Review: Polaris Lounge Chicago O’Hare International Airport

As a traveler who doesn’t frequently travel business class or first class, I usually visit Priority Pass or Centurion Lounges by AMEX if I have the opportunity since neither require a premium cabin ticket. Don’t get me wrong, AMEX has some fantastic Centurion Lounges within their network, particularly from what I experienced in Dallas and Miami. Priority Pass also has excellent lounges within its network but most of the higher rated lounges are situated in Europe and Asia. Up until the opening of the Polaris Lounge in Chicago, the U.S. simply did not have a product that could compete with the business class lounges of Qatar Airlines, Etihad, Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, etc. United has expanded this product to San Francisco, Newark, and Houston. Polaris Lounges are considered the best airport lounges in the U.S. by many travel experts and bloggers. To get into the lounge, you need to have a business class or first class ticket on United Airlines or any of its Star Alliance partners (Turkish, ANA, Lufthansa, Singapore, etc.) In addition, you must be on an international long-haul flight that departs from Chicago O’Hare (or SFO, EWR, and HOU to access Polaris Lounge in those cities). This means a premium cabin flight to Canada, Mexico, Caribbean, or Central America will not get you into the lounge. If you have a first class or business class ticket to London and you are connecting in Newark, you won’t have access in Chicago but you would in Newark.  Chicago would need to be your point of international departure to have access to the Polaris lounge at O’Hare. I booked a business class ticket on Lufthansa to Lisbon, Portugal using United miles and thus had access to Polaris Lounge along with my wife. It’s not often that a place that’s been hyped up so much manages to live up to the lofty expectations. In this case, it not only lived up to it but exceeded it. My wife and I arrived at the lounge 5 hours prior to departure so we could experience just about every facet of what it had to offer.

     Location and Entrance

Polaris Lounge is located in the C concourse of Terminal 1 at O’Hare. This is NOT the international terminal. However, United has their hub at Terminal 1 so all United International flights and Star Alliance partners ANA and Lufthansa (except LH437 to Munich which departs from Terminal 5) depart from Terminal 1. If you are flying on another Star Alliance partner in a premium cabin (Swiss, Turkish, EVA, etc), you need to walk over to Terminal 3 and take the Terminal Transfer Bus (TTB) to Terminal 5. This allows you to bypass another security check. Getting back to the Polaris Lounge, once you clear security at Terminal 1, take the escalators down to a tunnel which has quirky rainbow lighting and automated people movers. When you reach the end of the tunnel, go up the escalator and the Polaris Lounge is located on the left near gate C17. If your flight departs from the B concourse, you’ll have to make the 5-minute walk under the tunnel to get the C concourse. Since the lounge is located air-side after security, you don’t have to worry about budgeting time to get through security and to your gate. Once you enter, the receptionist will scan your boarding pass and you’re on your way.

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The Polaris themed light fixture in the lobby was a great touch

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View of the front disk from the corridor

                        Polaris Lounge – Seating

One of the best attributes is the amount of seating this lounge offers. Since United only grants access to international travelers flying on a long-haul flight, this lounge will never have to worry about crowding issues. When my wife and I were there, I’d say the lounge was only about 1/3 full and never got any higher than that.

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Not a single person in this area of the lounge.

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As you can see in the pictures, absolutely no shortage of seats. United did a nice job with the variety of seats and lighting that is offered. If you prefer a darker environment, they have that. And if you want a lot of natural light or like to watch planes take-off and land, they have optimal seating for that as well

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This was my favorite seat.  Near the window and watching various jets take off and land.

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I was a big fan of these personal work areas that provided privacy but didn’t make you feel confined to a closed space. Excellent touch, United.

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                          Polaris Lounge- Buffet

This was one of my favorite aspects of visiting the lounge. If you’re going to visit any Polaris Lounge, please come hungry.  And pace yourselves. Their selection was the best I had ever seen at a U.S. lounge. And this was only the self-serve buffet!

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Stacked caprese salad with fresh mozzarella. This was delicious

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The salmon teriyaki was excellent. Never had it before.

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The shrimp baked pasta was also delicious. At this point, I had to keep it to a few bites if I wanted to experience the sit-down dining

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Eating any of the desserts meant there would be no hope for further food consumption. It was a tough mental battle but I willed myself into avoiding any of the pastries and desserts.

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The minibar was stocked and had just about anything you’d want.

