Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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Playing the Right Club Card
April 30, 2015 -- It's time to bury an old and reliable traveling companion: Priority Pass, the global network of airport lounges that I wrote about in the first Seat 2B column in 2007 and again in the premier edition of Seat 2B for The Business Journals.
What I once called "the magic card" and described as the best-kept secret of business travelers determined to be more comfortable and productive is passe now, doomed by modern airline economics and convoluted banking partnerships and replaced by other ways to access the growing global network of airport lounges. U.S. carriers never much liked the traditional paid version of Priority Pass even when they participated in it, so the loss of United Airlines' network of four dozen Clubs next month surely seems like the end of a business-travel era.
When I first touted the $399-a-year Priority Pass, it boasted lounges operated by seven domestic airlines as part of its network of 500 clubs worldwide. But with United's imminent departure, Priority Pass' only U.S. airline partner will be Alaska Airlines Board Rooms. The Priority Pass network remains formidable, with about 600 clubs at overseas airports as well as some independent lounges at U.S. airports, but most U.S. business travelers won't be able to justify its cost without admission privileges to United, Delta Sky or American Admirals clubs.
What's killing the Priority Pass for U.S. business travelers? The determination of U.S. carriers to monetize every facet of their operations and rake in fees from credit cards that offer access to their lounges. Naturally, the banks that issue those cards--American Express for Delta, Citibank for American and Chase for United--want their plastic to be the exclusive key to the clubs. That leaves Priority Pass, part of the British firm that's opening its own pay-per-visit lounges under the prosaic "The Club" brand, out in the cold.
But as we consider other methods to access airport lounges worldwide--and, like a peripatetic Scarlett O'Hara, I'm a fervent, fist-shaking believer of never being clubless again--you might be surprised to find the name Priority Pass remain in the mix.
That's because five years ago Priority Pass created a bastard child called Priority Pass Select. It's a free version specifically created for the very same financial institutions demanding their airline partners give them club exclusivity. Priority Pass Select initially was a carbon copy of Priority Pass except that United Clubs were not included. Now with United, American (NASDAQ: AAL) and Delta clubs all gone from the original Priority Pass, it's best to line up with a bank that will give you Priority Pass Select for free along with its own credit card.
American Express Platinum Card
Amex Platinum, created in 1984 for high-spending business travelers, still has the most extensive global club network. Carrying the $450-a-year card grants you complimentary access to Delta Sky Club locations. (Your guests pay $29 a person.) You can also access Airspace Lounge clubs and bring two guests for free. Another Platinum benefit: the aforementioned Priority Pass Select card. (Free entry for you at about 600 clubs; guests pay $27 a person.) Amex Platinum is also the key to free entry at American Express Centurion Lounges. These clubs have been wowing over even skeptical business travelers with an eye-catching combination of fashionable design and outstanding complimentary food and beverage offerings. Better yet, the card allows you to bring your family or as many as two guests along for free.
Chase United MileagePlus Club Card
With United withdrawing from Priority Pass, the United Club Card finally has what its sponsors always wanted: exclusivity at United clubs. You want access a United Club? You'd better carry this Chase card or be prepared to pay the club's outrageous annual ($450 and up) or daily ($50) fees. Needless to say, the Chase card is a better value: its annual fee is lower ($395) and you can even get the first year's charge waived if you apply at a Chase branch. And as Chase executives constantly remind us, the Chase credit card comes complete with an traditional United Club membership, which means access to hundreds of international lounges operated by United Airlines' Star Alliance partners as well as three dozen independent clubs around the world. There are other nice travel perks, too, such as primary car-rental insurance and a waiver of the fees that United imposes for award-travel bookings close to the departure date.
Citi Prestige Card
Citibank is American Airlines' banking partner and it issues a costly ($450 a year) and clumsily named (Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard) that offers access to American's network of Admirals Clubs. But if you want a cheaper and better club-access option, try the Citi Prestige card. It not only has a better name and the same annual fee, it also has better benefits. Besides Admirals Club membership, you'll get that Priority Pass Select card and a raft of other useful travel perks such as a fourth-night free at hotels and a $250 annual credit against airline ancillary fees. The main difference between the two cards: The American-branded card earns American Advantage miles. The Prestige card offers points in Citi's proprietary ThankYou program.
Longtime business travelers may still carry a Diners Club card and it has a terrific network of more than 500 airport lounges worldwide. The problem for others? The new U.S. issuer of Diners Club, BMO Harris Bank, has been as inept as Citibank, the previous franchisee. After years when you couldn't apply for a card, BMO Harris reintroduced Diners Club to the U.S. market late last summer, then shut down the application process several months later.
Bottom line: If you want the best shot at lounge access virtually anywhere you travel, you'll have to invest in three cards (Amex Platinum, United Club Card and one of the Citi cards) for a total annual fee of $1,295. If you want a more tactical buy, pick up the card tied to your preferred airline, then get ready to pony up as much as $50 a visit if you find yourself clubless on a particular trip.