The last time I wrote one of these shopping related posts, it was for JetBlue and their relationship with Amazon. About six months ago, both companies mutually terminated their relationship (unless you purchase on Amazon while flying on JetBlue plane) and everyone who shopped at Amazon frequently lost a pretty easy way to rack up TrueBlue miles. This wasn’t entirely a passive way to earn points since you still had to log-in to your JetBlue account and click on your personal Amazon link to get you to Amazon.com. However, United now offers a couple of truly passive ways to earn miles if you just link your credit card to the United Shopping Portal. One of them requires you to link your credit card with BP and fill up your gas there as you normally would. I made a post about this earlier and you can read about that here. The second is to link your credit card(s) with the United MileagePlus shopping portal. Remember, it costs nothing to have a United MileagePlus account so be sure to sign up if you haven’t already. I took screenshots on how add your credit card(s) to your United account and how to link your credit card to United’s shopping portal so just follow along.
How to Add Your Credit Card(s) to your United MileagePlus Account
Linking Your Account with Participating Retailers on MileagePlus Shopping
You will get a text message from United as soon as you make a purchase with any of your chosen retailers notifying you that the points will be added to your account in 3-5 days. Shopping alone likely won’t get you enough miles to land a business-class ticket (unless you’re a prodigious shopaholic) but it’s a nice way to bump up the United frequent flier miles balance and perhaps get you closer to an award ticket in economy.
As part of our award redemption using United miles for a business class ticket to Lisbon, my wife and I had access to the Lufthansa Business Class Lounge during our 6-hour layover in Frankfurt, Germany. Lufthansa has seven business class lounges and four Senator Lounges (first-class lounges) at Frankfurt Airport. The business class lounge I chose was after passport control near A26 since this was closest to our departure gate.
Upon entering the lounge, the receptionist scanned our boarding pass and off we were. Since Lufthansa has seven business class lounges, I didn’t expect there to much of a crowd at this one. It was about 75% filled when we arrived and became less crowded as the hours went by.
Most of the crowd was fixated on the TV’s and the World Cup match that was being played. The lounge itself isn’t huge by any stretch but has enough seating and excellent amenities.
There were a few different seating areas and much like Polaris Lounge in Chicago, this one had seating areas with different ambiances. As much as I wanted to take pictures of every single area of the lounge, I try not to take pictures of an area if there are people that might be looking right at the camera. I wish it was a bit easier being discrete and thorough at the same time.
The business center was being utilized by only a few people and had relatively new PC’s.
The other half of the business center was completely empty but having chairs without back support probably convinced everyone to stay away. The wifi connectivity at this lounge was excellent, among the fastest I had experienced at any lounge. Kudos to Lufthansa for really looking out for the business traveler.
Just like the Polaris Lounge, this lounge also had bedrooms available upon request. My wife wanted to take a nap so they gladly unlocked a room for her and provided her with a blanket.
I wasn’t tired enough to reserve a room for myself but she said the beds were very comfortable and she slept for two solid hours. This lounge also had access to showers upon request. Next up was to check out the food offerings. Usually, this is among the first things I do at a lounge. Since I had breakfast on the plane only an hour prior, I wasn’t all that hungry and I did not want to eat for the sake of eating. So I waited a few hours until hunger struck.
The bread was bread. Not terrible but not great.
The potato salad was decent. Their regular salad was subpar and very dry.
The noodles with cheese was surprisingly good. It might not look good from the picture above but trust me, it was good. Taking pictures of the food near the buffet area is also where I ran into a little bit of trouble. There was a far greater selection than what I was able to take a picture of. However, one of the employees who was responsible for replenishing the buffet told me in half English and half German that I was not allowed to take pictures of the food or buffet area. I had no idea why this was the case (made no sense) but rather than challenge that assertion, I just took her word for it and stopped taking pictures of that area.
The caramel pudding was heavenly. This was so good I had to have it twice.
Nothing like have ginger ale where you can actually taste the ginger. The lounge had plenty of drinks, a solid espresso machine, and bar that was well stocked. Again, I did not want to challenge the lady and take a picture but take my word for it. As for the bathrooms, Lufthansa did a geat job maintaining the mens room.
The L’Occitane soap and lotion that they provided was a very nice touch. Small details like that do not go unnoticed.
I really wish I didn’t have to truncate this review with regards to the pictures but as a guest, I couldn’t risk angering the lounge employee or annoying the people that were there. This was a fantastic lounge that checked just about every box when I’m critiquing a lounge. Solid food options, high speed wifi connectivity, enough seating, and added amenities such as bedrooms and showers. Rather than contruct two or three very large lounges and risk capacity issues, I appreciate how Lufthansa built 7 smaller business class lounges to spread out the crowd. This exact issue will come into play for my next review, the KLM Business Class Lounge at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam. As for the Lufthansa Business Class Lounge, I would rate it a 4.6/5.
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
Since my wife and I were there during the dinner hours, we chose to share a cheese tortellini and have our own ice cream. The 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.
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
For all you last-minute travelers/procrastinators, there are many frequent flier programs that penalize travelers if they book an award redemption close to the departure date. For example, if you book a ticket using miles on either American or United and your departure date is less than 21 days away, you will have to pay a $75 ticketing fee. Sometimes this fee will wipe out the value of a redemption and on the rare occasion, it will be more than the entire cost of the ticket were you to pay in cash. Delta doesn’t charge a ticketing fee but will charge additional 5k points per one way ticket (and even more for business class). Alaska Airlines does not charge a close-in ticketing fee and neither does JetBlue. Southwest does not charge a ticketing fee but the number of miles required will increase significantly. If you have status with an airline, that might be enough to skirt around the close-in booking fees. There are a couple of ways to bypass the close-in fee and I’ll demonstrate how.
Using British Airways to Book on American Airlines
I talked about the benefits of using British Airways Avios to book on American Airlines here.
One valuable aspect of British Airways Avios is the ability to redeem it on American Airlines as close to a few hours prior to departure.
British Airways has a distance based chart so certain redemptions can be made using fewer miles.
If economy saver award tickets are available on AA.com, they will usually be accessible through British Airways.
Here is an example of the exact same flight from Albany, NY to Chicago (ORD) and the costs associated with the two different programs.
If I were to book this one-way ticket using AA miles, the cost is $12,500 miles plus a $75 ticketing fee (the mandatory 9/11 security fee is $5.60 making it $80.60). Now let’s see the price using British Airways Avios…..
No $75 ticketing fee and only 7.5k Avios as opposed to the 12.5k AA miles that would have been required. It is important to note that if you have a connecting flight, it will cost double the Avios for a trip since BA charges 7.5k per segment. I’d still rather dish out 15k Avios rather than 12.5k AA miles with the $75 ticketing fee tacked on.
Using Singapore Krisflyer Miles to Book on United
Similar to AA’s policy, United also charges a $75 ticketing fee for flights booked within 21 days of departure.
Singapore Airlines allows you to book via United up until 24 hours prior to departure if saver award redemptions are available on United.
Unlike the American Airlines example, this ticket cannot be booked online. You need to call Singapore Airlines reservations and they will book it for you. Just make sure you have a Singapore Krisflyer frequent flier account set up prior to calling.
Both British Airways and Singapore Airlines are transfer partners of Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Points, and Starwood Preferred Guest. Singapore Airlines is also a transfer partner of Citi ThankYou points. If you are booking on United Airlines via Singapore miles, DO NOT transfer any points into Singapore Airlines until you have confirmed seat availability for your travel dates on United. Transfers into an airline’s frequent flier program are not reversible.
On my way back to Albany, NY, I had about an hour and change of free time at O’Hare International Airport. As a United Explorer credit card holder, United gives me two complimentary passes to the United Club lounge every year during my cardmember anniversary. Without the passes, I’d have to pay $50 out of pocket for a day pass. In essence, the two United Club passes make up for the $95 annual fee even if I never used any other benefit from the card. So I figured I’d give it a shot.
The United Club lounge in Terminal 2 is located in the F concourse. Once you enter the lounge, the staff at the front desk will take your pass, verify your boarding pass, and direct you to the escalators that lead to the concierge. There are many factors that I’ll look at when evaluating any airline lounge. The most heavily weighted factor in determining how I’ll rate a lounge is food. If the food is good, it can make up for shortcomings in many other areas. It happened to be breakfast time so off I went to check out the offerings……
As you can see from the pictures, cantaloupes, honeydew melon, grapes, yogurt, and oatmeal.
Bagels, white bread, and whole wheat bread with cream cheese, butter, and strawberry jam or grape jelly. The fresh fruit was pretty good. The bagels? dry with the texture of sandpaper. They also had an espresso machine (not pictured) which gave you a few different choices of latte’s, cappuccino, hot chocolate, and mocha. I had the latte and it was pretty decent. There was also orange juice and watermelon infused water. In terms of the food selection, it was nothing special and certainly nothing that was memorable. So let’s move on to other areas of the lounge…..
The common areas were very spacious and the decor was pretty nice. The lounge was clean, perfectly lit, and didn’t suffer from overcrowding that routinely plagues the United Club lounge in terminal 1.
There is an abundance of power outlets and it seems that just about every seat has access to one. This is certainly not the case at the United Club lounges in Terminal 1 so good for United in addressing that here.
The bar area was quiet at 8am as expected. Very spacious, clean, and an appealing ambiance.
This lounge also had free wifi with very good speeds. Perfect place to get work done if you have a layover or you’re there a bit early and have time to kill.
I really want to like this lounge more than I do. It was comfortable, clean, spacious, great ambiance, not overcrowded, great wifi speeds, and had a very friendly staff. But the food was mediocre at best. And even that’s putting it kindly. I can’t justify or recommend paying $50 for a 1-day pass if the best thing they have going for them is great coffee and wifi. The only way I’d ever return is on a complimentary pass or if I booked an award ticket on business class and complimentary access came with it. On a scale of 1-5 with 5 being the best, I’d rate it a 3.2. If the food is ever on par with AMEX Centurion lounges, it would easily be a 4.5 or higher.
It is important to note that these passes do not work at United’s Polaris Lounge in Terminal 1 or any of the Polaris lounges that are due to open at Newark, San Francisco, Houston, D.C., Los Angeles (LAX), Hong Kong, Tokyo (Narita), and London (Heathrow) over the next year. For those lounges, you need to have a business class or first class ticket on a long-haul international flight. I’ve heard a lot of great things about that product and if I’m ever fortunate to experience it, I’ll share my review here.