Let me start today by saying I greatly appreciate Amex’s effort to create their own chain of airport lounges. They’ve sincerely tried to improve on the current dismal state of domestic airport lounges, which are generally only marginally better than sitting in the waiting room of a doctor’s office if the doctor offered free house wine and 3-day old cookies.
So there’s no doubt that the Centurion Lounges offer a significantly better experience than the usual fare at one of the “Big Three” lounges. However, when the points and miles blogosphere began hyperventilating a few days ago about Amex officially opening their latest Centurion Lounge in Seattle, it became clear that things have gotten a bit out of hand.
(By the way, notwithstanding the alternate viewpoint of this post, our fearless leader Scott has one of the first full hands-on reviews of that new Seattle Centurion Lounge here. Definitely check it out!)
Yes, the Centurion Lounges are pretty. Yes, they have decent food and a great bar. Yes, you can even get a free massage at the one in Dallas, though I can’t say I’ve actually taken them up on that one yet. Also, I understand in certain parts of New York you can still get that same service for just $5 and they won’t just focus on your shoulders.
But do these fancy lounges really deserve all the adulation? Are they worth the cost, which is not trivial? Are we getting enough value for our investment?
I mean, are the Centurion Lounges honestly such a big deal?
Amex is the Hyatt of airport lounges.
As most of you know, I’m a major Hyatt fanboy. I like their hotels. I like their loyalty program. I like the way they treat their Diamond members. In my opinion, Hyatt Diamond status is one of the best hotel elite statuses (or is it stati?) out there.
But none of that matters if there’s no Hyatt where you’re going.
Hyatt’s big downside is their relatively small footprint. They currently have 587 properties around the world. Compare that to Hilton with over 4,300 worldwide hotels or Marriott at over 4,200 properties. Those chains literally dwarf Hyatt. So even if Hyatt has all the things I like, it’s only useful if I can actually find one that works with my travel plans.
The Centurion Lounges have the same issue. Right now there’s a total of 6 Centurion Lounges in the U.S. — Dallas, Las Vegas, San Francisco, New York/LaGuardia, Miami, and now Seattle. Although technically the new one in Seattle isn’t a lounge. It’s a “studio” because it’s smaller with less alcohol, which is literally a buzzkill as far as I’m concerned.
So for a Centurion Lounge to make sense in your domestic travel plans, you have to be going in, out, or through one of those 6 cities (and have enough time in your itinerary to actually visit a lounge). Otherwise the fancy cocktails are irrelevant. Which means unless you’re based in one of those cities or regularly travel to them, your odds of regularly using a Centurion Lounge are slim.
Compare that to the 50 worldwide American Admirals Clubs, or the 45 United Clubs, or the 46 Delta Sky Clubs in the United States alone. Sure, you won’t get a massage there, but you’re much more likely to actually be near one than you are a Centurion Lounge.
Let’s also not forget that the Centurion Lounges are not necessarily accessible to every concourse or terminal at the airport. If you’re flying Delta out of LaGuardia’s Terminal D, you won’t be anywhere near the Centurion Lounge in Terminal B. Or if you’re flying American through Dallas, there’s only a 1 in 4 chance that you’ll be flying out of the same terminal as the Centurion Lounge. But you’ll find separate Admirals Clubs in all 4 of those terminals.
Centurion Lounge access is expensive.
So what does it cost to get into the fancy Centurion Lounges? Well, if you have an Amex Platinum or Centurion card, you get complimentary admission. Yes, Personal Platinum cardholders, unlike most of the other recently added Amex perks that are reserved for super important Business cardmembers, this benefit applies to you as well.
That means for just $450 a year, you can get access to 6 lounges. Using simple math, that means it costs $75 per lounge.
OK, maybe that’s an unfair way to look at it. Actually, that’s a completely unfair way to look at it. Just for starters, there are obviously many other benefits of the Amex Platinum cards you get for that $450 annual fee, including the fact that it includes Delta Sky Club access when you’re traveling on Delta.
But if we’re comparing access to airline lounges and we assume you get your access to American or United lounges via their respective premium credit cards (which in most cases you should be), then those premium cards also come with various extra benefits. They might be different perks than the Amex Platinum and you might consider them better or worse. Personally, I think the Citi Prestige is currently blowing away the Amex Platinum. But for the sake of argument, let’s just assume all the benefits of these cards are roughly the same.
So for the $450 of the Citi AAdvantage Executive card, you get access to all the Admirals Clubs. For the (just increased) $450 MileagePlus Club card, you get all United Clubs (and there’s lots of ways to get that annual fee waived for the first year). Or maybe you want an Amex Platinum for the Delta Sky Club access — that’s fine, but it doesn’t mean you’d be wise to get a $450 Platinum card solely to enter the 6 Centurion Lounges.
And compared to international lounges…
Before you think the Centurion Lounges are something special, you should make a visit to the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at JFK or Heathrow. Or the Lufthansa First Class Terminal in Frankfurt. Or even the Qantas Lounges in Sydney and LAX.
Maybe it’s not reasonable to compare domestic Centurion Lounges to some of these international offerings. But of those “international” offerings I just listed, 2 out of 3 are located in the United States. Heck, even the Delta Sky Club Flagship Lounge at JFK has a pretty darn cool SkyDeck.
Think a massage at the Centurion Lounge in Dallas sounds nice? You can get your hair cut at the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse. Or play a game of billiards on their in house table. Or have your portrait painted in pastels. (All right, I made up that last one, but that’d be awesome, wouldn’t it?)
The Devil’s Advocate admits he’s nitpicking.
OK, it’s fun playing Devil’s Advocate and pointing out flaws. But most of my complaining here focused on the fact that Amex is still in the process of building out their Centurion Lounges. It’s not terribly fair for me to complain that they’re only partially through a major project that will undoubtedly take time.
How good are the Centurion Lounges actually? I’ve personally been to 3 of the 6 Centurion Lounges. Dallas and Las Vegas are pretty sweet. LaGuardia is a notch below in my opinion. The food isn’t as extensive and you get to walk through what appears to be the oldest airport administration hallways in America order to get there. But even with that caveat, it’s better than most domestic lounges.
So maybe it’s not yet worth getting an Amex Platinum card just for the Centurion Lounges, especially if you don’t regularly travel to or through the current 6 locations. But sit tight, because I’m quite certain there are more Centurion Lounges on the way. And if you travel regularly within the U.S., at some point those lounges alone might just be worth spending $450 a year. Especially if they include a nice pastel portrait with each visit.Devil’s Advocate is a bi-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 following him on Twitter @dvlsadvcate or sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Find the entire collection of Devil’s Advocate posts here.