When you hear the words ‘First Class’, you might think of flatbeds, supreme service and decadent inflight dining. And it’s true – if you’re flying First Class from Australia, that’s what you’d fairly expect. But in the United States, short-haul First Class isn’t quite the same. In fact, most US domestic First Class tickets don’t even include lounge access.
When they do, there are lots of hoops to jump through. For instance, you might only be eligible for the lounge when departing from a specific airport, or flying on a particular route. In fact, when it comes to lounges in general, US carriers often treat them like ‘clubs’ – something you have to specifically join and pay membership fees to continue using. It’s even in the name: American Airlines Admirals Club, Delta Sky Club, United Club – you get the idea.
But you don’t always have to pay for membership or hold the right frequent flyer card. Here’s a look at how a US domestic flight alone can qualify you for entry into the lounge.
Accessing the American Airlines Flagship Lounge
American Airlines uses several different names for its better-than-Economy domestic seating. There’s ‘First Class’, which is actually the least favourable of those three. It includes features like a larger seat, but not pre-flight lounge access. Then there’s Flagship Business and Flagship First, which do qualify for domestic lounge access.
So here’s a simple rule to remember with American Airlines. If the cabin you’re booking has ‘Flagship’ in the name – whether it’s Business or First – you’re covered for lounge access. You’ll find Flagship cabins sold on the following AA routes:
- From New York JFK to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Orange Country, and vice versa.
- From Los Angeles to Miami and Boston (and JFK), and vice versa.
- From Honolulu to Charlotte, Chicago and Dallas Fort Worth, and vice versa.
- From Dallas Fort Worth to Kona and Maui (and Honolulu), and vice versa.
Where available, Flagship Business and Flagship First passengers have access to the AA Flagship Lounge. These are available in Chicago, Dallas Fort Worth, Los Angeles and Miami. Elsewhere, access is provided to the Admirals Club lounges.
Those flying domestic ‘First Class’ would only qualify for lounge access if provided via their frequent flyer status, lounge membership or other eligible connecting flight. As a member of the oneworld Alliance, this provides an alternative path to entry for those with Qantas Gold status and above.
Domestic First Class lounge access with Delta Air Lines
Like American Airlines, Delta doesn’t use the term ‘First Class’ to describe its best overall experience. Instead, First Class is sold as the premium cabin on shorter routes and those of less ‘prestige’, so to speak. Also mirroring AA, lounge access isn’t included for passengers flying domestic First Class.
Instead, the magic words to look for are ‘Delta One’. On domestic flights, Delta One is sold on the more flagship-type routes, such as between New York and Los Angeles. Book a flight in Delta One and you can begin your journey in the Delta Sky Club.
Delta is otherwise quite strict when it comes to domestic lounge access. Travellers are generally required to maintain a separate Delta Sky Club membership, independent of their earned frequent flyer status. For US domestic travellers, elite SkyTeam status from other partner programs also doesn’t get you through the door – a standard SkyTeam rule.
But whether you’re flying Delta domestic First Class or Main Cabin (Economy), there’s a handy trick to keep in mind for lounge access. Travellers with the American Express Platinum Card receive gratis Delta Sky Club access whenever flying Delta. This also extends to holders of the Amex Platinum Business Card and the invitation-only Centurion Card.
Lounge access flying United’s domestic First Class
Continuing with the trend, domestic First Class flights on United don’t include lounge access as part of the package. But confusingly, booking ‘United Business’ on a ‘premium transcontinental flight’ does get you through the door.
Those premium routes are limited to flights from New York/Newark to Los Angeles and San Francisco – and vice versa. All other United domestic flights are sold as United First at the pointy end – which doesn’t get you into the lounge. Those flying United Business on one of those transcontinental flights can access the United Club as part of their journey.
When flying United First (First Class), lounge access is only available if otherwise entitled. For instance, on the basis of an eligible connecting flight, lounge membership or frequent flyer status. As a Star Alliance airline, Star Alliance Gold frequent flyers of partner airline programs can visit United Club lounges before domestic flights.
United is also a partner of Virgin Australia. But while Velocity Gold and Platinum members can qualify for United Club entry, this is only ‘officially’ available when travelling on a same-day international flight. Domestic-only trips aren’t formally catered for – but as I’ve learned, it never hurts to try anyway.
Lounge access for Alaska Airlines’ domestic First Class flyers
Once you get beyond the ‘Big Three’ US carriers, the others do things a little differently. Take Alaska Airlines for example. Travellers booked in domestic First Class can indeed visit Alaska Airlines’ lounges, regardless of the specific route they’re flying. But there’s one big catch: the qualifying flight must be 2,100 miles (or more) in length.
As for the routes that qualify, it’s pretty broad – and not merely limited to transcontinental flights. Travelling from Anchorage to Honolulu (2,777 miles) makes the cut, as do flights like Seattle to Miami (2,724 miles). Better yet, if you have a same-day connection to or from a flight of an eligible distance, you can also visit Alaska’s lounges along those stops in your journey.
There’s a second rule to be aware of too. Only those who book First Class qualify for free lounge access. The booking can be made with dollars or points/miles, so you don’t necessarily have to pay the full fare. But if you upgrade from Economy to First Class – whether using cash, miles or by getting a free bump-up – lounge access isn’t covered.
If you find yourself flying Alaska Airlines First Class and your journey doesn’t meet the rules above, you can pay the discounted price of US$30 at the door to purchase entry. As Alaska Airlines is a member of oneworld, travellers with eligible status enjoy lounge access too – including Qantas Gold members (and above) when flying with Alaska Airlines in any cabin.
Accessing Hawaiian Airlines’ Premier Clubs before domestic flights
Another airline going against the grain is Hawaiian Airlines. Passengers booking with Hawaiian in domestic First Class qualify for access to the airline’s Premier Club lounges. It’s a very useful perk when flying from Honolulu to any US destination. It’s also great if you’re getting from one of the other Hawaiian islands – or between them.
You’ll find those Premier Clubs at the airline’s Honolulu hub, as well as in Hilo, Kahului (Maui), Kona and Lihue. But just be aware, lounge access isn’t provided when flying Hawaiian Airlines’ First Class cabin from other US domestic ports. For instance, book First Class from New York JFK to Honolulu – one of the world’s longest domestic flights, clocking in at over 11 hours – and there’s no lounge available in New York.
This is where alternatives like Priority Pass or even the Amex Platinum Card can come in handy. For JFK in particular, Hawaiian Airlines departs from Terminal 4. That terminal is home to an American Express Centurion Lounge. Access is complimentary with the Amex Platinum Card, Platinum Business Card and Centurion Card. For Priority Pass members, the Air India Maharaja Lounge, Primeclass Lounge and Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse are also within reach.
That’s a helpful tip that also applies when flying Economy. Have a backup plan or research your options ahead of time to have the best pre-flight experience every time you fly.
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