The Airline Club Wars

The last time I was in Newark Airport’s Terminal C I entered a United Club and there in front me me was a pulsating, vast sea of humanity. It took 10 minutes of hunting to find an empty seat and of course it was nowhere near an electrical outlet.

The WiFi was anemic but what do you expect? A packed roomful of travelers all wanted on.

When I was last in a USAir Club at Phoenix Sky Harbor it was much the same. I had to wait for a passenger to exit her chair before I could sit down and all I could manage was a cup of mediocre coffee.

I asked myself: really is this much better than being with the hoi polloi outside the club? I did not honestly think it was.  At least outside the clubs there are generally decent food choices and good coffee is easy to find in most airports. Are the concourses a hectic hurlyburly? Indeed but if the airline clubs are too, so what?

Personally I have found a better club solution – more on it momentarily.

First, however, know that United Airlines has now reshuffled the deck.  In an email that landed in my box on August 18 – header: United Club access changes – the carrier decreed: “To maintain and further improve the United Club experience, we’re announcing the following change to our program:


■   Effective August 18, 2016, a same-day boarding pass for all United Club customers, including members, will be required for United Club access.

The carrier continued with promises: “We’ve been working on a variety of improvements to our United Club program. To provide a more productive and relaxing experience, we’re investing more than $100 million in renovating existing locations and building new spaces with expanded seating areas, more power outlets and upgraded Wi-Fi. We’re also investing in a brand new complimentary food menu that you can now find at our hub locations across the U.S. and will be available soon at the rest of our locations.”

The United goal obviously is to cut down on some of the guests in its clubs and the carrot it is waving is a better club experience. It’s not alone.

Earlier, Delta had taken more aggressive steps.  It’s effectively eliminated free guests passes for most classes of membership ($29 fee applies) and it also has eliminated free access for most partner credit cardholders (who now are nicked $29 to get in).

Both those carriers – obviously – are seeking to improve the club experience by reducing the headcount.

This is not a new story. As long ago as 2013, Joe Sharkey wrote: “One result of the airlines’ scramble for extra revenue from their airport clubs is a free-for-all in lounge access — with mounting complaints from business travelers about crowded conditions in lounges.”

It really has only gotten worse.

American Airlines, at least for now, is leaving club access as is and in fact it recently extended free access to some Alaska Air passengers.

You know what? I don’t care what any of the airlines are doing and that is because I am all in – mainly because the carriers pushed me – with American Express’ Centurion Lounges, a free perk for Platinum Cardholders.  Really: Centurion lounge food is vastly superior to whatever airline club’s offer, drinks are free, the WiFi is fast, space is reasonably quiet and I have not seen it jammed yet.

The airlines of course forced Amex’s hand. For years I used the Platinum Card to get in free at Continental, and also Delta.  It’s now a no go at United (which absorbed Continental) and at Delta there’s now a $29 fee for guests. <UPDATED>

So Amex fired back with the Centurion Lounge and it is a winner. It really has outmaneuvered the airlines.

The only drawback? Clubs are not everywhere. So far they are in Las Vegas, Dallas Fort Worth, San Francisco, Miami, Laguardia, and there’s a smaller outpost at Seattle Tacoma.

The next opening is supposed to be Houston, early in 2016.

Me, I want one in Newark Airport, also LAX.

Where there isn’t a Centurion Lounge, often I have found free access to clubs via Priority Pass, another Amex Plat perk.  That’s been true recently in San Jose and Phoenix and, no, it’s not as swank as Centurion but these are quiet clubs with plenty of newspapers and decent coffee and WiFi.

So count me as just not caring what the airlines do. I am a satisfied Centurion Lounge user and where they aren’t, Amex has alternatives that (so far) work for me.  I may never set foot in an airline club again.

What Travelers Need from Hotels in 2015

So many hotels still disappoint. That’s the puzzlement. TripAdvisor is filled with rants about what ticks us off but hoteliers, many of them, seem to just shrug off the negative.

