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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.