA’s lounges) in Japan have no food at all. In some regions the lounges are really great so that puts pressure on UA to step it up.
    When DL started serving some actual food in their clubs, United did too. If DL improves their lounges further I’m sure UA will follow. Otherwise, what is the incentive, if all the alternatives are pretty bad too?

  12. I’m still figuring out the whole lounge thing. I tried a United lounge and was totally unimpressed. Totally not worth even $25. But just recently I was in a number of first class lounges coming back from Europe, and those were great. (Venice, Heathrow, Atlanta, LAX). Of course that access was free with the first class ticket. Usually I’m flying business class overseas which also should include decent lounges.

    It seems they should have different levels of membership. Certainly a road warrior who uses a lounge several times a week should pay more than someone like me who might use it 10 times a year. I guess you could argue just pay each time but at $50 each it’s just not worth it.

  13. Maybe because of the sheer number of passengers US Airlines carry vs other airlines? If every first class or elite passenger had lounge access then the clubs would be packed all the time, and they’re still already packed even with these restrictions. The Qantas first lounge is nice, sure, but how many international first class passengers/emerald passengers are going to be flying out of SYD on a daily basis? Less then 1,000 for sure.

    Other international airlines can give it to all their elites because they don’t have as many elites as United has Silvers or AA has Golds, etcs. It’s sheer numbers as well, and that’s why the food quality is minimal compared to an international lounge as well. The economics to provide a full buffet to that many people would be outrageous. So interesting how nobody has figured this out yet when wondering about US lounges.

  14. @augias – I would even add Singapore Lounge at LHR Term 2 – the UA Club lounge is much better than the Singapore Lounge.

    The showers at UA Club LHR are beautiful, large with marble, etc. Full facility with shower, toilet, granite wash.

    Comparing to BA’s LHR Term 5 showers for Concorde and BA First – the UA are a word of difference. The BA top premium showers are the worst anywhere. Very institutional.

    UA is remodeling its lounges in the US – they just need to add showers in more lounges and start copying the LHR UA Club.

  15. I remember biting down very hard to fork over $1100 for lifetime membership 20 or 30 years ago!

  16. I read that United may use electronic passes in the future which would negate the purchasing of extra passes on eBay. That should cut down on overcrowding…

  17. @Gary – Singh is probably referring to the one in BOM (GVK) that I was referring to.

    In any case, guidance for all there – go the GVK Business lounge, even though you have GVK First Class lounge access – because the food gets stale with the few pax that get to enter the F lounge.

    The GVK Biz lounge keeps being refereshed with fresh food and is quite nice.

    Beer is basically the same as in the UA lounges in EWR – you get a Bud for free (Kingfisher in GVK), *if* they have any in stock at the UA UC! (Terminal C)

  18. Been at UA BOS – was dead for 6am, SFO-was packed for 9pm at night and NWR-views were the pits since you could only see out at a wall. All 3 had the same food and drinks. Boring! Compared to LH, BA, OZ lounges UA were the pits.

    We use the lounge for power supply and quite time. We are not there to listen to someone’s business conversation (they need the old telephone booths for some guys). Lunch is not needed unless you are there for extended time (like when we were in OZ after a 10 hr flight)

    I remember being at LaX where they had locked bag storage !!!
    Incheon had showers!

    Soda, coffee, water, juice , snacks yes but booze is not that important to us.

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