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Fruit infused water

                    Polaris Lounge – Full-Service Dining

This is another aspect of the lounge that differentiates it from other lounges. It has a full-service dining option that allows you to pick from a menu and have your meal made to order. PolarisMenuPolarisMenu2

Since my wife and I were there during the dinner hours, we chose to share a cheese tortellini and have our own ice cream. PolarisDiningPastaPolarisicecreamThe tortellini was amazing and the ice cream was great as well. I really wish I didn’t sample as much from the buffet prior to dining but lesson learned for next time. Please don’t make this same mistake. Just a reminder that even though the dining is complimentary, remember to tip the waitress/waiter. They really go above and beyond at Polaris Lounge and help make the experience what it is.

        Polaris Lounge – Bedroom and Shower

This lounge has 4 dedicated bedrooms if you want to catch a snooze prior to your flight. Linen from Saks 5th Avenue is provided for your comfort. None of the rooms were occupied during my time at the lounge and the rooms have a 3-hour limit if there is a queue.

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The corridor that leads to the bathrooms. This is separate from the shower rooms which are found behind the buffet area. The Polaris themed lighting on the ceiling going down the corridor was a great touch by United.

The shower area and bathroom were all well maintained and the receptionist was kind enough to give me a tour.

                     Polaris Lounge – Bar and Buffet Area

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The bar area was relatively empty and United did a great job with the blue ambiance.

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The buffet area was very elegant. Synced perfectly with the type of dishes that were being offered.

                         Polaris Lounge – Conclusion

As I mentioned above, this lounge exceeded my expectations and I had some very high expectations going in. Even though I forgot to measure the wifi speed, I can assure you it was very fast when I was connected through my cell phone. This lounge has it all-excellent dining, comfortable sleeping rooms, spacious shower rooms, a variety of seating areas, fast internet connectivity, a vibrant bar area, and more. The Polaris brand of lounges is the standard for U.S. lounges and I hope I have the opportunity to visit one again in the near future. This lounge gets a 5/5 rating.

Review: The Lounge Boston Logan International Airport

During a recent trip from NYC to Chicago, we had a layover in Boston so we decided to stop by The Lounge at Logan International Airport. It was rather convenient since we were going to depart from Terminal C and that is also the same terminal where The Lounge is situated. This lounge is part of the Priority Pass network but also serves as a business class lounge for Aer Lingus and TAP Portugal as they both depart from Terminal C. I didn’t have any issues getting in since it wasn’t full but I have heard of incidents where Priority Pass cardholders were denied access when The Lounge expected a large influx of business class travelers flying on Aer Lingus or TAP Portugal. Since it is the only lounge in Terminal C, hours between 4pm-8pm are no sure thing for Priority Pass card holders.

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Receptionist Desk at The Lounge

Upon entering, I showed my Priority Pass card and the receptionist scanned it and told my wife and I that we were good to go. The lounge was 3/4 full and filling up when we entered. Not surprising considering that we got there on a Friday at 6pm.

If you’re a business traveler that needs a plug outlet, I highly recommend going all the way to the back of the lounge. They have outlets there and a semi-partition that will give you some privacy.

Once we got situated, I went to see the food offerings. I wasn’t really hungry but for the sake of the review, I helped myself to small portions of a few things. They had pasta salad, hummus with pita, veggie sandwich which consisted of cream cheese and cucumbers, vegetables, salad, soup (clam chowder), and snacks. The pasta salad was ok but nothing special. The hummus was decent and might have been the best item they had out there. The veggie sandwich was simple but surprisingly not terrible. I didn’t have the turkey sandwich so the jury is out on that. Seems like their benchmark was to be just good enough to not be bad (does that make sense?).  The refrigerator had no shortage of cold drinks though. That was a big plus.

I don’t partake in drinking alcohol but for those of you who do, the bar looked like it was stocked pretty well.

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Bar area

My biggest gripe during my time here was the lack of dedicated WiFi for this lounge. You are forced to use Logan’s public WiFi and the speed was painfully slow. It’s certainly not business traveler friendly. The bathrooms were clean so that was a nice plus.  I would rate this place a 3.2/5. If you happen to be in Terminal C, being at this lounge would still beat sitting in the gate area. However, if you’re departing from a different terminal, I would not recommend making a trip to Terminal C just for the sake of visiting this lounge.

Why The United MileagePlus Explorer Card is a Keeper

 

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I just recently got an email from Chase and the new benefits that will be rolled out for the MileagePlus Explorer card. Starting from June 1st, cardholders will get 2x the miles on hotel and dining purchases (previously 1 mile/$1), $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA Precheck, and 25% off in-flight purchases. This is in addition to the two United Lounge passes that Chase gives every year upon renewing the card. All these perks are appealing and in the realm of basic economy, having an airline card assures you of being allowed to carry a bag that can be checked in or carried-on (if you book a basic economy fare). What happens if you don’t have an airline-branded credit card and you book the basic economy fare? You can only bring a bag that can fit under your sit. Anything that goes into the overhead bins would have to be paid for and airlines are starting to enforce this policy at the gate.

Many airline credit cards are popular for churning. This means you sign up and get approved for the card, rack up the bonus miles after hitting the minimum spend threshold and cancel the card within a year.  Then you’re free to apply those miles to that destination you’ve been saving up for. Since I find myself traveling between Chicago and the East Coast several times a year, I’ve held on to the United MileagePlus Explorer card as well as the Citi American AAdvantage Platinum to save on baggage fees and for the convenience of priority boarding (on super busy routes such as LGA to ORD, it assures overhead bin space). If there was only one credit card you wanted to pay an annual fee for, I wouldn’t recommend an airline-branded card since you’re married to that one airline if you want to reap the benefits. A credit card such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Reserve would be the better option since you have multiple airlines whose frequent flier programs you can utilize via transfer. But if you’re willing to pay for two cards and you live near a United hub (Chicago, D.C., Houston, Denver, San Francisco, Newark/NYC, and Los Angeles), the United MileagePlus Explorer credit card might be one of the most appealing airline-branded credit cards available. In addition to the benefits I outlined above, United offers exclusive mileage redemptions to cardmembers only.

The example itinerary I used is Chicago (ORD) to Cancun from July 29th-August 4. In both instances, we’re going to use award redemptions.  The first example is the redemption available if you are a Chase United MileagePlus credit card holder.

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This is the segment from Chicago to Cancun. Two non-stop options available exclusively with the MileagePlus credit card for 17.5k miles.

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These are the options for the return. Three non-stop options if you hold the credit card. 35k miles for the roundtrip for one passenger.

Now let’s look at redemption availability if you want to book this same trip using United miles but you don’t hold the United MileagePlus Explorer credit card:

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If you want the non-stop option, it will cost 25k miles rather than the 17.5k miles seen above.

 

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They do have one 17.5k redemption to get to Cancun but look at that disgusting itinerary. Not only are you departing at 6am but you have to switch airports in D.C. By the time you’re in Cancun, you’re spent.

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The return trip to Chicago would cost 25k miles. There is no 17.5k option available for the return.

As you can see in the example above, having the Chase MileagePlus Explorer card means you’re using only 35k miles (plus the applicable taxes) with the benefit of having a non-stop flight on both legs of the journey. Without it, you’re using at a minimum, 42.5k miles and likely 50k miles if you want to have a non-stop each way and a productive first day in Cancun. How much is that 15k miles savings worth? The Points Guy values each United mile at 1.5 cents. 1.5 x 15k = $225. This is just an estimate but even if you valued it a bit lower, it becomes obvious the miles you saved by having the card is worth far more than the annual fee of $95 you’d be paying to keep the card. Again, this card isn’t for everyone and those who would benefit the most are travelers who live near a United hub. If you are an SPG or a Chase Sapphire Preferred/Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholder and you find yourself transferring Ultimate Rewards points or SPG points into United often, pairing the MileagePlus Explorer card with either of the three only enhances their value.

 

 

Photo source: http://www.chase.com

 

Earn United MileagePlus Miles For Filling Gas at BP

United and BP have partnered up to allow you to earn United MileagePlus miles for simply filling up at any BP gas station. All you have to do is have a MileagePlus account, sign up for BP rewards, and link the two together. If you link a debit or credit card and use it to purchase gas, you will earn 2 to 3 miles per dollar (depending on the fuel grade). There is absolutely no added cost for you to earn the miles so if you’re located near a BP, this is a great opportunity to earn miles on something you might have to do anyway. If you have a United account, just follow the steps below to link your MileagePlus number with BP Driver Rewards. If you already have a BP Driver Rewards account, you can enter the number while signing up. If not, it will automatically generate an account number for you.

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Chase Releases 5x Category for Chase Freedom

Chase has released their 5% quarterly categories for the 2nd Quarter (April-June) for the Chase Freedom credit card and there are some great opportunities to rack up the points. The categories are grocery stores, Chase Pay, and PayPal. Grocery stores are one of the most lucrative opportunities as most of them also sell gift cards for other retailers such as Amazon, department stores, and gas stations. If you happen to shop online, PayPal is now accepted at multiple websites and you can link the Chase Freedom to your PayPal account. The value of these points are further enhanced if you own the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred since you can transfer the points from Chase Freedom into either one of these cards. Make sure you activate the card prior to April and if you don’t have the card, it’s one I’d strongly recommend adding to your wallet. This card does not have an annual fee.

Review: The Langham, New York City

Thanks to my cousin Salma Hatia for this detailed review on The Langham.

This was my 2nd time staying at the Langham in NYC, but my 1st time staying at the Langham as an AMEX Platinum Member—which was a whole new experience! Don’t get me wrong, I had a great first stay, it was what I expected for a 5-star hotel, however as an AMEX member I felt like the experience was so much better—like, seriously, who was I?When I checked-in, they immediately upgraded me to an executive suite with a kitchen on the 21st floor because I was an AMEX Platinum member. Along with the upgrade, they told me that I had a $100 credit to use on whatever I wanted, like the spa or room service, complimentary breakfast for 2 at their Michelin-star restaurant, Ai Fiori, and late checkout at 4pm, which was clutch because our flight was at 5:30pm on Sunday.

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When we went up to our room the first thing me and my cousin immediately noticed was the view through the large windows—we were able to see down 5th avenue and we could see the beautiful Chrysler building.

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View of Bank of America Tower and the Conde Naste Building (with H&M sign)

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Beautiful view of the Chrysler building and looking down on Fifth Avenue

The 2nd thing we noticed was that we had a powder room—when does that ever happen? Needless to say, we had more than enough room. We even had some of our friends and cousins come up to hang out with us in the room, 6 adults and a baby were hanging out comfortably. All the cafes around us were closed, so we ordered lattes from room service (using my $100 of credit) and they were excellent!

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Full kitchen via AMEX Platinum upgrade

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Views of Manhattan from the bathroom

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Soap, shampoo, and conditioner were all Chuan, a holistic proprietary brand owned by Langham

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Another huge selling point for the Langham is their location. The hotel is centrally located in Manhattan, so we were able to walk to most of our destinations on Saturday. We walked to Washington Square Park, Times Square, and the Highline. The next day, we had to check out by 4pm and catch our flight at 5:30pm so we didn’t have a lot of time to waste. We woke up at 8am and called the doorman to arrange a ride to central park at 11am using the hotel car service (which is free!).

Pro Tip: The hotel has a Jaguar that will drop you off wherever you want to go up until 59th street, they start taking appointments in the morning at 8 am, and it is on a first come first serve basis.

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Jaguar that’s provided for guests of The Langham

After we had our ride set up, we got ready and cashed in on our complimentary breakfast at Ai Fiori—which was phenomenal! My cousin and I decided to order a couple of things and share. We ordered the buttermilk pancakes, uova in purgatorio, and the house potatoes —everything was phenomenal. You can see the picture below.

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If you asked me what the stay was like after my first time, I would’ve said it was great—all the basics of a 5-star hotel. But, staying here as an AMEX platinum member really made this experience next-level amazing, to say the least! It is rare to have a travel experience where you don’t find yourself compromising on something, whether it be the room, service, or location. But I can truly say that there was no compromising at the Langham NYC, everything was at the top of its game—the room, the service, the amenities, the location, and the (free) food were all a 5 out of 5.

 

Using Social Media to Resolve Flight Disruptions

If you find yourself in a situation where your flight is delayed, cancelled, or your connecting flight is in jeopardy due to a delay, try using Twitter for assistance. A few months back, my wife’s flight from Albany to Atlanta was delayed by 35 minutes. Normally this is nothing more than a minor inconvenience. However, since her flight had a tight connection window of only 50 minutes to continue on from Atlanta to Dallas (Love Field), she was more than likely going to miss that flight. I was flying from NYC- Love Field and we booked so that we would land around the same time. Unfortunately, my wife’s connecting flight was the last flight from Atlanta to Love Field. Luckily for her, there was still a later flight from Atlanta to Dallas-Fort Worth and I would just drive over from Love Field and pick her up. I tweeted Delta and asked if they can put her on that flight. Delta responded back on Twitter and confirmed that they saved her a seat on that flight.

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That simple. This saved me the hassle of being put on hold and pressing God knows how many numbers to find someone that would help. Kudos to Delta for their fast response and helping us avoid what could have been a pretty ugly experience. So if you find yourself in a similar situation and need a contingency plan ASAP, social media might end up working better than the old fashioned customer service number. Just about every U.S. airline has a dedicated social media team for this purpose and even the airline that was slow to embrace it (Spirit Airlines) has finally embraced social media to assist customers.