When the girlfriend and I went to Japan a few weeks ago, we were traveling internationally on business class tickets, so we stopped by the United Lounge during our layover in San Francisco. It’s a nice sized lounge. As usual, there wasn’t much to eat, just snacks. It was 10am so we weren’t really into having alcoholic drinks (well, at least not until 11am anyway). Basically we took 20 minutes to relax, have a cup of coffee, and get away from the hustle and bustle of the airport before getting on our next flight.
In other words, it was fine. And free.
But would I actually pay for this?
There’s a lot of talk in the points and miles blogosphere about lounge access, with pitches to get the appropriate credit cards as a way of saving on the costs of membership fees to these private lounges (or at least getting more for your money that way). But are the lounges worth visiting in the first place, let alone paying hundreds of dollars a year for? What’s in a lounge that’s so special? The open bar? The snacks? The privacy? Being able to post a photo of it on your Facebook wall?
What is the big deal about airport lounges?
Whoo hooo! Open Bar!
A couple years back I was traveling every week for work (mostly on Delta) and I had a colleague and good friend who was doing the same. My friend was… well… let’s just say he greatly enjoyed the imbibing of alcohol. I’m not judging, mind you, I’m just telling the story. Besides, this was a few years ago and he’s doing better now. I swear, I’m not judging! Stop looking at me like that, will you?
Anyway, at the start of every year, the first thing my friend would do is burn 60,000 Delta SkyMiles to buy his annual membership to the Delta Sky Club. I’d always tell him what a terrible waste of miles it was to do that.
His response: “Are you kidding? I’m saving a fortune in drinks alone!”
The free drinks are often the most cited benefit of airport lounge access, and for my friend who tended to be miles rich, cash poor, and a traveling alcoholic, he probably did save money by using his miles to gain access to a free bar at the airport. So if you normally drink a ton like he did, there’s probably a case to be made for paying the fees… and for perhaps cutting back a bit on your alcohol consumption.
But for the vast majority of us, how many drinks are we really going to have in the lounge? Three? Four, maybe, if we’re on a long layover?
What about the quality of the drinks themselves? All the airlines have been cutting back on the “free” liquors and nowadays we’re not getting anywhere near the top shelf without paying extra for it. Just as an example, here’s a chart demonstrating the difference in vodka brands being offered for free and for an additional charge in airport lounges…
Do we also feel a bit obligated to “drink up” to make our membership worth it? The same way we think signing up for a gym membership is going to get us off our butts and into the gym? The problem is that trick never works when it’s the gym, but unfortunately it totally works when it’s the bar. I can personally attest to gaining around 15 pounds in 2 years on the road. Here’s another chart breaking down how much of that 15 pounds was due to excess food versus excess alcohol…
The point is that if we’re justifying our airport lounge access on the free drinks, we should probably look again, both at our cost/benefit analysis and perhaps at our lifestyle choices.
Snack Mix and Carrots and Hummus… oh my!
“Ahhhh,” say the Conventional Wisdomers, “but what about food? You get free snacks in the lounge. That’s worth something.”
Yeah, but has anyone noticed that the food in the lounges is… well… crappy? The snacks are often identical to the snacks that are served in economy on the plane. You know, those little bags of pretzels that are unopenable without the pair of scissors that TSA took away from you earlier?
Of course, the high end international lounges are different and a few lounges like the AmEx Centurion lounges are exceptions. But in the vast majority of the domestic airline lounges, the free food items are snack mix, carrots, and hummus. That’s it. (Okay, yes, and cookies. I admit everyone likes cookies. But if cookies are the highlight of the lounge, we should probably rethink food as a benefit.)
Sure, you can sometimes buy something more substantial in the lounge. Even a whole meal in some places. But you can also step outside into the terminal and buy any food you want. With no membership fee whatsoever.
Getting Away From The Ham ‘n’ Eggers
“Ewwww, you want us to go out into the terminal?” cringe the Conventional Wisdomers. “If you’re always on the road, you want a place to go that’s away from everything and everyone.”
