A Newbie at the United Club Lounge

by Gray Cargill on March 11, 2015

Post image for A Newbie at the United Club Lounge

Are you one of those lucky people whose business pays for you to spend your airport layover time in an airline club lounge instead of with the rest of us riff-raff in the food court or at the gates? Or are you, like me, someone to whom the airline club lounge experience has always seemed as much a far-off dream as being randomly upgraded to First Class on a Transatlantic flight? As a budget traveler, I never thought I would know what went on behind the closed doors of what appear to be uber-exclusive airline club lounges. Until I signed up for the United rewards credit card.

(Note: I am not a shill for United, nor am I recommending them or their credit card over other airlines or cards. We have a very limited selection of airlines that fly out of my home airport. They are one of the few, which is why their card is of use to me. Your mileage may vary.)

In addition to a very sweet sign-up bonus of 40,000 miles, my rewards card came with a few extra perks:

  • one free checked bag per flight;
  • being bumped to the top of standby lists (not something they advertise, but it’s happened to me more than once since I got the card); and
  • 2 free club lounge passes each year.

passes

My two United Club Passes.

I’ve had the card for a couple of years now, and oddly, I realized recently that I’ve never taken advantage of those lounge passes. Part of the reason, I think, lay in my own insecurities about the kind of people who frequent these lounges. Would my well-worn backpack and I stick out like a sore thumb amongst the Brooks Brothers suits and briefcases of business executives?

You know what they say: There’s only one way to find out. Since I’m paying $95/year in annual fees for the card, I should be taking advantage of every single perk it affords me, right? So when I found myself with a four-hour layover at Newark during my January trip to Las Vegas, I knew it was time to give it a try. But being me, first I hopped on the Internet to do some research on these lounges.

I stumbled across a TON of negative reviews on Yelp ripping Newark’s United Club Lounges to shreds, so I didn’t have high expectations going into it. One of the first things I learned was that I wouldn’t be getting lunch there. There are snacks, but no substantive food here. So I stopped elsewhere for lunch before heading to the lounge.

There are three United Club Lounges at Newark:

1. A terminal, near gate A20.
2. C terminal, near gate C120.
3. C terminal, across from gate C74.

I chose the lounge near C74, which is up a set of stairs and overlooks the food court.

food court view

The view of the food court from the United Club Lounge

The process could not have been easier. I checked in at the front desk and showed them my pass. The woman behind the desk quickly checked to make sure my name was on “the list” and confirmed I could go in.

“Is there anything I need to know?” I prompted. (Read: What shouldn’t I do if I don’t want to get kicked out?) She explained how to get to the bar. Other than that, I was on my own.

I really liked this lounge. It’s huge and very spread out, circling the atrium overlooking the food court (behind glass, so you don’t hear the hubbub from the food court). There are lots of very comfortable easy chairs and work cubicles with outlets that reminded me of a library. There is a bar area with seating at the bar and at tables, and a little food area with snacks. There were also reading materials (magazines, newspapers).

TV room seating

The entire lounge is filled with seats like this. They are SO comfy.

The lounge was more than half full while I was there, but it was also pretty quiet. (One of the reasons it’s quiet is that you don’t hear flight announcements in here, so keep an eye on the time.) People kept to themselves. I found the TV room empty at one point and sat down in there for a little while (with the TV turned off). It was like a Cone of Silence. So blissful.

I spent a little time charging my gadgets at a work cubicle–very convenient, as was the free wifi access. If I had to get some work done in an airport, I’d definitely head to the nearest airline lounge. But most of the time I was here was spent at the spacious bar, where there was a soccer game to watch on the flat screen TVs.

cubicle

Recharging in a cubicle.

The bartender approached me immediately after I plunked myself down on a stool and asked what I’d like. I asked him what they had. Realizing I was a newbie, he explained that there were a couple of free beers available (Bud Light and Miller Light, which were terribly uninspiring) and a couple of free wines. There were also additional cocktails, beers and wines you could purchase at a discount for $3-7 if you had the United credit card. And of course, you could get complimentary non-alcoholic beverages. I asked if they had any locally brewed beers. There were a couple, and he gave me one to sample. It was a little too strong for me, so I settled for a free Miller Light instead.

By the time I left, I’d interacted with two bartenders, a man and a woman, and I found both to be very professional, friendly and helpful. That and the check-in desk was the extent of my interaction with staff here.

My only criticisms of the Lounge are:

1. The bathrooms. There aren’t enough of them, and their cleanliness is decidedly mixed.
2. The food options are seriously lacking. They had some fruit, crackers and cheese, that sort of thing–nibble food, but nothing that would last you through a five hour flight. I would have paid for a sandwich in the lounge if that were an option, but it’s not. You also can’t bring your own food into the lounge.

Fruit

These are the healthiest snacks you will find in the lounge.

Otherwise, the lounge was clean, convenient, comfortable, and much quieter than the rest of the airport. In short, my experience was very positive–not at all the impression you would get from reading Yelp reviews. But keep in mind:

a) I’ve never experienced a Club Lounge before, so I have no basis for comparison;
b) It wasn’t overly crowded when I was there, and there were no children;
c) I got in for free because of my United MileagePlus card

snacks

Dry snacks to nibble on.

That last point is the most salient: If you are not a member of United’s MileagePlus program, you can still access the lounge, but it will cost you $50 for a day pass. Do I think they offer a $50 experience here? Hell no. But since it’s free for me, I’ll be back.

Now that I’ve had this experience, I’m very curious about how United’s Club Lounges stack up against other U.S. domestic airlines. If any of you can enlighten me on that, I’d love to hear from you! Please share in the comments below.

