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 The Brancatelli File

joe THE CLUB LIFE
REMAINS THE BEST


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

November 29, 2001 -- Carriers have closed a brace of airport clubs and slashed the service hours of others in the wake of September 11, so it has become fashionable to question the value of a membership in one or more of the airline-sponsored club networks.

I reject that notion. In fact, I restate my long-held and oft-quoted belief: The single best investment you can make in your own comfort, sanity and productivity on the road is the few hundred dollars you invest in joining one or more airline clubs or a cross-network program such as Priority Pass.

Life on the road after September 11 only magnifies the need for airline clubs. Even the most efficient and crafty of us are now spending many more hours at the airport. The clubs are just about the only place to use that extra time productively and sanely.

Despite the cutbacks, airport clubs remain what they have long been: private oases of calm where you can work or relax protected from the maelstrom of the huddled masses shuffling through the airport. In most clubs, you can get a boarding pass, buy a simple ticket, grab a cup of coffee or a soft drink, use a workstation, make a phone call, send a fax, or check your E-mail, and even take a meeting. Some of the newer, more elaborate clubs have fully equipped conference space for rent. Almost all have bars, some free, some pay as you go. And they all have chairs and sofas so you can relax and unwind in a comparatively civilized atmosphere.

I freely admit that the clubs are not the relative paradises they once were. The airlines have jacked up the fees in recent years, so a one-year membership and the initiation fee is now creeping perilously close to the $500 mark. Several of the largest carriers unceremoniously shuttered a total of almost two dozen locations in the days after September 11. Opening hours, always a sore point for business travelers who use early-morning or late-night flights, have been trimmed further in recent weeks. Clubs at some carriers' hub airports are uncomfortably crowded and many are a bit tatty. And since most domestic clubs are "airside" (in other words, beyond the security checkpoints), your ease of access is now crimped.

But what, I ask you, are the alternatives? In most airports, on most days, there simply are none.

What appears below is a brief snapshot of the for-pay club networks operated by the major U.S. carriers. Before joining, I urge you to verify that the current club locations and opening hours match your travel patterns. Investigate their policies and alliances carefully and check their policy on spouse cards and guest access.

As a general strategy, I suggest frequent flyers join the club network sponsored by their primary carrier, then supplement that membership with at least one of the other available options: free club access plans provided by the American Express Platinum card or Diners Club and/or membership in Priority Pass. I've also included details on those three programs below.

ALASKA BOARD ROOM
Operates its own clubs only at four locations, but Board Room members traveling on Northwest tickets have access to Northwest WorldClubs. One-year membership: $275. Alaska posts club-specific phone numbers and operating hours of its own clubs on its Website.

AMERICAN ADMIRALS CLUB
Currently offers about four dozen locations, but some members have complained about severe overcrowding and dirty conditions at the hub clubs. One-year membership: $450 or 60,000 AAdvantage miles, although there are discounts for elite-level flyers. American posts club-specific phone numbers and operating hours on its Website. Finding the information is a challenge, though. The standard link at American's infuriating "dynamic" Website is often broken. Instead, surf to AA.com, then click the "Programs & Services" tab, then choose the "Airport and Fleet Information" link, and then the "Premium Lounges and Services" link.

AMERICA WEST CLUB
Operates its own clubs only in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Columbus, but members have guest privileges at selected Continental and Northwest clubs. One-year membership: $300. America West posts the phone numbers and operating hours of its own clubs on its Website.

CONTINENTAL PRESIDENTS CLUB
Continental operates 28 of its own clubs and offers members access to about 40 others, including most Northwest WorldClubs. Some clubs have discreet "kid rooms" stocked with toys and televisions. Alcoholic beverages are complimentary. One-year membership: $375, but there are discounts for elite OnePass members. Continental posts club-specific phone numbers and operating hours on its Website. You can also join online.

DELTA CROWN ROOM
About 50 clubs worldwide. More than most airline lounges, however, Crown Room locations vary wildly in size and amenities. Crown Room members traveling on a United ticket have access to domestic United Red Carpet Club lounges. Alcoholic beverages are complimentary. One-year membership: $475 or 50,000 SkyMiles, but there are discounts for elite SkyMiles members. Club-specific hours of operation and membership rules are posted on the Delta Website.

NORTHWEST WORLDCLUBS
Northwest claims a network of more than 90 clubs worldwide, but most are operated by Continental or KLM, or are shared-access clubs at international airports. As a result, many clubs are closed even when Northwest is operating flights at that airport. On the positive side, most WorldClubs locations offer a staggering array of snacks and free beverages (soft and alcoholic). Semi-private conference rooms are available free of charge. One-year membership: $425, but there are discounts for elite WorldPerks flyers. Northwest posts club-specific phone numbers on its Website. There's a 2,500-miles bonus for joining and you can join online.

UNITED RED CARPET CLUB
There are 40 Red Carpet Clubs and members also receive access to domestic Delta Crown Room clubs and lounges operated by Star Alliance carriers when they are traveling on those airlines. One-year membership: $450 or 55,000 miles, but there are discounts for elite Mileage Plus members. Some members complain club operating hours have been erratic since September 11. United posts club-specific phone numbers on its Website.

US AIRWAYS CLUB
Hard hit by closures since September 11, the US Airways Club network has shrunk to 21 locations in 19 airports. One-year membership: $375 or 55,000 miles, but there are discounts for elite Dividend Miles flyers. There's a 5,000-mile bonus for joining. US Airways posts club-specific phone numbers and operating hours on its Website.

AMERICAN EXPRESS PLATINUM
American Express Platinum cardholders receive complimentary access to Northwest WorldClubs and Continental Presidents Club lounges on the day of departure if they've purchased their ticket with their Amex card. They also have access to private lounges at ten international airports. The Platinum Card's annual fee is $300. More information is available at the Amex Website.

DINERS CLUB
Diners Club offers the best airport-lounge access program--if you are a frequent international flyer. Cardholders receive complimentary access to 80 clubs in 27 countries, but there are only two airport lounges (Miami and Newark) in the United States. The Diners Club annual fee is just $80. More information is available at the Diners Club Website.

PRIORITY PASS
This unique plan permits access to more than 300 airport clubs and lounges around the world. The Priority Pass network includes selected Delta, Northwest, America West and US Airways clubs as well as private lounges and business centers at international airports. Membership fees: $295 a year for unlimited free personal club access or $99 a year plus $24 for each club visit. Each additional guest costs $24 regardless of membership plan. More information is available at the Priority Pass Website.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.