While you’re waiting out a long layover, nothing seems more enticing than an airport lounge. With amenities like free Wi-Fi, drinks, snacks, and glossy magazines, airport lounges feel like the answer to most of your travel annoyances. At the very least, they can give you sanctuary from the concourse noise and hubbub.
Lounges were first launched in 1939 by the then-giant airlines as facilities for VIPs and recognized frequent flyers. The no-fee airport lounge membership system was by invitation only. Following a legal challenge in 1966, though, the lines switched to annual paid memberships.
Entrance to most airport lounges usually comes free for those carrying a first- or business-class ticket (and often, for economy-class flyers carrying an active military ID). But for the rest of us stuck in the back of the plane, there are ways to gain access to these comfy inner sanctums without shelling out thousands of dollars for an upgrade. When you’re the one sinking into a cushy armchair instead of clamoring for a seat at the gate, you’ll be glad to have airport lounge access as a respite from the usual airport irritations.
How to Get Into Airport Lounges
Following are seven ways that savvy travelers can get into airport lounges, even if their tickets read “coach.”
Buy a One-Day Airport Lounge Pass
Several airlines sell day passes to their airport lounges, allowing you to relax in comfort without a long-term commitment. Alaska Airlines sells day passes for the airline’s lounges for $50, as does American, while United charges $59 per day. (As of recently, Delta no longer sells single-day airport lounge passes to the general public.) Keep in mind, however, that most of these airline passes are limited to U.S. domestic airport lounges.
If you’re traveling internationally, check out Lounge Pass, which sells day passes to hundreds of airport lounges worldwide, including several at London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports. Admission to these airport lounges typically ranges between $30 to $60 (with a few outliers to the north and south), and most of them restrict the amount of time you can spend there. Some only offer access to passengers flying within that country, so check before you buy.
Best for: Casual travelers.
Invest in an Airport Lounge Membership
It used to be that all business travelers worth their salt carried a lounge membership card with their preferred airline, often purchased on their company’s dime. Those perks are mostly gone now, with road warriors finding more flexible ways to gain access to airport lounges (see the “Elite Status” and “Credit Card” sections below).
If you fly one airline exclusively, however, an airline membership is still something to consider. Airline club memberships also give you access into alliance lounges, including the Star Alliance and Oneworld airlines, which will help a lot if you’re traveling internationally. Of the airlines based in North America, Air Canada, Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, and United currently operate lounge programs, with one or more locations at each major airport they serve. WestJet arranges lounge access at its major terminals. Allegiant, Frontier, JetBlue, and Southwest do not operate their own lounge programs, though JetBlue partners with programs in Montego Bay and Kingston, Jamaica.
If you go the membership route, expect to pay $350 to $650, plus an “initiation fee” between $50 and $100, for an annual membership. Before shelling out, check to make sure that the destinations you visit the most actually have airport lounges; as a rule, you’ll only find these types of clubs in the world’s busier airports.
Best for: Frequent travelers who rely on one airline or alliance.
Try a Third-Party Vendor for Airport Lounge Access
If you have a hard time sticking to just one airline, an airport lounge membership purchased through a third party might make more sense. A company called Priority Pass offers access to more than 1,300 airport lounges worldwide for an annual fee. Participating lounges include a mix of airline, airport, and independent locations, mostly in international departure areas.
What’s nice about Priority Pass is that you can choose from several membership levels. For $429 per year, you get free, unlimited access to all of the airport lounges in the network. If you don’t travel that often, you can pay $299 for 10 free airport lounge visits, with additional visits beyond that costing $32 each. Or you can buy a $99 membership, then pay $32 every time you access an in-network airport lounge. In addition to entry to traditional lounges, members receive a one-time per-visit credit of $28 – $30 toward food and beverage bills at participating airport restaurants and bars. Top airline credit cards, AmEx Platinum and Chase Sapphire Reserve credit cards, and several other premium cards include Priority Pass membership.
Another nice thing about the Priority Pass is that it includes many of the airlines’ own lounges, such as Air France’s airport lounges at JFK, O’Hare, and San Francisco. The pass doesn’t guarantee that you’ll gain access to all of the airlines’ lounges, however, so you’ll have to check in advance to make sure. For that purpose, Priority Pass offers a smartphone app (iOS | Android) that makes it easier to find your airport lounge and learn whether you can access it, whenever you’re on the go.
Best for: Frequent air travelers who take different airlines.
Pay for a Public Airport Lounge
Who needs to worry about those airline-owned clubs? In some airports, public lounges—which let you pay a fee for comfortable chairs, snacks, Wi-Fi access, small meals, and non-alcoholic beverages—are giving the legacy airport lounges a run for their money. Their business model depends on two revenue sources: pay-to-play visits by individual travelers and per-visit charges paid by individual airlines with insufficient traffic to justify their own lounges for premium-ticket flyers. Day rates can start at around $20; some rates are hourly.
At Cleveland’s airport, for example, you can enter the Airspace Lounge after security in the main terminal and pay from $20 per day. (Airspace also has a lounge at San Diego International Airport.)
At Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, you can buy a day pass to The Club, which proffers shower facilities, free Wi-Fi, and complimentary snacks and beverages for $40. The Club also has lounges at 12 other U.S. airports (including in Boston, Las Vegas, Orlando, and Seattle) as well as at London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports.
In addition, a few smaller chains and one-off lounges operate at a range of other North American airports. For the most part, these programs operate on either a day-fee or airline-referral basis rather than on annual memberships.
International travelers can consider Plaza Premium, which offers buffet meals and drinks; some lounges even offer massage and spa services for an extra fee. Current locations include various airports in Canada, China, Australia, Malaysia, India, and more. Rates vary by location.
Best for: Travelers who want more flexibility than airline lounges provide.
Attain Elite Status
Loyalty does have its privileges. Most airlines offer airport lounge access to their customers who make elite status, with benefits that extend throughout the network.
Make Altitude Elite 50k status on Air Canada or Premier Gold on United, for example, and you’ll get access to most of the Star Alliance airport lounges around the world (there are limitations, however, as some lounges restrict Gold access to passengers flying internationally). The SkyTeam Airline Alliance, made up of Delta, Air France, KLM, and other airlines, offers airport lounge access for certain elite members, as does the Oneworld alliance, which is spearheaded by American Airlines.
Best for: Frequent travelers who fly exclusively, or almost exclusively, on one airline or alliance.
Use Your Credit Card to Access Airport Lounges
Getting a credit card that offers airport lounge privileges is perhaps one of the easiest ways to ensure that you’ll never be stuck on the concourse again, although some of these cards carry hefty annual fees.
Take the American Express Platinum Card. For a $550 annual fee, the card gives you VIP access to hundreds of airport lounges around the world, through Priority Pass, Airspace, and Escape Lounges, as well as access to American Express Global Lounges. The card also provides free entry into Delta Sky Clubs, waives foreign transaction charges, and gives you $200 in credits toward airline fees, such as those imposed for checked bags.
Airline credit cards can come with airport lounge perks, too. The United Explorer Card, for example, gives you two one-time-use passes to get into United Clubs, plus other travel extras; there’s no fee for the first year, and then you’ll pay $95 per year thereafter. Select credit cards from Air Canada and Delta also include free or discounted day passes.
Caveat: Before you apply for any credit card, read the fine print to make sure that your spending and traveling habits make getting a card worthwhile.
Best for: Big spenders who don’t mind paying annual fees for perks, as well as occasional flyers who are willing to pay a smaller annual fee for a limited number of airport lounge day passes.
Be a Guest at (or Buy Your Way into) Airport Lounges
And finally, there’s always the kindness of strangers. Some people on travel forums such as FlyerTalk say that they gained lounge access by simply standing outside the door and asking people going inside if they would be willing to bring them in as a guest. You can also check for airport lounge guest passes for sale on eBay.
Best for: People who don’t mind asking strangers for favors.
How to Use Airport Lounges: Rules and Resources
Regardless of how you get in, most lounges follow a few base rules. Most are located airside of security, although a few big airports also have landside arrivals lounges. Typically, you need to show a boarding pass for a flight on the day you enter.
The main problem you might encounter is at a large airport with separate terminals: If you can’t find an airside lounge in the terminal you’re using, you may have to go outside security to a different terminal, go through security there to gain access to the lounge, then repeat the process to get back to the terminal you’re using.
Presumably, you don’t need to be convinced that airport lounge features are desirable, but you might have to be convinced to pay up to $450 a year to take advantage of those features. Annual deals look pretty good if you travel often: Check out programs on the airlines you fly the most and on premium credit cards. And if you aren’t sure, try a day pass somewhere to see if you find it worthwhile.
Several websites focus on airport lounges, including locators, prices, and even advance booking of day-use entry. Check LoungeBuddy or LoungeReview, where you’ll find everything you ever wanted to know about lounge access.
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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Chris Gray Faust, Ed Perkins, and Margaret Leahy contributed to this story.