One Credit Card to Rule the Airport Clubs? Not Anymore
THURSDAY, JULY 15, 2021 -- Just as the pandemic arrived last year, my American Express Platinum Card renewal came due. And a $550 fee for a card I used almost exclusively for airport club access was no afterthought when you had no idea when you'd be at an airport again.

I called Amex, asking for any concession they might make on the annual charge. The answer? Thanks for being an American Express cardmember since 1975, but we don't know nothing about makin' no concessions. They were firm on that last point, content to drone on about a new batch of permanent and temporary Platinum card perks they'd added. When I told Amex none of the newbies worked for me, they retreated to the we-don't-know-nothing-about-concessions line.

So despite my public pledge in a 1997 column that I'd never be clubless again, I dropped the Platinum Card. And there went my Priority Pass card and club access, too.

Then I waited. As the months dragged on, I was feeling good about my decision. I was saving about $45 a month by ditching Platinum and losing nothing because I wasn't going to the airport. As the one-year mark of the pandemic arrived, I was also up an entire year's Platinum membership fee and the $550 felt pretty good in my pocket.

Reality is setting in now, of course. There are airports in my life again and I am clubless, a situation that is even less palatable in 2021 than in 1997. In fact, with airports in the grip of masses of less experienced leisure travelers, club access is more important than ever.

What am I gonna do? Worse, what am I gonna do in a world where one card--not even Amex Platinum--no longer rules the club-lounge world?

It's not just that Amex Platinum this month hiked its annual fee to a staggering $695, it's also that Amex is trimming club benefits at the same time. As I explained last month, American Express decided your $695 contribution will soon no longer rate guests at its network of Centurion Lounges. And there's the annoying existing negative: Amex Platinum's version of Priority Pass no longer includes the restaurant benefit, a nifty perk that can knock $28 a person off meals at a growing roster of airport dining outlets.

The problem is there's no obvious, practical alternative to Amex Platinum. Chase's Sapphire Reserve Card is cheaper--its annual fee remains $550--and it does include the full benefit of Priority Pass. You'll get the complete network of clubs and that increasingly useful airport restaurant benefit. You'll even be able to bring two guests into a Priority Pass lounge. (Amex's version of Priority Pass limits you to one guest.) Sapphire Reserve is also a better earning card than Platinum--and has a larger and more useful annual statement credit, too.

But Sapphire Reserve has gaping holes in its lounge program. Obviously, it doesn't get you into Amex Centurion Lounges and Amex's other branded clubs. The 11 Escape Lounges in the United States, these days branded as a Centurion Studio Partner, are off-limits, too. Sapphire Reserve has no airline partner, either, so it can't match Platinum's day-of-travel entry privileges at Delta's network of SkyClubs.

Most ominous of all, Sapphire Reserve cardholders no longer have access to Plaza Premium lounges, a growing global operation whose locations are highly regarded. Plaza Premium recently pulled most of its clubs from Priority Pass, but it quickly cut a separate deal with Amex so Platinum cardholders still have access. Plaza Premium remains tiny in North America (four in Canada, one in the United States), but it is nimble. This week, it forged a deal with Capital One to rebrand its still-unopened Denver club as a Capital One Lounge. Plaza Premium and Cap One are also collaborating on a new lounge at DFW.

With two expensive cards battling for supremacy and neither one now truly must-haves, what's a club-savvy traveler to do?

If you have unlimited funds, I suppose a $1,245 investment for both cards many seem de minimis. But even if you're rolling in it, the $1,245 is just a down payment. Unless you're strictly a Delta flyer, you'll have to consider buying into the credit cards tied to the American Admirals or United Club networks. (Alaska Airlines Lounge locations are covered by Priority Pass.) That could add another $1,000 in fees for credit cards and club access. More than $2,200 just for club access is a hefty investment for almost anyone, I would think.

The alternative? Tactical clubbing. The current best values in club access are also the least known: the Hilton Honors Amex Surpass Card and the Hilton Honors Business Card. Both cards are bundled with a version of Priority Pass that permits 10 annual visits a year. Hilton Honors is a low-value program, but $95 for 10 clubs visits a year is a bargain regardless of whether you ever stay in a Hilton.

Building on a Hilton card, consider adding a membership in (or credit card of) the airline-club network you frequent most often. If you are an international traveler who usually flies business class, you might not need more since virtually all international business class tickets are bundled with club access on the day of travel. If you do need more, pay as you go. Virtually all common-access clubs sell one-time entry. Most clubs affiliated with U.S. airlines do, too.

And if you're still not traveling? Wait. The airport lounge landscape is shifting rapidly. As I explained last month, Capital One and Chase are building out club networks in partnership with existing lounge operators. We don't know the speed of the build-out or the entry rules of either network. And two weeks ago, two competitors--Swissport and Airport Dimensions, which runs The Club network--teamed up to purchase No1 Lounges, a network of clubs at British airports. More consolidation could be in the works and may change the club calculus in the months ahead.

Me? I don't know yet. Since my domestic travel is sparse in the weeks ahead and my international travel is in business class with guaranteed club access, I can risk a few more weeks without memberships.

But it makes me nervous. As I explained back in 1997, I think clubs, even bad ones, are beacons of sanity in the airport madness. I don't like knowing there's an airport club that would keep me out ...

A note to readers: Diners Club, which invented the idea of credit cards including access to airport clubs, has not accepted new applications from U.S. residents in years. And the Citi Prestige card, which once offered Priority Pass membership and access to American Admirals clubs, is no longer available.