Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Which airline has the best lounge?

Most people who fly don't belong to an airline lounge at all. Frequent flyers who spend a lot of time in airports take a closer look at these havens from the usual clatter, but that begs the question: which lounge should you join?

First of all, we'll focus on the lounges operated by the six largest airlines:
There are a few others, including Alaska Airlines' Board Room and Aloha Airlines' Ali'i Lounge, but they operate in only a few airports and members typically enjoy access to other lounges through partnerships anyway, so unless you are based in Hawaii or Alaska, you wouldn't get as much value out of joining one directly.

So, first off: all things being equal, join the lounge that is operated by the airline you fly most often. The simple reason is that not every airport has every lounge, and the airports served by your favorite airline are more likely to have that airline's lounge in that terminal or concourse than they are a competitor's lounge.

That being said, all things are not equal: the Presidents Club is better than the others.

Here's why:
  • Complimentary bar service. WorldClubs and Crown Rooms also offer free alcoholic beverages, but the typical cost for these at the Red Carpet Club, U.S. Airways Club, or Admirals Club is $5.00.

  • Complimentary wireless Internet access. You'll get free Wi-Fi at the Admirals Club or WorldClub too, but have to pay for it at the Crown Room, Red Carpet Club, and U.S. Airways Club, where service is typically provided by T-Mobile at a daily rate of $9.95.

  • Complimentary partner lounge access. All three U.S.-based SkyTeam airlines (Delta, Continental, and Northwest) allow the other two's lounge members access to their lounge whether they're flying with them or not. United and U.S. Airways--the two U.S.-based Star Alliance carriers--don't have such a close relationship and allow one another's members access to their lounges only when they have a same-day ticket on one of the other's flights. What sets Continental apart from its two SkyTeam counterparts is that Presidents Club members also get unlimited use of Alaska Airlines' Board Room; WorldClub and Crown Room members only get that access when flying with their own airline or Alaska Airlines.
Now, for those of you who carry the American Express Platinum Card, you're probably aware that this card entitles you to access to the three SkyTeam airlines' lounges as well as American Airlines' Admirals Club. Does that mean buying a membership in the Presidents Club would be a waste?

Maybe. See, you can use the American Express privilege only when flying with the airline operating the lounge. That means that if you fly into Cincinnati on a Continental ticket, you won't be able to use Delta's Crown Room if you only have the American Express card -- but you could if you had a Presidents Club membership.

Keep in mind, of course, that all of this is subject to change. As I wrote yesterday, Delta and Northwest are in merger talks that may yield a combined airline inclined to change a few things. Moreover, any merger between Continental and United would fundamentally change the alliance structure, and then all bets are off.

For 2008, though, my solid recommendation is to go with Continental's Presidents Club. It's just the best value out there right now for frequent flyers.

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