And often they don’t seem to care to know what we really want.

Let me simplify this because we really don’t need much to stay happy.

Personally, for instance, I don’t care if a hotel’s restaurants suck – most do – because I don’t plan to eat there anyway.

And much as I like a decent free breakfast – always available at the highway motels I favor on road trips – I don’t view the lack as a deal breaker.

Of course a lack of electrical outlets irks me – it’s a usual winner in the Hotel Pet Peeves Survey – but I would not call it a deal breaker. It is easy enough to pack a power strip.  But nowadays I usually travel only with four plug ins (two phones, an iPad, a laptop) and I can scrounge up enough outlets in just about every room (tho I often do unplug hotel stuff).

I am of course already on record about room features I am happy to have removed, room phones, minibar, and TVs high on the list.  

But there are deal breakers, things that hotels flub that I really cannot abide.

Such as? Here are four.

No good coffee in the morning.  I like it in inroom but, in Las Vegas, one gets used to traipsing down to Starbucks at 6 a.m. and, really, Howard Schultz pours a better cup than a K-Cup machine makes inroom.  Sure, Starbucks costs a few bucks – maybe $5 in Las Vegas – but let’s not pinch pennies. As long as good coffee is readily at hand, free or no, I am at one.

What irks me is when the only coffee is inroom, made with what looks to be a 20 year old drip machine that produces what a European friend of mine calls “American brown water.”

That is no way to start a day.

No Chip and PIN Credit Card Readers.  Hotels have been beset with credit card data breaches in recent years and very probably it will get worse after the October 1 EMV liability shift.   Frankly I am increasingly tempted to decline to hand over a credit card to a hotel; the risks are real. Whatever you do, don’t hand over a debit card at a hotel – the consumer protections in the event of a breach just are not as strong.  Bottomline: show me chip and PIN readers at the front desk and at any point of sale terminal and you have won me as a friend. Still be using magnetic stripe readers only and we won’t long remain pals; I just don’t trust you.

Note: accept Apple Pay and Google Wallet and that will be good enough for me for now.

Slow, bad hotel WiFi.  I don’t care if I can’t stream videos – it doesn’t have to be that fast – but there needs be usable hotel WiFi and it needs be free.  Yes, I have said don’t use hotel WiFi, it’s insecure and that is true.  Hotel WiFi is a cesspool of malware and eavesdroppers.

But it’s just the thing for reading Google News stories, surfing ESPN, and doing a lot of online research. Just do not enter any meaningful user IDs and passwords and, please, don’t think of online banking, checking a brokerage account or doing anything that involves money.

Your company says hotel WiFi is okay if you use their VPN? Take their word for it.  And use that VPN to hop into GMail and other password protected accounts.

But, believe me, unless the hotel WiFi is fast you are going to grow old using a VPN on it.

How do I do banking and the other sensitive stuff in hotel rooms? I use my phones to make a mobile hotspot.  That technology is much more secure than hotel WiFi.  Not perfect, no, but I feel safe enough using it. But I cannot create a hotspot if the hotel falls down on the final must have.

The ultimate deal breaker: No cellular.  There remain hotels that just don’t have working cellular and I am not talking remote Alaska fishing camps where of course there is no cellular. I’m talking northern Arizona, Las Vegas (outskirts), Vermont, to name three places I have personally confronted it.  

My advice: check out as soon as you encounter it.  Refuse to pay a cancellation fee if in fact the hotel did not fully disclose at the time of booking that it is in a cellular black hole.  Not having cellular is akin to not having airconditioning in the Sonoran desert summer. It just is unacceptable.

Here’s a business idea for a geek. Just as there is Hotel WiFi Test, somebody needs to erect a hotel cellphone test site so we know which hotels and resorts to blackball.

Those are my four dealbreakers. What are yours?

Readers: share your own deal breakers. All appropriate comments will be posted.