 

Russ March 22, 2016 at 3:36 pm

The comparison a lot of people make are US Airline lounges versus international airline lounges. US airline lounges (I’ve been to Delta, American and United) only offer snacks. 20 years ago I flew TWA to Athens out of JFK First Class and the lounge had the most amazing buffet and unlimited drinks. But things have changed. International airline lounges, by comparison, provide full service dining. If you go to YouTube search for any airline, business/first class video for samples. Most videographers film their experience in the lounge. I have to laugh though – these people who have a multi-course sit down meal must have to get to the airport WAAAAY early. Besides on many US Airlines if you are in business you are going to get a meal the majority of the time.

Lounges are simply a way to get away from the hubbub of the terminal.

Gray Cargill March 22, 2016 at 6:49 pm

I don’t know, Russ, I’ve had some looooong layovers between flights before, and I would not have minded a free sit-down meal in my airline lounge. But as you say, those days are over. I’m happy if I can have some peace and quiet, a comfy place to sit, a free drink or two and wifi.

Frequent Flyer August 9, 2015 at 11:43 pm

On a global scale, United Club Lounges are by far the worst airport lounges there are and an absolute disgrace to the airline (which, of course, doesn’t care one bit). Above all, the lounges are a blatant insult to those who earn their frequent flyer miles with United, which is something I would personally never, ever do.

Gray Cargill August 14, 2015 at 7:58 pm

Hi, Frequent Flyer – I don’t disagree. If I had paid for access to the Club Lounge, I definitely would have been disappointed. Because I had access the way I did and had no basis for comparison, it was fine for my purposes–though I definitely would have liked to have been able to get a full meal there. (And I’m sure you’re right–United really doesn’t care what any of us think.)

Kirstin May 20, 2015 at 5:55 pm

I have used the Air New Zealand lounge in Sydney, Auckland and Christchurch.

To be honest I wasn’t as impressed with Sydney because too many things weren’t working (such as the computers and the shower). When I arrived they wouldn’t let me in until I had checked in to my next flight but checkin wasn’t open yet and I’d just gotten off a 16 hour flight so I was completely knackered.

The lounges in Auckland and Christchurch were both excellent. There was heaps of hot and cold food, hot and cold drinks – including spirits.

Gray Cargill May 20, 2015 at 6:48 pm

Thanks for sharing your experience, Kirstin. Sounds like it can be hit or miss with lounges, which is too bad.

Tracy Antonioli March 12, 2015 at 1:43 pm

As a club lounge regular (Admirals Club, not United) I can confidently say: the experience varies. For example: my favorite lounge is at CLT. It is big, it is quiet, and the bartenders are nice. I do really like the one nearest to terminal D (in E) at MIA, mostly because it has nice shower rooms (yes, I shower at airports. Lots of people do, in fact.) though it can get crowded. The one at DFW is super nice, too. I don’t mind ORD. And there’s one somewhere I’ve been a lot recently but do not remember. Ummm…? Yeah I don’t recall. But you turn right from the elevator to get to the bar, and it is dimly lit.

The lounge at JFK is a joke. Both of them.

But I can also say: it is always, always better than sitting at the gate. ALWAYS.

Is it a $50 experience? I concur with your ‘hell no’. But I pay $400/year and use a lounge at least once per week, if not five times per week. So it works out to dollars per use. And they can also help you get on an earlier (or later) flight. Which to me is priceless.

Also: I love this post.

Also also: of course you’d fit in. There are all kinds of people who travel. And I’m definitely not wearing a Brooks Brothers suit. 😉

Gray Cargill March 12, 2015 at 8:37 pm

I’m so glad to hear your perspective, Tracy! I suspected you must utilize the lounges with as much as you travel. If I traveled as often as you do, I’d probably invest in the annual membership, too.

Sharon March 12, 2015 at 11:54 am

Like you we have the United credit card. I also never used the free lounge benefit until last year when we flew (for free, thanks to our United miles) to Australia and New Zealand. We fly out of San Francisco International terminal and there is a United lounge there. That lounge is similar to the lounge you are describing. No real food to speak of and you can’t bring food in. We wanted to eat before we boarded the flight, so we had to leave the lounge and find a place to eat. By the time we returned it was time to board. We were disappointed because we had relinquished our free stay cards, but were only in the lounge for less than ten minutes.
That said, on the way home we had booked Business Class from Sydney to San Francisco. This flight was free, due to our miles and was our first Business Class experience. Because we were Business Class, we had access to the lounge in Sydney which was an Air New Zealand lounge (they are partners with United in the Star Alliance). This lounge had several different food options with both hot and cold food, so we were able to eat a meal for free here.
We just returned from Croatia and booked Business Class (free again, thanks to miles) and used the new United lounge at Heathrow’s new Terminal 2. This place was similar to the experience in Sydney, with a wide range of hot food, soup and sandwiches.
By the way, we have decided to only use our miles for Business Class in the future and not for short flights within the US. We love being able to sleep on a flat bed and the white glove service is GREAT.
See my blog posts about the benefits of airline credit cards
https://travelbug1950.wordpress.com/2013/07/23/credit-cards-with-airline-miles/

and booking with miles
https://travelbug1950.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/mega-trip-part-2-booking-flights-with-miles-book-early/

Gray Cargill March 12, 2015 at 8:33 pm

Why am I not surprised that the lounges in other country’s airports are better than ours? Thanks for all the information, Sharon! Business class sounds like heaven.

De'Jav March 12, 2015 at 8:15 am

Not sure how United stacks up but seems like a good way to pay a lay over. Didn’t know you get complimentary drinks.

Gray Cargill March 12, 2015 at 8:27 pm

Yeah, if I were more of a drinker (and less fussy about my beers), the whole “free drinks” thing alone would make it worth it, De’Jav. 🙂

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: