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Are Independent Airport Lounges Worth the Price?

SmarterTravel

Private, independently operated airport lounges are expanding in major U.S. airports, and offering one-time access for a fee. The typical airport lounge’s entry fee is $40 to $50 per person per visit, but some lounges charge as little as $25. Airline-sponsored lounges have been around at least 70 years, but independent ones are a fairly recent development in the U.S.

Are Independent Airport Lounges Worth It?

The business model for independent airport lounges appears to be based on two sources of income: fees for individual access, plus, in some cases, deals to provide premium-class lounge service for airlines that lack the traffic to support their own lounges. These days, if you want into a lounge, you can get in—for a price. 

What You Get

When I first covered lounges, I called them an “oasis of calm” in the airport’s typically hostile environment. Since then, that contrast has changed a bit: As they’ve grown popular, lounges are no longer as tranquil as they once were. Airports, on the other hand, have improved somewhat in offering places to wait out a departure. Still, lounges retain a big edge in providing a comfortable environment for those times when you have an hour or more to kill. They offer comfortable seating, workplaces, Wi-Fi, laptops, maybe printers, TV, magazines, newspapers, and private rest rooms, sometimes with showers. Typically, you’ll have to present an ID and a valid boarding pass for same-day departure or arrival.

To many, the primary appeal of independent lounges is now in what you get for “free” once you’ve paid your way inside. In most cases, that means no-charge coffee, soft drinks, beer, wine, and liquor. It also means food—snacks and (more increasingly) hot food that can actually serve as a full meal. Given that a typical airport drink costs around $10, having even one or two at the lounge substantially offsets the cost of entry.

Almost all independent lounges are located past security. An independent lounge operator may have multiple locations in large airports with decentralized terminals. Some lounges post flight information on display, others don’t. Guest privileges vary by operator, but in most cases, guests will cost you extra.

What You Pay

A provider called The Club is the U.S. leader for independent airport lounges. Lounge locations include Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Las Vegas, Orlando, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Jose, and Seattle-Tacoma airports. Day passes cost $40 per person and are available online.

American Express operates Centurion lounges at Dallas-Ft Worth, Houston/Bush, Las Vegas, Miami, New York/La Guardia, San Francisco, and Seattle, as well as in a handful of foreign locations. Day entry at U.S. airports costs $50 for holders of most AmEx cards, and entry is free to Platinum cardholders and their guests at most locations. AmEx lounges are ranked among lounge-using travelers as some of the best. Because AmEx has a deal with Delta lounges, Centurion lounges tend to be located in areas frequented by American and United Airlines.

The leader in Canada is Plaza Premium, with locations in Edmonton, Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg airports. Day passes start at $30.

Swiss-based Executive Lounges operates Aspire Lounges at Calgary and Montreal, but is mainly operating across Europe and Asia. Prices vary by location.

One-of-a-kind lounges include Mortgage Solutions Financial at Colorado Springs, Club America at Miami, PGA MSP Lounge at MSP, Wingtips at New York/JFK, Art & Lounge at Newark (landside), Salon VIP at Quebec, and Royal Palm at Sanford. Prices start around $35 per person, per day.

Priority Pass

It seems that most independent lounge users gain access through Priority Pass, the 800-pound gorilla of the lounge membership business. It provides access to more than 1000 lounges around the world—a mix of airline lounges, airport premium lounges, and independent lounges. Coverage in the U.S. is limited to a mix of independent lounges, including many available on The Club, plus Alaska Airlines Lounge clubs, at 21airports: Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Colorado Springs, Dallas-Ft Worth, Houston/Bush, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St Paul, New York/JFK, New York/La Guardia, Newark, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle-Tacoma, and Washington/Dulles. Notable exclusions include Cleveland, Denver, and Salt Lake City. Canadian locations are Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Quebec, Vancouver, and Winnipeg. Coverage is extensive in Asia, Europe, and the Caribbean.

In addition to conventional lounges, Priority Pass is expanding into new territory: partnerships with airport bars and restaurants, starting with Portland, Oregon airport options like Capers Café Le Bar. Priority Pass members get $28 off the bill. Also new are programs with airside mini-hotels: Minute Suites at Atlanta, Dallas-Ft Worth, and Philadelphia. As with the bars, the deal is $28 off each visit, with regular rates starting at $40 per hour or $140 overnight.

Priority Pass offers three membership options:

  • Standard, unlimited visits at $27 each, $99 per year.
  • Standard Plus, 10 free visits plus additional visits at $27 each, $249 per year.
  • Prestige, unlimited free visits, $399 per year.

Many Priority Pass users in the U.S. gain membership as a feature of a premium credit card. Cards that include Priority Pass membership are AmEx Platinum, Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Ritz-Carlton, and MasterCard Black. The “Select” membership level available through credit cards provides unlimited free lounge access for the member, plus up to two guests, depending on local lounge policy

Lounge Locator

Priority Pass members can locate participating lounges on the Priority Pass website. Other travelers can search on LoungeBuddy, which sells day passes to more than 250 lounges worldwide and provides useful information like reviews. As yet another approach, you can visit the airport’s website to find information about both airline and independent lounges.

How Good a Deal?

The value of one-time airport-lounge access depends on your individual trip, your travel habits,you’re your budget. For many, the lounge value equation depends on what you consume there: If you have two free drinks, you can figure those, alone, offset about $20 of the entry fee, and the snacks can easily offset another $10 to $20. You might assign some value to the environment: Opting to pay $25 to $50 for a private area and free booze for a five-hour layover in a busy air hub might sound like a good deal. On the other hand, paying several times that for your family if you’ll be there for just an hour may be unnecessary.

For frequent travelers, the most compelling case for independent lounge access is to get annual Priority Pass as a key benefit of a premium credit card. Add lounge access to the various other credits and benefits, and the value of the total package can easily exceed the card’s $450 to $550 annual fee. That’s how I get into private lounges, and I consider lounge access a big plus for my premium card. Given all the other premium card features and annual fees of $450 to $550, most travelers would be better off accessing Priority Pass through card perks rather than separately at $399 for Priority Pass only. And paying $99 then paying $29 per visit doesn’t seem as attractive, either.

Have you used independent lounges? Was it worth the price? Comment below.

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