The Brancatelli File



August 1, 2002 -- A frequent-flying cousin of mine came calling not too long ago and it didn't take but a minute for our kitchen-island conversation to turn to the state of life on the road.

"It's been miserable," he complained. "The delays are getting bad again, the airports are chaotic and now I spend hours at the gate waiting for flights because you never know how long it takes to clear security."

I eyed my frequent-flying cousin from behind the island where I was dicing avocados and red onions for guacamole. The words slipped out of my mouth faster than I was chopping the jalepeño.

"Well, gee," I said, "why the hell don't you just go to the club and wait out the delays there?"

"I don't belong to an airport club anymore," he said. "The company won't reimburse us anymore."

It took all my self-control--and the fact that I was squeezing limes--to stop from lunging over the island and smacking him with my cutting board.

"What the hell are you thinking?" I said, pointing my trusty cleaver in the general direction of his thick skull. "You gonna let a couple of bucks stand between you and a comfortable chair and a quiet place to work? Are you nuts?"

"Well," he said, "I just don't think I should have to pay for a club. The company should pay."

I looked at my cousin as I diced the tomato, mashed the garlic and chopped the cilantro. Honest fellow, I thought, with a good job and a sunny disposition. Smart as a whip.

But, in the end, bonkers. Mad as a hatter if he thinks that frequent flying around the country without an airport club membership is a wise thing to do. And a masochist, too, if he believes he should deny himself airport sanity just because his company won't pay his dues anymore.

As I combined my ingredients and turned them into a molcajete, I tried to explain to my frequent-flying cousin why he needed to get back into a club. Unfortunately, my guacamole went over better than my argument. My frequent-flying cousin left with my recipe, but not with a sufficient sense of self-worth to get back into at least one airline club.

But what really worries me--other than the fact that, when you live where I do, good avocados are a sometimes thing--is that you may think like my frequent-flying cousin. You may believe that you should live without because your company won't pick up the tab for a club membership anymore.

So let me make this as clear as I can make it: If you live your life on the road, then joining one or more airline clubs is the single best investment you can make for your sanity. Forget who pays. Nothing pays for itself faster than a club membership. There is no better productivity tool for a business traveler than one of those little plastic cards that get you across the threshold of an airline club.

Aren't you worth a few hundred bucks? Even if your boss doesn't think so, don't you deserve a chair, and a telephone and a place to get a drink? Don't you deserve a workstation to fire up your laptop? Why would you stand at the gate with three wailing babies, two-dozen backpackers and that strange guy with the odd-smelling duffel bag when you could be somewhere quiet, somewhere with a clean bathroom, somewhere with a newspaper and a television set?

Now I understand that airline airport clubs are not the unquestioned productivity boons they once were. Desperate for revenue anywhere they can find it, major airlines have been hiking their annual membership fees with alarming speed. As we discussed in a column last November, the airlines were also quick to slash operating hours and club locations after September 11. And new security regimens make it difficult to use most club lounges for meetings on days when you're not flying.

But I'm not gonna take no for an answer here. In fact, it is my belief that one club membership is not enough. Not only should you join the lounge network of the airline that you fly most frequently, you also need some backup.

There are three virtual networks of airport clubs that can ensure you'll almost never be stranded at an airport without lounge privileges. Besides your own airline's club, consider joining one of these.

This private network offers access to 350 airport clubs around the world, including about 100 in North America. That includes selected U.S. and international lounges operated by Northwest, Delta, United and US Airways. The Standard plan is $99 and you pay $24 each time you use Priority Pass to visit a participating club. The all-inclusive membership plan costs $399 and offers unlimited free visits to all clubs in the network. (Do the math: Buy the unlimited plan only if you expect to use Priority Pass more than 12 times in a year.) Guests you may bring along pay $24 a visit in both plans. For more information, surf to Priority Pass.

Amex Platinum gets you free access to the clubs operated by Continental, Delta and Northwest. The catch: You must be ticketed to travel on the respective airline within 24 hours of your club visit. You can't just wander in if you're flying another carrier. Ten other clubs are accessible at any time, regardless of the airline you're flying. Up to two guests also receive free club entry. Amex Platinum costs $395 a year. For more information on club access, surf to American Express Platinum.

Diners Club is worth considering if you travel frequently overseas. The card isn't as widely accepted as American Express at restaurants and retail outlets in the United States, but it is omnipresent throughout most of the rest of the world. The fee is a comparatively modest $95 a year. And the club program is superb for international travelers: Diners Club has cobbled together a network of 80 lounges in 27 countries. (In the United States, Diners Club has club outposts at Newark and Miami airports.) Club access is free and unlimited for cardholders at all times; many clubs charge for additional guests, however. For more information, surf to Diners Club.

Trust me on this: Join the clubs. Then, when you do, send me an E-mail and I'll send you my guacamole recipe as a reward!

This column originally appeared at

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