Things I’ve Gotten for Free at Airport Clubs

Admirals Club at Buenos Aires Airport.

I travel enough to reach a status I’ll call frequent-flier-minus—not quite enough to get free upgrades or even those coach seats with better legroom, but often enough to be wistfully aware of the Up in the Air luxury happening all around me. Recently, though, I’ve stumbled into one corner of the true frequent-flier life: I’ve been invited into the airport clubs.

In the past few months, I’ve found myself deluged with free passes to the various fancy lounges that airlines offer to their frequent-flier customers, and sell for an average of $50 per visit to the rest of us. A couple of those passes came with a new credit card, while a few others came in more random ways: being good enough at social media got me one, while threatening to close an old credit card resulted in the bank begging me to keep it open, and sending me two more passes as a sweetener. I have a full stockpile of passes now, and while I’m generally a last-minute airport arriver, recently I’ve found myself planning to build in an extra hour to my departures, so I can use one of the passes before they expire.

This is what I’ve learned so far from my adventures in elite-traveler waiting rooms: They can be just as crowded and awkwardly-arranged as regular airport waiting areas, but they have more comfortable chairs and free booze. They will try to shame you into not ordering the free booze, by advertising expensive “Fine Wines” on the bar menu and making you ask the harried bartender what the “house red” is. (The bartender will not understand what you mean when you ask for the “un-fine wine.”)

They will provide you with an unlimited supply of mixed nuts and other elegant snack food, but only snack food, as if everyone in the lounge is partaking in a school field trip and someone’s overachieving parents have thoughtfully packed individual bags of mini-carrots and Pepperidge Farm crackers and Lite Ranch dip packets for everyone. They are not necessarily the best places to wait for flights you are worried about missing. And they have vastly differing levels of welcome towards—and scrutiny of—potentially unqualified visitors.

These are some of the things I’ve gotten for free at the airport lounges I’ve visited, and what I’ve learned about them so far:

 

Delta Sky Club, Atlanta, June 2010

How I got in for free: On the way back from a wedding, a friend who’s definitely in the frequent-flier-plus ranks brought me in as a guest. It was my first introduction to the world of airport lounges—I remember waiting nervously while my friend talked to the host, worrying less about being rejected than about the potential embarrassment to him if the host deemed me unsuitable—and so being allowed through the sliding doors seemed like an unobtainable, once-in-a-lifetime treat.

What I got for free: I’m pretty sure there was hummus, and also those Biscoff cookies that Delta gives out on its flights. It was the only business lounge I’ve been to so far where the free wine felt standard, rather than something they would reluctantly give us cheapskates who couldn’t pay to appreciate the finer things in life. (This was a few years ago, though; Delta may have joined the ranks of the alcohol upsellers since then.) I do remember being somewhat disappointed with the layout and décor, which basically looked like Delta had stuck a bunch of padded chairs in a hallway and was charging admission to sit there. But it had a lot of television screens with updated flight info and was the only lounge so far where I haven’t worried about missing my flight.

What I took away: A gateway drug to the frequent-flier lifestyle, a more comfortable chair in which to start recovering from a raucous wedding weekend, and a reminder that sometimes the best way to get things for free is to have money already—or at least to have generous friends.

 

American Airlines Admirals Club, Miami, June 2013

How I got in for free: Sending 4,000 Tweets can apparently get you a free hour in an airport lounge. I had narrowly squeaked by the score cutoff for a Klout promotion that rewarded social-media activity with a lounge pass, so on my way back from a hectic work trip I zoomed through the Admirals Club. I was rushed enough not to feel intimidated by the imposing lobby, which was on an entirely different floor from the lounge itself, and the friendly host complimented my necklace, giving my first solo visit to an airport club the proper Sense of Occasion.

What I got for free: The opportunity to take a shower in one of six separate bathrooms, which seemed like a nice if mostly-pointless luxury. (I passed; I want to shower once I’m off the airplane, not before I board.) There were canisters of some sort of generic Chex Mix, good iced tea, and lots of crudités to go with the Ranch dip. The lounge was essentially a large, glassed-in balcony above the concourse and the gate where most of my fellow coach travelers waited, giving me a sense of physical superiority to go along with the lifestyle superiority. But my smug elevation almost made me miss my flight—a small sign by the flight-status monitors informed me that American would not make announcements in the lounge. By the time I saw that sign and took the elevator back down to the mundane realm, I was one of the last people to board my plane.

What I took away: Some mini-carrots, iced tea on a wobbly table, and extra stress. My quick stop to see how the other half flies yielded a rather disappointing answer: sometimes crammed into their leather armchairs above where the coach fliers cram into their polyester chairs.

 

United Club, Chicago, July 2013

How I got in for free: I had a credit card coupon in my bag, but I also had what I hoped would trump it: a first-class ticket. (When I used frequent-flier miles to book tickets to two friends’ wedding, the first-class option was the same price as the coach option, so I got to spend the two hours back to New York observing that 1) even on short trips, first class fliers get drinks in real glasses and warm nuts and warm towels and hot soup in porcelain bowls and 2) the drinks in real glasses and hot soup in porcelain bowls become hazardous during violent turbulence and 3) forget the real glasses and porcelain bowls, first class is luxurious just from the legroom and the wide windows for the dusk approach back to New York.)

