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Airport Tip: My (Brief) Life as a VIP

Flying these days can be tedious under the best circumstances. When you’re traveling with kids and you’re always being steered to the slowest security line, always struggling to find room for your numerous backpacks and shoes in a cramped row of seats and always winding up sticky by the end of the trip, you can easily feel you’ve been relegated to something even worse than coach class.

Over the summer, I found the antidote for at least some of these stressors. I tried one of the airport VIP services that are becoming more popular with John and Jane Q. Flyer.

I wrote about these services for Reuters last week and talked about how business travelers who no longer take first-class tickets for granted are adding these services to their coach fares. But VIP services can also be handy and very much worth the cost for families. I would recommend it to parents flying solo with their kids, to those flying with multiple kids (especially if they’re small), or to those traveling with both older grandparents and children.

Private companies, airports, airlines, credit card companies and even hotels are offering VIP services as for-fee perks that start at around $50 and go beyond $1,000 per person. We used AA’s Five Star Service, which they now offer in a dozen airports.

For $250, my husband and I were greeted at the curb at the American Airlines terminal at New York’s JFK. Our escort took some of our bags so I could wheel the stroller and directed us to the priority check-in, where we had all of three people in line ahead of us. Less than 15 minutes later, with boarding passes in hand, she walked us to the front of the very long security line and we were through that in less than ten minutes. She delivered us to the AA Admirals Club lounge, where Tiny Traveler munched bagels and watched from a giant window as assorted planes and trucks did their dance on the tarmac. At boarding time our escort came back and brought us to the front of the line at the gate. We still had to make due with our economy seats, but with no one else on the plane it was easy to get our stuff tucked away and Tiny Traveler situated.

For $100 we could have hired a private company escort us from the curb through check-in and security and then fended for ourselves from there on. Unless you need help maneuvering your kids and stuff through the airport, I can’t say it was worth the extra $150. The lounge was quieter and more comfortable than the terminal would have been but it was still pretty basic. I snagged a free cup of (Lipton) tea and skipped the rubbery bagels. It was too early to sample the cash bar.

Some of these VIP services can be quite exclusive though. They can cost from several hundred dollars to more than $1,000 per person and come with private airport entrances and dedicated security checks. Their people will have boarding passes waiting for you and even drive you to your plane over the tarmac so you don’t have to deal with the riff-raff at the gate.

This is a level of service I doubt I will ever experience.  However, JFK is a major hub for AA and at 7:00 AM, when we were checking in, the terminal is a zoo. Both the regular check-in and security line that we bypassed snaked all over the place. If you can avoid them and spend less than 30 minutes getting from curbside to airside instead of well over an hour, it’s could be worth $50 to $100.

I would do it again in a heartbeat.

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