Airport lounges may be the travel industry’s best-kept secret. These calm and secluded areas make traveling less torturous…and they’re not just for jet-setters or elite frequent flyers. Here’s how to get into an airport lounge and the reasons you might want to.
An Oasis in the Airport
Airports are hostile environments. After being herded through long security lines and patted down, travelers have to face noisy, crowded gate areas. That is, unless they head to an airport lounge. Yes, they still will cost you at least some money to get into, the benefits may very well be worth the price even if you aren’t rich or a frequent traveler—especially if you know a few tricks and insider information.
These areas, provided by the airlines and some third-parties, offer comfortable chairs and tables, food and drinks (including, usually, an open bar of alcoholic beverages), free newspapers and magazines, free Wi-Fi, and, most importantly, a quiet area to wait for your flight—whether you want to take a quick nap or get some work done. (Heck, you can even party for free in one.)
In addition to those perks, access to an airline lounge can prove invaluable, since it can get you better service in crazy times when your flight is delayed or cancelled. The agents in the lounge tend to be the most experienced customer service agents for the airline and can help you rebook—away from the crowd of outraged fellow passengers. At the airline lounge, service agents can also help with changing seat assignments, seeing if you can get an upgrade, and any other customer service needs.
The downside is that access to the lounges can be pricey (though not always), lounges aren’t available at all airports, and the rules for getting into them vary.
How You Can Get Into a Lounge and How Much It Costs
There are a range of ways to get access to a lounge, but generally, you have four options:
Buy a first- or business-class ticket. This is the most obvious way to get into an airport lounge. Most airlines offer travelers in the premium cabins access to their lounges—if you’re traveling internationally. (Outside the U.S., there are usually separate lounges for first- and business-class ticket holders at major hub airports.) If you’re travelling domestically in the U.S., a first-class ticket doesn’t always give you access to the lounge as you might expect; you’ll have an easier time getting in if you have elite status with the airline. Dr. Credit Card overviews the rules:
- International first class passengers have access to first class or business class lounges. You may bring one guest for free.
- International business class passengers have access to business class lounges. No guest is allowed.
- Domestic first class passengers on some carriers (all oneworld members except American Airlines, and certain Star Alliance members – United Airlines and US Airways are excluded) have access to first class or business class lounges. You may bring one guest for free.
- Domestic business class passengers on some carriers (all oneworld members except American Airlines, and certain Star Alliance members – United Airlines and US Airways are excluded) have access to business class lounges. No guest is allowed.
- Best for: If you’re are travelling internationally anyway on first- or business-class, this is a no-brainer, because the lounge comes with your ticket. Otherwise, you’ll have to weigh the cost of the ticket to see if it’s worth it to you.
- Tip: Depending on where you’re flying to and from, you can get US domestic lounge access on certain airlines and for specific fare classes. See this list from The Points Guy.
Become an elite flyer. If you have elite status with the airline (silver or gold, or the equivalent), you’ll get prized access to the lounges. Note, though, that programs do vary—including if you can use a lounge from a partner airline in the same alliance, whether or not you can being a guest with you, and how many points you need to get to elite status. See our guide to mastering airline loyalty programs for the best ways to get to elite status quickly, including using airline-branded credit cards for free/bonus miles.
- Best for: Frequent travelers who usually only fly with airlines in the same program. The downside is it takes time to accumulate the number of miles needed, and you’ll have to do it each year if you want to maintain your status.
- Tip: If you fly United or another Star Alliance airline, you can get to Gold Status faster with this trick.
Buy your way in. You can get an airline lounge membership, but the annual fees are hefty, usually around $ 450 (Alaska Airlines, Delta Sky Club, and US Airways) or $ 500 (American Admirals Club and United Club). This is probably the worst/most expensive way to get lounge access, but sometimes the airlines offer sales on the memberships. If you have membership for one of these, you’ll usually get reciprocal access to the other airlines’ lounges in the same alliance. You might also be able to pay for membership with frequent flyer miles.
Many airlines also let you buy a day pass, usually for $ 50 a visit. If your flight is cancelled or delayed or if you have hours until your red eye flight, this might be money well spent.
- Best for: Frequent travelers who fly the same airline, don’t have elite status, aren’t flying in premium class, and aren’t using one of the strategies below.
- Tip: Buy membership in an independent lounge program, such as Priority Pass, and save a couple of hundred bucks. Priority Pass operates 600 lounges in airports around the world and membership plans range from $ 99 to $ 399 a year (the lowest price plan requires a $ 27 fee for each visit as well as a $ 27 fee for a guest).
Get a credit card that offers lounge access. Several travel-oriented credit cards give you access to airline lounges. Annual fees are typically $ 150 to $ 450, but you’ll get other business- and travel-related perks with the credit card, so, in general, it’s a better value than airline lounge membership. American Express Platinum, for example, offers access to US Airways Club and Delta Sky Club for you and your immediate family or up to two guests, plus a $ 200 credit for airline fees; the annual fee for the card is $ 450. Card Ratings highlights three other similar premium credit cards.
- Best for: People who want a new rewards credit card and additional perks beyond just lounge access.
- Tip: The premium credit cards are the most popular among frequent travelers, but several other cards offer lounge access but have lower annual fees. The PenFed Amex actually has no annual fee, but you get two lounge passes after you spend $ 15,000 on the card in a year. The Chase Fairmont Visa has a $ 95 annual fee (none in the first year) and gives you two free lounge visits, plus two complimentary nights at a Fairmont hotel. The Amex Hilton HHonors Surpass and Chase Ink Bold are two others to consider.
Score Airport Lounge Access for Less
Here are some tips for saving even more money on that coveted lounge access.
Buy a pass in advance. United day passes are $ 11 cheaper if you buy before you’re at the lounge, and similarly US Airways day access is $ 29 versus $ 50 if you buy it with your ticket.
Buy cheaper lounge passes from other travelers. Check FlyerTalk forums or eBay/Craigslist to see if anyone’s selling them. Be sure to check any restrictions, however, for the passes to make sure you can use them.
Head to alternative lounges. A bunch of independent lounges are popping up in airports around the world as less expensive options. These public pay-in lounges, such as reLAX Lounge and Airspace Lounge (in Baltimore-Washington International), are more comfortable than the gates and include complementary refreshments and other amenities, with hourly rates (reLAX for 1 hour is $ 15; all day for Airspace is $ 20).
Note that not all lounges are equal. Some are truly premium places complete with showers, spas, hair salons, pool tables, and even oxygen bars. Others are just rest stops. Check out reviews on SkyTrax or LoungeGuide before you buy. If you have an iOS device, previously mentioned Loungebuddy will direct you to the lounges you can get into.