I showed up at the club’s front desk to see if my first-class ticket included lounge access and was waived through by a bored host who didn’t stop talking to her companion enough to smile or welcome me. I was disappointed with her lacking Sense of Occasion until later, when my flight was delayed and I asked the new front-desk clerk if I could leave and then come back.  She looked at my ticket and said I’d been let in by mistake. “You’re not supposed to be here,” she said, as I slowly backed towards the leather armchairs and the yogurt-dipped raisins. “Who let you in here?” Fortunately, someone else came up and distracted her then—I was much less embarrassed than I would have been three years ago, but I wasn’t eager to find out if United hires bouncers to protect its airport lounges.

What I got for free: Dark Chocolate Milanos—instant win. United had the best food by far: mini-packets of butter cookies, the aforementioned raisins, individually wrapped pieces of Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses. It also had a “no cell phones” quiet room, free WiFi, lots of floor plugs, and windows that looked out directly onto the tarmac and the planes. I took my small glass of (house) wine back to a table and spent an hour writing emails and clicking through all the wedding photos that had already been posted to Facebook.

What I took away: Cookies in my carry-on bag and a sense of cheating the system – even if I have four more passes to make me a legitimate part of it for a little while longer.

 

Maria Aspan writes about banks and other things. Photo: Traveling Otter

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18 Comments / Post A Comment

I visited my first United Club (at EWR) a few weeks ago, also courtesy of some free passes for a credit card. The free wifi was nice; I had work to do, so only had one beer (free, but I still tipped, as is customary in U.S. clubs), and some fruit. While it was a decent enough place to sit for a few hours, no way I would pay the $50 day pass fee and I’d have to be traveling almost weekly, I think, for the annual membership to be appealing. But, the real time such clubs are useful is during IRROPs (i.e., when things go south and everyone’s delayed), because the club people can rebook your flights, etc etc.

But, Admiral’s Clubs and United Clubs are NOTHING in comparison to the joy and heaven that are the lounges of some foreign carriers. There is an entire lounge champagne thread on the BA board over at Flyertalk. I’ve only been to Galleries Club (for One World Platinums or BA fliers in Club class) and it was delightful. The arrivals lounge is also amazing, as getting a shower post-flight is the best thing out there. BA has a first-class lounge (the Flounge, or Galleries First) and then Concorde Lounge– leftover from the days of the supersonic flights– that is even fancier, because they don’t let those unwashed mere status passengers in (well, with few exceptions) but only those flying actual first class on BA.

In Frankfurt, Lufthansa has entire entire TERMINAL of the airport for first-class fliers. I’ve never been, obviously, as it really is only for long-haul passengers in first– not business– class and a select few of the über frequent fliers (HON Circle). They drive you to the plane in a Porsche, I hear, and security is quite civilized.

And then there are the stories of the lounges in Hong Kong and Singapore and in Australia. Halycon worlds of travel ease. The domestic U.S. lounges are, it sounds, like Greyhound bus terminals in comparison.

Also, there is a thread over on Flyertalk about the various retention bonuses people have managed to get when calling to cancel their Chase UA cards (extra lounge passes, bonus miles, waived annual fees.) I’d recommend browsing that thread– or the similar ones for other co-branded cards– before your annual fee is up to see what the current bonuses might be available.

garysixpack (#4,263)

@angry little raincloud In general, Asian airline lounges are the best, small airlines have better lounges than large ones, and home country lounges are better than away country ones. Personally, I’ll go for Thai or Singapore Air lounges whenever I can, with hot food (well, chafing dish food anyway), decent booze, and relative quiet.

Oh, and the exit showers for BA Heathrow are indeed fine, especially if you’re going directly from airport to meeting.

maspan (#2,674)

@garysixpack @angry little raincloud The Lufthansa terminal sounds nuts! I was admittedly a little spoiled going into this by my previous experiences with Asian (economy class!) airport lounges: http://thebillfold.com/2012/11/how-to-spend-two-weeks-and-1400-in-thailand/

arturica (#5,865)

@garysixpack I traveled a lot when I used to sell gold in Houston TX and I can confirm that Thai and Singapore Air offer the best services. I did not have the opportunity to check the exit showers but my nephew was there and he liked it, he made a couple of pictures and showed them to me, the design is very futuristic.

swirrlygrrl (#2,398)

Work has flown me business class for a few trips to North Africa/the Middle East, and I have to say, I would have taken showers, had they been available, on my stopovers in Europe on the way back to North America. I do like the free wifi, free wine (no upselling – serve yourself!) and free cheese. It’s also particularly nice when you’re doing a long-haul international flight and arrive at the airport the recommended several hours early to have a comfy place to chill. but, I’m generally a carry-on only, last minute arriver with low comfort requirements, so I’d never pay for these things on my own.

