It’s an oasis of calm in the typical big airport’s otherwise hostile environment. Comfortable seats. Big-screen TV. Good Wi-Fi. Lots of free snacks, maybe even full meals. Free booze. Sometimes even showers.
That’s what you get in one of today’s airport lounges. Unless you’re booked on a first-class ticket, you have to pay to get in—but what you get is often well worth the tab.
How to Access an Airport Lounge
Here are four ways to get into an airport lounge, and what it could cost you.
1. Buy a Premium Ticket
A first- or business-class ticket almost always automatically gets you into a lounge operated by or for the airline on which you’re flying or a partner line. You don’t have to pay extra—although you probably already paid a lot—and travel companions may also be included.
At a giant airline’s major airport, you’ll probably find a lounge operated by that airline or one of its partners. At big U.S. international hubs, small international airlines either arrange to use another line’s lounge, or contract one of the many independent lounges that are springing up at large airports (more on those later).
2. Join an Airline Lounge Program
Lounges started out in 1939 by the then-giant airlines as facilities for VIPs and recognized frequent flyers. The no-fee membership system was by invitation only. Following a legal challenge in 1966, though, the lines switched to annual paid memberships.
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, JetBlue, and Southwest do not operate their own lounge programs, and they don’t participate with other programs, either.
The annual membership fee in a big-line program ranges from $550 in American and United to $299 on Hawaiian, with discounts for elite-level frequent flyers and various extra-cost family options. Memberships typically include admission to partner-line lounges, at least at some airports. Most airline programs also offer single-use day passes for $40-$60. Base-level co-branded credit cards on Air Canada and United include a given number of day passes each year; base-level Delta cards offer discounted day use entry.
Top-level credit cards co-branded by American, Delta, and United, with annual fees of $450, automatically include membership in the sponsoring line’s lounge program. Annual fees on these cards are less than the annual stand-alone club membership costs, plus the cards offer lots of other benefits. They’re a great option unless your credit doesn’t qualify you.
3. Pay an Independent Lounge
In recent years, independent operators have started building and operating pay-to-enter airport lounges at airports around the world. 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.
The two largest such chains are Aspire and Plaza Premium, both with more than two dozen locations around the world, mostly in Asia and Europe, but none in the States. Most locations are in departure areas, but a few are also in arrivals areas.
Other lounge chains operating in North America include The Club, which operates lounges at 11 U.S. airports plus London, and Escape, with a handful of U.S. and U.K. locations. 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. Day rates can start at around $25; some rates are hourly.
American Express operates Centurion Lounges at eight locations in the U.S. plus Hong Kong. Holders of American Express Platinum and Centurion cards get free access to Centurion clubs. Initially, entry was also available for a $50 day charge to holders of other AmEx cards, but that option has apparently been cancelled due to heavy use by premium card holders.
4. Independent Lounge Access Programs
Arguably, the most important recent lounge development is the growth of Priority Pass, which provides access to more than 1,200 lounges around the world. Participating lounges include a mix of airline, airport, and independent locations, mostly in international departure areas. It offers three membership levels: Standard, at $99 per year, provides unlimited visits at $27 each, about half the typical day-pass cost; Standard Plus, at $249 per year, provides 10 free visits plus additional visits at $27 each; Prestige, at $399 per year, provides unlimited free visits. Top airline credit cards, AmEx Platinum and Chase Sapphire Reserve credit cards, and several other premium cards include full Priority Pass membership.
Priority Pass has recently added a new bonus: In addition to entry to traditional lounges, members receive a one-time per-visit credit of $28 toward food and beverage bills at participating airport restaurants and bars.
Airport Lounge 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 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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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.