When you’re waiting out a long airport layover, nothing seems more enticing than the airport lounge. With amenities such as free Wi-Fi, drinks, snacks, and glossy magazines that you’ve never seen before (and may never see again), the lounges feel like the answer to most of your air travel annoyances. At the very least, they can give you sanctuary from concourse noise and hubbub.
Entrance to most lounges comes gratis with a first- or business-class ticket. But for those 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. And when you’re the one sinking into the cushy armchair instead of clamoring for a seat at the gate, you’ll be glad to have a respite from the usual air travel irritations.
Following are a few ways that savvy travelers can score airport lounge access, even if their tickets read “coach.”
Buy a Day Pass
Several airlines sell day passes to their lounges, allowing you to relax in comfort without any long-term commitment. At Alaska Airlines, you can buy a one-day pass for the airline’s lounges for $45. American, United, and Delta charge $59 for lounge access.
Keep in mind that most of these airline passes are limited to U.S. domestic lounges. If you’re traveling internationally, you might want to check out LoungePass.com, which sells day passes to hundreds of lounges worldwide, including several at London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports. While passes start at $19, most of the lounges restrict the amount of time you can spend there to three hours, and some only offer them to passengers flying within that country. Check before you buy.
Best for: Casual travelers.
Invest in a Lounge Membership
It used to be that all business travelers worth their salt carried a lounge membership card with their preferred airline, often bought on the company dime. Those perks are mostly gone now, with road warriors finding more flexible ways to get access (see elite status and credit cards 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 clubs, such as the Star Alliance or Oneworld, which will help if you’re traveling internationally.
If you go this route, expect to pay $450 to $550 for an annual membership. Before you buy, you’ll also want to check to make sure that the destinations you visit the most actually have lounges; as a rule, you only find clubs in the world’s busier airports.
Best for: Frequent travelers who know they’ll be relying on one airline or alliance.
Try a Third-Party Vendor
If you have a hard time booking flights on only one airline, a lounge membership through a third party might make more sense. PriorityPass.com offers access to more than 1,200 lounges worldwide for an annual fee.
What’s nice about Priority Pass is that you can choose from several membership levels. For $399 a year, you get free unlimited access to all of the clubs in the network. If you don’t travel that often, you can pay $249 for 10 free visits, with additional visits costing $27. Or you can simply buy a $99 membership and then pay $27 each time you go.
Another nice thing about Priority Pass is that it includes many of the airlines’ own lounges, such as Air France lounges at JFK, O’Hare, and San Francisco. The pass doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get into all of the airlines’ lounges, however, so you’ll have to check (Priority Pass has a smartphone app that makes it a little easier to find your lounge when you’re on the go).
Best for: Frequent air travelers who take different airlines.
Visit a Public Pay-In Lounge
Who needs to worry about those airline-owned clubs? In some airports, public lounges—where you pay a fee for comfortable chairs, snacks, Wi-Fi access, small meals, and non-alcoholic beverages—are giving the legacy lounges a run for their money.
At the Cleveland airport, for example, you can enter the Airspace Lounge after security in the main terminal and pay from $20 per day. (Airspace also has lounges at New York-JFK and San Diego.) At Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International, you can buy a day pass to The Club. There are shower facilities, free Wi-Fi, and complimentary snacks and beverages. The Club also has lounges at 10 other U.S. airports as well as two London airports.
International travelers may want to check out Plaza Premium, which offers buffet meals, drinks, and—crucial for those making long-haul flights—showers in many lounges. Some even have 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 lounge perks for customers who make elite status, with benefits that extend throughout the network.
Make Elite 50K status on Air Canada or Premier Gold status on United, for example, and you’ll gain access to most of the Star Alliance lounges around the world (there are limitations, however, as some lounges restrict Gold access to passengers flying internationally). The SkyTeam alliance, made up of Delta, Air France, KLM, and other airlines, has similar perks for Elite Plus members, as does the Oneworld alliance spearheaded by American Airlines.
Best for: Frequent travelers who fly exclusively on one airline.
Use Your Credit Card
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 access to hundreds of lounges around the world through Priority Pass, Airspace, and Escape Lounges, as well as access to American Express International 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 lounge perks too. The United MileagePlus Explorer card gives you two one-time-use passes to United Clubs, along with other travel extras, for $95 a year.
Caveat: Before you apply for any credit card, read the fine print and 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 willing to pay a smaller annual fee for a limited number of day passes.
Be a Guest (or Buy Your Way in)
And finally, there’s always the kindness of strangers. Some people on travel forums such as eBay.com and .say they’ve gained lounge access by simply standing outside the door and asking people going inside if they will bring them in as a guest. And FlyerTalk itself has a Coupon Connection section where frequent posters are able to swap lounge passes (you need to have a certain number of posts on the site to join). Other places to check for guest passes are
Best for: People who don’t mind asking strangers for favors.
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—written by Chris Gray Faust
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.