Airline VIP lounges: Comparing the clubs

Airline VIP lounges can be a welcome respite from the cacophony of the airport concourse but they come in all shapes and sizes, and the amenities they offer vary fairly widely.

I have been a member of United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) United Club and American Airlines (NYSE:AAL) Admirals Club, had reciprocal access to the now-defunct U.S. Airways Clubs, visited British Airways’ Speedwing and Terraces lounges, Alaska Airlines’ (NYSE:ALK) Board Rooms, the Lufthansa Business Lounge, Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) Sky Club and, most recently, Virgin America's Loft.

Similarities and differences

With few exceptions, VIP lounges offer a more relaxed and tranquil atmosphere than what is beyond their doors in the busy terminal. Even those travelers who bring their children or grandchildren are expected to keep them in check so fellow travelers can enjoy relatively quiet surroundings. Almost all have restrooms so patrons need not contend with the lines at the facilities in the terminal. That facet alone made my wife a believer in their value.

All the clubs I visited offer wireless internet access that is separate from whatever the airport may offer, so there is less sharing of the bandwidth. All offer complimentary beverages and nibbles, but the quantity and quality of those offerings are among the factors that differ considerably.

Sparkling wine at Virgin Loft, LAX

Complimentary beverages almost always include coffee and tea along with soft drinks and juices. In most cases, there is also a range of complimentary adult beverages, but some drink menus are more expansive than others.

The United Clubs I have visited have the largest list of complimentary adult beverages including Smirnoff vodka, Canadian Club, Dewar’s scotch, Jack Daniels whiskey, Jose Cuervo tequila and Beefeaters gin, and usually several beers including a local brew or two. In fact, a fellow guest with whom I spoke at the Seattle (SEA) United Club said that particular facet of the clubs’ operations is one of the things he looks forward to: trying the local brews that various clubs offer. The United Clubs also offer premium spirits, including Bombay Sapphire gin, Knob Creek bourbon, Maker’s Mark bourdon, Glenlivet scotch, and others for a modest fee of $6 as of my last visit.

The Delta Sky Club in which I am writing this post has a more limited list of complimentary beverages but a more expansive list of premium offerings. It offers top-shelf mixed drinks for $10, two different flights of three tequilas each for $15, and two different flights of three scotches for $25 each.

While it has been several months since I have visited an Alaska Airlines Board Room, I recall the list of complimentary wines and spirits to be rather small by comparison to the other clubs. As well, the selection of complimentary wines and beer – but no spirits – at the Virgin America Loft was rather small: one red, one white (a Chardonnay), one sparkling wine, and two draft beers.

Snack offerings will also vary in quality and change depending upon time of day. In the mornings, United Clubs offer a selection of three dry cereals, bread and bagels with butter, jam, and Philadelphia® brand cream cheese. At about 10:30 a.m., they switch to a selection of three snacks including a trail mix, yoghurt-covered raisins, and a spicy mix. United Clubs also offer carrots with ranch dressing, Tillamook cheeses and crackers, and fruit throughout the day including apples and bananas.

Nibbles at the Delta Sky Club at SEA

The Delta Sky Club appears to offer the broadest range - and the healthiest choices - of food items I have seen to date. Offerings include two different soups, crudités with ranch dressing and olive tapenade, salads with several types of dressing, marinated mushrooms and olives, chicken salad, cookies and popcorn in addition to several types of fresh fruit.

Décor and its associated level of wear will understandably vary based on the age of the club and its location, so I do not believe it would be fair to compare the physical facilities. Check the clubs at the airports you use most and judge that for yourself.

None of the clubs associated with a specific airline allowed outside food to be brought in, which I believe should be changed, particularly in clubs where chips, cookies, and apples are the most substantial snacks offered. An airline club at which I worked explained the policy by saying that the smells of food brought in from the outside might offend other patrons, a rationale I think is weak at best. I would rather deal with aromas in a subdued club atmosphere than endure noisy surroundings while I get a bite to eat in the terminal.

Clubs offer different atmospheres, different rules

British Airways and Lufthansa offer different First Class and Business Class lounges at many locations. Lufthansa, however, shares lounge space with other carriers in some locations where they do not operate enough flights to justify their own facility. At SEA, for example, ANA, Emirates and Lufthansa share a club. Outside food is allowed to be brought in to that facility in consideration of the fact that they offer a limited range of snack options.

Another area where clubs differ is in the times members are allowed access.

It used to be that a membership in United Clubs could be used whenever one was visiting an airport that had a United Club. However, as of Aug. 18, 2015 United changed the rules to require that a member be flying on a United flight that day in order to be granted club access. The policy change was intended, "To maintain and further improve the United Club experience," the airline said in an email. That policy lasted for a year until, on Aug. 18, 2016, it was expanded to allow access to anyone flying on any airline on the day of their visit.

Delta also requires a same-day boarding pass for Delta or partner airlines to gain admission to its Sky Clubs.

American Airlines' Admirals Clubs have no such restriction at present, but will have by the end of the year. For now, members can use any Admirals Club whether they are flying on American or not on the day of their visit. However, starting Nov. 1, 2019, same-day boarding passes on American Airlines or partner airlines will be required for entry. Finally, rules may vary at clubs operated by other airlines, including those that offer reciprocal access to other clubs' members.

Shared Business Class lounge at SEA

Different clubs also offer different options for temporary access.

United Clubs, which used to offer day passes when they were Red Carpet Clubs, now offer “one-time” passes for $59.

American’s Admirals Clubs offer “day passes” for the same price, and they're good for multiple visits on the same calendar date.

The Delta Sky Clubs discontinued single-visit passes as of Nov. 15, 2018, though it will honor passes already issued through the expiration date printed on the pass.

Day passes at Alaska Airlines Board Rooms and Virgin America Lofts are $45 and $30, respectively.

Although all the clubs offer annual memberships and some offer 30 and 90-day memberships, if you’re not a frequent traveler, one-time or day passes may make the most sense. If you travel enough to consider a membership, try out several of the clubs by purchasing day memberships to evaluate which one offers the atmosphere and amenities that are most to your liking. Finally, consider a PriorityPass, which has agreements with several different clubs. That pass could be ideal for those whose travels take them to a variety of airports instead of just two or three airport pairs.

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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