Yesterday I discussed my decision to keep my MileagePlus Club credit card, which comes with a membership to the United Club. For my travel patterns — mostly domestic travel, with connections and a companion — it makes more sense than many of the other options available. However, I will talk about some alternative methods that still involve paying for access. These may make sense if you are a less frequent visitor to the club or if your travel patterns allow you to diversify among different club operators.
Get a MileagePlus Explorer Card
The MileagePlus Explorer card is geared toward less frequent travelers and has an annual fee of $95 that is waived the first year. As I said in yesterday’s post, many of its benefits are equal to the lowest elite tier of Premier Silver. Three additional benefits it provides are:
- Primary car rental coverage (most cards offer secondary coverage)
- Ability to upgrade award flights if you have elite status
- Two one-time passes to the United Club
Buy United Club Passes from United
You can buy one-time access to the club for $50 at the door or $45 through the United mobile app. Like the free passes that come with the Explorer card, each pass is good for one person, one visit. A couple traveling across the country, visiting the United Club at their departure airport and their connection point each way will have to spend $200. It almost never makes sense to pay $50 for club access.
I do make an exception for extremely long connections (more than three hours) or irregular operations due to mechanical and weather delays. You will probably spend more than $50 if you decide to hang out at an airport bar for a long delay, the seats are less comfortable, and the space is noisier — it’s worse than whatever problems the club may have the longer you have to wait. Furthermore, agents inside the club are able to assist you with rebooking and other reservations issues. If you are caught in a place like Chicago when all the flights are cancelled due to weather, being able to skip the main customer service line can be great.
Buy United Club Passes from Others
Obviously with all those passes floating around from the Explorer card, and perhaps a few other promotions, some people will have passes they don’t want. There is an active resale market for these on places like FlyerTalk’s Coupon Connection, Craigslist, and eBay. From everything I have read these passes are transferable, but I have not seen a one-time pass up close and can’t confirm this. I certainly wouldn’t go out of my way to tell the agent at the club that I bought it from someone else. However, you shouldn’t have to worry about trying to use a pass without an Explorer card in your possession.
The going rate for one-time passes is about $15-30, with many sellers asking for $20. I believe this is far more than the club experience is worth, especially in most domestic airports. Maybe the amenities will improve as United renovates their clubs, but I only value the experience at about $10 per person per visit. Others have put it as low as $5.
Note: the terms and conditions of the MileagePlus Explorer card application say that passes cannot be sold, but I don’t think there’s anything on the pass itself. There is lots of evidence that people are buying, selling, and using these without incident.
Get a Priority Pass Membership
You have to be careful here. Many people get some kind of Priority Pass membership from certain credit cards like the American Express Platinum Card. However, those cannot be used at the United Club, which makes a distinction between a normal membership and one obtained through a financial product.
Some people like Priority Pass enough that they are willing to buy a membership even if for some other reason they don’t want to get an American Express card. Priority Pass offers three levels of membership with different annual fees plus different fees for each visit. I’ve copied the pricing information below for U.S. customers.
I discourage you from getting the cheapest Standard membership. You pay $99 up front, and then you still pay $27 per visit. You can just buy passes from others for about the same price. The Standard Plus membership is more reasonable. For $249 you get your first 10 visits free and then pay $27 per visit after that. Those visits would cost about $25 each — close to the resale cost of one-time passes. The Prestige membership is $399 and all visits are free. Guest fees are still $27 per person for all of these Priority Pass memberships.
I only recommend the Standard Plus or Prestige memberships to people who travel alone (so no $27 guest fees), who may want to use airport clubs other than the United Club, and who do want access to the United Club on some occasions. A United Club membership will limit you to clubs operated by United and U.S. Airways, as well as international Star Alliance Gold clubs (assuming you don’t already have Gold elite status). A Priority Pass membership obtained via American Express gets you access to lots of clubs except the United Club. Buying a Priority Pass membership directly offers some compromise.
So What’s the Best Way to Enter the United Club?
None of these are great options in my opinion — not to say getting a MileagePlus Club card is a great option, either. In many cases you are overpaying or accepting restrictions. However, there’s not really anything wrong with that as long as you don’t make it a habit. I overpay on lots of little things because, hey, it’s only a few extra bucks.
Maybe I value the club experience at $5-10 on average, but you may have a particular trip where it’s a little longer, a little more stressful, and it is worth $20-30 on that particular occasion. Then buying someone else’s one-time pass on eBay makes more sense. My average value is brought down because I visit on almost every trip. I don’t need to, but I’ve already got my annual membership. If your airport has free WiFi and a decent bar, and if you only have to wait an hour for your flight, you can get a better drink and better food outside the club.
Next time I’ll discuss how to save money on club access through status with other airlines, in which case your “domestic” trips are really international from their perspective, and that may entitle you to free access.
Disclaimer: I have some application links in this post, but at the time the time this post was published, I did not receive any compensation if you choose to apply using my links.