What is the lowest cost approach for United Red Carpet Club / Continental Presidents Club access?

With the end coming to Continental's participation in the Amex Platinum lounge program (September 2011), I began to look for alternative ways to access the lounge.  While I don't fly CO or UA often, when I do, it is nice to have lounge access.

There are a few ways to get lounge access without being a member: Premium class passengers on trans-oceanic flights and UA's "ps" transcontinental flights enjoy complimentary access, as do certain UA/CO elites in economy on trans-oceanic flights.  What little travel I do on co/UA is limited to domestic travel (but not on the transcon) so none of these worked for me.  Star Alliance Gold elites from non-US carriers (all Star carriers, except UA, CO and US) do enjoy RCC/PC access, even when flying entirely in the US on economy tickets.

You can buy a RCC day pass for $39 (online, in advance) or $50 at the door.  Annual memberships for non-elites cost $525 (for the first year, $475 thereafter). You could also spend 69,500 miles (assuming no status) for membership, which works out to 0.76 cents per mile (CPM) valuation ($0.0076).  This CPM valuation is terrible; 69,500 miles is almost enough for a business-class ticket to Europe!  (Note that UA charges moderately lower fees, in cash or points, for UA elite frequent flyers.)

For a while, I was using BA gold status (oneworld emerald, the highest oneworld level) for access to AA's lounges, including their exclusive Flagship Lounges, which are "lounges within the lounge," which I find quite civilized. While I don't maintain the BA status any more, since there are so many Star Alliance carriers, I thought this approach might be applicable on UA/CO (and US, too - though perhaps less relevant due to their participation in the Amex platinum lounge program).  It turns out that there is an approach that fits - sort of a cross-border arbitrage.

The answer lies in the Greek isles. Aegean Airways, to be specific. Aegean is a Star Alliance member, and has, by far, the lowest hurdles to reach Star Alliance gold status.  Once you have an Aegean gold card, you automatically get free RCC/PC/US Air lounge access.  You need only 20,000 elite-qualifying-points (EQMs) to reach Star gold.  Aegean does not have a requirement to actually fly on their airline to reach status.

It gets even better, in that Aegean (A3 is their short code) offers significant bonuses for premium cabin travel. On UA, for example, they offer a 300% EQM crediting rate on UA F, and a 200% rate for J.   A3 is also offering a 1,000 mile sign up bonus right now.  Those points are redeemable miles and are also EQMs, reducing the required earn down to 19,000 points to reach star gold.  So, if you fly 5,000 miles in UA First (even domestically), inclusive of the 1,000 EQM signup bonus, you'd have 16,000 EQMs...more than 75% of the way to gold!  In fact, all you would need to fly is 6,333 in UA F or 9,500 in UA J, and you would hit the threshold for gold.  (These amounts reflect the 1,000 sign up bonus, which counts as EQMs.)

Even if you view accruing 20,000 A3 points as wasted (who knows if you'll ever redeem them?), it is far better than spending 69,500 points for club access - points which you are 100% certain that you'll never get back.  Importantly, you can redeem A3 points on any Star carrier, and a few others.

I am working on reaching the 20k EQM level on A3 as we speak.  While I haven't reached the threshold yet (I'm at 17,500 EQMs on A3 after my recent Air China flight), a few friends have reached the 20k threshold.  They report that their Aegean Star Alliance gold cards reflect a 2014 expiration date!  Assuming that date is honored, that gives you 3 years of lounge access for accruing 20k miles in one year on A3!  That make this one of the best deals going for lounge access on any carrier. I haven't found a field on A3's website confirming the 2014 expiry and it is possible that they just print the 2014 date on the cards, even though in the computer system the status will be terminated sooner (ie: perhaps in one year). I've never seen a carrier do something like this before - the card usually equals the real date - but I have never dealt with a Greek carrier before, either!

When you consider the "cost" of accruing on A3 (forgone accrual on other carriers), consider that you might actually redeem the A3 points for an award ticket some time in the future.  Also, as Star gold, you get significant baggage fee waivers as well as priority check in and priority boarding on all UA, CO and US flights - and on all star alliance carriers.  With the A3 card, you'll hit gold status far sooner than any other Star carrier.

Other drawbacks to consider are that those points you accrue on A3 won't accrue towards elite status in the UA/CO/US programs.  UA awards 150% credit for travel in F, so your 6,333 butt-in-seat miles accrued on A3 will cost you 9,499 EQMs on UA.  If these points make a difference between hitting the next status level on UA, you should carefully weigh your options.  I don't particularly care about status on UA, so this isn't a cost to me.  I know I'm in the minority with that view, however.  If you're going to fall between Premier Executive and 1k on UA, but certain you won't make it to 1k, then A3 might be a perfect solution for you.

Another consideration: as Star Gold, you get a baggage fee waiver for economy travel on UA, CO and US.  On UA, as *G, you get three bags free.  Even as *S (reached after 4,000 EQPs on A3) will get you one free bag.  Normally, the first bag will cost you $25, and each additional bag will cost you $35!  If you take a handful of short trips and check bags, but don't fly enough to reach status on United, this could save you several hundred dollars a year.

If you are considering this strategy, there is n important detail to keep in mind: A3's crediting rate varies widely per carrier.  United, Turkish and Air China, among others, offer 200% and 300% for J and F, respectively. Notably, CO and a few other star carriers offer much lower accrual rates, in the order of 50% of the UA accrual rates - so be careful to check A3's earnings tables before deciding to accrue on A3 to make sure your carrier falls into the higher accrual category.  This disparity is great, and it is possible to have very different outcomes depending in being on a UA or CO ticket - even if on the same flight! Also note that unlike most major carriers, A3 doesn't require you to actually fly on their airline to achieve status - travel on any star partner will do.

The potential to get 3 years of club access on all Star Alliance carriers...as well as all the other benefits of Star gold...for less than 6,500 F flight miles (net of the sign up bonus) makes this one of the best club access deals out there.  I am one flight away from getting the gold card.  I will post back when I make it!

Visit www.AegeanAir.com and sign up!