MONEY Travel

When Airport Clubs Are Worth the Money (and When to Save the $500)

The Sky Deck at the Delta Sky Club
Flight delayed? An airport club like the Delta Sky Club in Atlanta can ease your pain. courtesy of Delta

True frequent fliers can kick back at an airport lounge for free. Some high-end credit cards give you access too. For everyone else, that privilege comes at a high price.

When you fly several times a month, as Gabriella Ribeiro Truman does, finding a comfortable place to wait for a flight and grab a snack can make traveling a lot more enjoyable.

She used to have free access to co-owned American Airlines and US Airways lounges through her American Express card, but with that program over, she now pays $500 a year to be a member of American Airlines’ Admirals Club, which gets her access to private airport lounges around the world through the oneworld alliance. “It was worth it for me to pay for it,” says Truman, 39, a New Jersey-based travel marketing executive.

Travelers have a wide range of options when it comes to the airport clubs, whose lounges can offer some peace from often chaotic, warehouse-like airport terminals. Snacks and drinks are available for the taking, seating tends to be more comfortable, and there’s free Wi-Fi and lots of power outlets.

But whether it is worth it for the cost depends on how you are getting access and whether you are paying extra for it. Airport lounges are run by either airlines or a handful of private operators. While some are restricted to top-tier flyers, most allow travelers a variety of ways to get in.

  • Membership through airlines or airline alliances: For instance, if you achieve gold status in the Star Alliance (which includes United Airlines, Air Canada, and Lufthansa ), you are permitted access to more than 1,000 lounges worldwide as long as you fly on a member airline. Otherwise, you will pay about $300 to $700 a year, plus initiation fees (air miles can be used).
  • A day pass: Prices are typically about $50, but advance-purchase deals for some can cut that in half.
  • Route-specific: Some travelers are given entry to an airline’s lounges along the route they are flying if they fly internationally on a first-class or business-class airline ticket or on certain transcontinental flights.
  • Membership through cards: Fewer credit cards offer the perk now. Among those that still do: the American Express Platinum Card, through which you receive a complimentary membership to Delta’s Sky Club network when flying on that airline, and you can apply for a free membership in the independent Priority Pass lounge network (worth $399) as part of the card’s $450 annual fee. Also, Citi Executive/AAdvantage card holders get a membership worth $500 in American’s Admirals Club included as part of their $450 annual fee.

What You Get

At the estimated 2,000 lounges worldwide at more than 500 airports, services and amenities vary. One way to keep track is with a free app like LoungeBuddy, available for iPhone and Android, with data on nearly 1,800 lounges. Users can input their travel information and get ratings, lists of amenities, and photos for the lounges they can access.

For food, U.S. clubs will typically offer basic snacks like carrots, pretzels, and apples, with a bit more in the mornings like pastries and yogurt, according to Tyler Dikman, founder of LoungeBuddy, who says he has personally visited 600 to 800 lounges. Beer and wine will be free, but travelers usually have to pay extra for top-shelf liquor domestically. Nearly half of lounges will have showers, he adds.

In smaller airports, marketing executive Ribeiro Truman says she finds that many lounges resemble hotel bars—not much more than a separate seating area with some snacks.

But in larger airports, expect to find more, especially overseas.

At Cathay Pacific Airlines’ The Bridge Lounge in Hong Kong, for example, there is an enormous, elegantly decorated space divided into two wings, and spacious shower suites. Food includes fresh-baked bread, pizza, soups, and sandwiches on one side and a range of high-end hot and cold food for self-service on the other.

Access to that lounge is available to Emerald- and Sapphire-level members of the oneworld alliance, which includes American Airlines.

Private shower rooms, in particular, win wide praise from those who have used them. “It’s something you’ll find in a nice hotel,” Dikman says, who has enjoyed plush towels and fancy toiletries.

For the infrequent traveler or someone stuck waiting a long time for a connection, buying a day pass to a lounge could be a big benefit, particularly if you have work to do. Road warriors report that paying about $500 a year is money well spent to regroup when it is inconvenient to check into a hotel.

Sonita Lontoh, a Silicon Valley technology executive who flies regularly to Asia and Australia, prizes her lounge access. She says after being on a plane for 15 hours, having a place to decompress and take a shower is a real benefit.

On the other hand, Becky Pokora, 28, the Richmond, Va.-based writer of The Girl and Globe blog, says her credit card just discontinued free access to lounges and her 15 round trips a year do not warrant paying extra.

“The value proposition was different when there were lounges in nearly every U.S. airport participating in their program, but now I doubt I’ll be renewing the card when next year’s annual fee comes due,” she says.

MONEY

Why Some Bags Are Not Going to Fly This Summer

High checked-bag fees have travelers carrying on bigger bags. Now carriers are pushing back.

Jamming as much as possible into carry-on luggage has become routine for travelers, considering the fees many airlines charge for checking baggage. But those bags may be barred from overhead bins this summer.

Some travelers are discovering that bags that once were acceptable are now too big and must be checked.

The airlines say it is about space. Industry experts argue that the carry-on crackdown is a ploy to get more revenue. “Airlines have for years turned a blind eye to their own baggage restrictions,” says Tim Winship, editor of FrequentFlier.com, a travel website.

Among the three largest airlines—American Airlines , Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines—only United says it is taking a harder line on the size of luggage destined for overhead bins.

Earlier this year, the airline let travelers know it was going to enforce size limits, disqualifying any bag that exceeded the following measurements: 22 inches in height, 14 inches in width, and 9 inches in depth.

“Customers with the right size bags were telling us that often times there was no more room on the aircraft for their carry-on bags,” United spokesman Charles Hobart said. “This is a response to customer feedback.”