RT (#4,481)

@swirrlygrrl Are you my travel soul mate?

swirrlygrrl (#2,398)

@RT Maybe? Let’s meet in Iceland for a weekend, with only one small bag, and find out!

sea ermine (#122)

The showers are GREAT if you have a layover somewhere. When flying from Bangkok to the US I stopped in Tokyo for a few hours and fortunately I had a free upgrade to business class (so I could use the lounge) becuse they have showers and they give you a little bag with mini shampoos and soaps and stuff and oh my god was it so lovely. It’s even better going back (DC-Tokyo-Bangkok) because then the first leg is longer and you want the shower even more.

megsy (#1,565)

I’ve done the shower thing.. I was flying from South America back to Canada but had a long stopover in the Toronto airport. The shower felt fantastic after a long day and night of travelling (the Bogota airport was a disaster to go through both times I did).

Air Canada lounges have “pour your own” booze. I have never tipped because I poured my own! There’s a kegerator so you can fill your own beer glasses. Also, instead of prewrapped snacks, there are soups, salads, baked cookies, lots of fruits, etc. Tons of free magazines and newspapers. Lounge access can be purchased for the year for $150 because of my Visa infinite credit card… but I don’t travel enough domestically to make it worthwhile anymore.

Also, if you had a business class ticket, you should have gotten access to the United lounge. I don’t know why you wouldn’t have. I’ve done it on points before (Air Canada points, but it was still Star Alliance, on United metal in the US).

@megsy One point to make: I think a lot of people get confused by U.S. lounges, because unlike elsewhere in the world, neither elites nor domestic business/first-class passengers automatically get lounge access based on status or class of service. So, a UA flier from EWR-ORD in domestic F does NOT get access to the United Club, unless she has a membership or day pass, BUT if, say, someone flying those same flights had non-UA Star Gold status (via, for example, Air Canada or Lufthansa) she would. I was irritated years ago with US Airways because I had a first class ticket and they wouldn’t let me in the lounge because I was used to how the rest of the world does it.
But, yeah, for an international itinerary, business & first passengers do get lounge access. I am basically an avid reader of the Flyertalk threads about people complaining about being denied lounge access (especially the intricacies of Flagship or IFL lounge access… and now with Delta’s partnership with Virgin Atlantic, the vast moaning that Delta elites won’t have unbridled access to the Virgin Clubhouses.) I guess it’s my version of armchair travel. I need to get out more!
(Also, agreeing with everyone above that the lounges where you can pour your own booze are far better than the ones where you get served… and are expected to tip!)

megsy (#1,565)

@angry little raincloud ahhh. It would have been an international itinerary, so perhaps that is why. What a strange phenomenon. I’m not Star Alliance Gold, I was briefly silver (two shining years) but I never made it over the gold threshold.

I read a lot of FT but I read the Aeroplan forum… so not a lot of moaning because the ones who fly in the US domestically are generally *G status holders.

acorn575 (#4,485)

If you ever get the chance to use a Qantas lounge in Australia/NZ, it’s well worth it… The Sydney international terminal lounge has the following for free: hot meals (at breakfast time you’re looking at sausage, bacon, eggs etc.), barrista-made coffee, gelato (!!), booze (including spirits), as well as the usual fruit/cheese/crackers/cookies/juice selections.

My work pays for a lounge membership, and I’m certainly not mad about the situation.

maspan (#2,674)

@acorn575 Gelato! I think you have just decided my next big vacation.

itsk (#4,319)

I get anxiety when I can’t get into a lounge now when I travel. I have Delta Gold Medallion and Star Alliance Gold Status, so I can basically get in anywhere, but before that I would purchase passes (left to my own devices I would spend the same amount of money or more just being bored and impulse shopping in the airport terminal). Lounges in the US are the worst for food. The best lounges I’ve been in are the Air Canada ones (especially at Pearson) and the Air New Zealand one in Auckland. The Lufthansa lounge in Frankfurt gets a special mention for the airplane shaped gummi candy. Air France has free Clinique spa treatments in some of their lounges in Paris and some of the best food. Delta and their carrot sticks can suck it basically…

BlackMen (#7,016)

The Lufthansa lounge in Frankfurt gets a special mention for the airplane shaped gummi candy. Air France has free Clinique spa treatments in some of their lounges in Paris and some of the best food. Delta and their carrot sticks can suck it basically…loft conversion costs London

BlackMen (#7,016)

They are not necessarily the best places to wait for flights you are worried about missing. And they have vastly differing levels of welcome towards—and scrutiny of—potentially unqualified visitors.Brad Reifler

The Lufthansa lounge in Frankfurt gets a special mention for the airplane shaped gummi candy. Air France has free Clinique spa treatments in some of their lounges in Paris and some of the best food. Delta and their carrot sticks can suck it basically… dofollow high pr backlink service

sophia (#7,748)

great article about the lemon detox diet

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