That may have been true in the past, but the lounges are getting so crowded nowadays that it’s almost the same as being in the airport. Yes, Delta has cut back on the guests allowed in the Sky Clubs on American Express Platinum cards, but they are also promoting and selling day passes to their clubs like there’s no tomorrow. So are the other airlines. Add in third-party lounge chains like Priority Pass and Lounge Club and we’re getting to the point where there’s almost more people in the club than in the terminal.
What about the business equipment available in airport lounges? The fax machines and copiers and desktop computers? OK, sure, those might be valuable to you once in a blue moon, but ask yourself when was the last time you used the fax machine in the airport lounge? Come to think of it, when was the last time you used a fax machine? Are we really going to pay an annual fee for lounge access in the off chance that we might need to fax a document to someone waiting for it back in 1987?
So how much does this all cost us?
OK, so add up the free drinks we shouldn’t be drinking, the cheapo snacks we can get on the plane later, the desktop computer we don’t need since our smartphone is more powerful than the computers in the lounge, and exclusive access to the most crowded room in the terminal. What’s that worth to us?
Well, you can buy a lounge membership directly from the airline and be gouged for it, which I assume only happens when your company is paying the fee, in which case godspeed to you. For the rest of us, credit cards are the cheapest way in. If you have an American Express Platinum card, you get Delta Sky Club access for $450 per year. Of course, you can’t bring a guest. They’ll have to pay $50 for a day pass. The same roughly goes for American Admirals Club access with a Citi Executive AAdvantage card, except for that one you get 2 guests. Chase’s United MileagePlus Club card is only $395 per year and does have guest access, which seems like a relative bargain in comparison until you remember that the signup bonus for the United MileagePlus Club card is a $100 statement credit and a whole lotta nothing else.
So you’re spending somewhere between $395-$450 for regular access to these clubs. Let’s assume the free snacks are worth about $25 for the entire year’s consumption (and that’s probably generous). That leaves at least $370 that you’ll need to drink/fax/copy just to break even. That seems highly doubtful. Even going into a lounge with just a $50 day pass, you’re unlikely to get your money’s worth unless you’re on an extremely long layover (or that guy waiting in 1987 starts threatening to cancel the deal if you don’t get that fax to him today).
The Devil’s Advocate says skip the airport lounge and proceed directly to TGI Friday’s.
Full disclosure here — yes, I myself have an AmEx Platinum card with Delta Sky Club access. And a Citi Exec AAdvantage card with Admirals Club access. And a Citi Thank You Prestige card with… well, with basically the identical Admirals Club access. (Wait, why do I have both those cards? Note to self: topic for next week’s post will be “how did I end up with all these stupid high annual fee cards?”)
Am I going to dump those cards tomorrow? No, probably not. But am I going to renew them at their high annual fees just so that I can get into the airport lounges? Nope. Perhaps in the day when the AmEx Platinum alone got you into Delta, American, and US Airways clubs all by itself, it was worth the fee. But those days are gone and unfortunately ain’t coming back.
So I’ll ride out my already paid annual fees and then decide at renewal time whether they have other benefits that will make them worth keeping. But the lounge access won’t be enough. And the next time I’m on a layover, I might just skip the lounge and instead head down the concourse in search of a nice order of pretzel bites and a tall mug of Coors Light. Maybe even two mugs…
If you missed last week’s Devil’s Advocate post about the futility of tweeting about loyalty program devaluations (see “Tweeting Into The Abyss About Devaluations“), check it out and please add your thoughts in the comments there. Or comment below on today’s topic or anything else that’s on your mind. Just remember, the Devil’s Advocate is always right! No, I’m just kidding. (OR AM I?) I am. (MAYBE.)
Devil’s Advocate is a weekly series that deliberately argues a contrarian view on travel and loyalty programs. Sometimes the Devil’s Advocate truly believes in the counterargument. Other times he takes the opposing position just to see if the original argument holds water. But his main objective is to engage in friendly debate with the miles and points community to determine if today’s conventional wisdom is valid. You can suggest future topics by sending an email to email@example.com.