One problem for travelers is that a lot of bags sold as acceptable carry-ons are 15 inches wide, in violation of the three largest airlines’ policies. They are, however, still permitted on the largest of their rival carriers.

While the other airlines say they have not gotten tougher, they acknowledge that during busy times they are more aggressive about policing carry-on bag size. During vacation periods, for example, they pay more attention to what passengers are trying to bring on board, Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant said.

Airlines have tried to keep up with increased demand to bring bags on board by getting larger bins on new planes. “All those bins get bigger and bigger; yet it’s never enough,” said Robert Mann, an airline analyst for R.W. Mann & Company Inc and a former airline executive.

Airlines are trying to catch oversized bags as early as possible, because it is easiest to charge passengers for checking a bag at the counter, Mann said. If the bag has made it all the way to the gate, time pressure often prevents airline workers from even trying to collect a fee.

The three largest airlines share the same carry-on size limits, which happen to be smaller than what is permitted on rival carriers. Southwest Airlines, JetBlue Airways, and Spirit Airlines all allow bigger carry-ons. But Spirit, which is known for low-base fares and a raft of fees, charges as much as $100 for carry-ons.

When choosing a carry-on bag, consider avoiding one with wheels, says Tim Leffel, editor of PracticalTravelGear.com. Wheels gobble up room because they count in the measurement.

Travelers should also avoid over-stuffing their carry-ons, he says. “Nothing should be put into an outside pocket of a 9-inch-wide carry-on except flat things like magazines and papers,” Leffel says. Otherwise, the extra bulge will exceed regulations.

AIRLINE RULES

These are the maximum carry-on bag sizes permitted on America’s largest airlines:

* American: 22 inches x 14 inches x 9 inches

* Delta: 22 inches x 14 inches x 9 inches

* United: 22 inches x 14 inches x 9 inches

* Southwest: 24 inches x 16 inches x 10 inches

* JetBlue: 24 inches x 16 inches x 10 inches

MONEY credit cards

What MasterCard’s Zero Liability Pledge Means for Your Debit Card

MasterCard's new policy makes using your debit card a lot safer. Here's what you need to know.

June 4 (Reuters) – In the wake of a spate of data breaches highlighting the vulnerability of companies that hold consumer information, MasterCard Inc announced last week it would apply the same rules to PIN-based debit card transactions as those used for credit cards: zero liability when fraud is reported.

“Fraud and identity theft have been in the news a lot lately. We want to give cardholders peace of mind,” says MasterCard spokeswoman Beth Kitchener. The breach at Target last year, which affected more than 40 million customers, is still a top concern for many.

For consumers who have MasterCard-branded debit cards, the extension of zero liability means some things will change, while others won’t. Here is what you need to know about the new policy, which takes effect on Oct. 1.

Q: Does this mean that using a debit card is just as safe for transactions as using a credit card?

A: Not exactly. While those who have MasterCard-branded debit cards will benefit from the policy change, the inherent issues with debit cards remain. The main difference between debit card and credit card transactions is debit cards are tied to users’ bank accounts.

“With credit cards, it’s not a big deal. It’s their money not yours,” says Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education for Credit.com. “With a debit card it is a big deal. Consumers still need to be very careful when a debit card is tied to their main financial account.”

Q: How much money could I be on the hook for right now if someone steals using my debit card?

A: Federal laws extend protection to consumers using both credit and debit cards, but losses for victims of fraudulent credit card transactions are capped at $50. Most credit card issuers, however, set the cap at zero. Responsibility for fraud on a debit card is tied to when it is discovered and reported.

If you report the loss within two days, federal law caps consumer responsibility at $50. If you report it within 60 days of receiving a statement that shows the fraudulent transactions, liability is capped at $500. If you don’t report it within 60 days, that liability is unlimited.

Q: Why isn’t a PIN enough to protect me?

A: Theoretically, using a PIN protects the cardholder because it’s a secure password. However, card skimmers can steal numbers, and some people use PINs that are easy to figure out.

Javelin Research & Strategy, which analyzes banking and fraud, found that about 10 percent of identity fraud victims had their debit card PIN taken. That works out to more than 1.2 million cards.

Q. How do I get money restored to my account if it is stolen?

A: You should contact your bank as soon as you learn your account has been compromised, says MasterCard’s Kitchener. Call the phone number on the back of your card or the financial institution that issued the card. How quickly the money is restored varies from bank to bank.

Q. What’s the biggest issue for consumers when someone commits fraud with their debit card?

A: Getting back the money in a timely fashion. Only about a quarter of the leading financial institutions offer to make money lost to fraud available in bank accounts the day after it is reported, according to Javelin. However, that one quarter includes some of the largest banks in the country: JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America.

Q. What are the exceptions to the zero liability rule?

A: There is one exclusion for exercising “reasonable care in safeguarding your card.” Consumer experts complain that this is not very specific. “Reasonable can have variable definitions depending on who you ask,” says John Ulzheimer, credit expert for CreditSesame.com.

Kitchener says it’s up to individual financial institutions to determine what would be considered a violation of the “reasonable care” rule. An example, says Detweiler, would be giving your card and password to someone to buy a gallon of milk and ended up spending $200. Or writing your PIN on the card.

Q. Is this policy change a good thing for consumers?

A: Credit experts say that it is. “Certainly the notion that certain transactions weren’t covered by zero liability was confusing to the consumer,” Detweiler says. “It’s great that they’re simplifying that for their customers and covering all transactions.”

Given that so many consumers use debit cards as a way to control spending – using their own cash rather than borrowing on a credit card – Ulzheimer says any effort to protect users is beneficial.

“By and large this is a good thing for consumers who choose debit over credit,” he says. “It lets them keep their budgetary controls in place while worrying less about fraud.” (Editing by Beth Pinsker and Sofina Mirza-Reid)

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