Airport lounges hold a sort of mystical appeal for the weary budget traveler. What oasis lies behind those discreet doors? What peaceful pleasures are bestowed upon those fortunate enough to cross that threshold? Well, for the most part you’ll find snacks, beverages, comfortable seating, and a generally quieter environment than the terminal gates and food courts. (And sometimes, really magical lounges even have showers.)
Airport lounges can be a much-needed respite, particularly for frequent flyers looking for a moment’s rest amidst a packed schedule and long flight delays or layovers. But access is usually limited to elite frequent flyers or travelers with the means (read: bank account) required to fork over hundreds of dollars a year for membership or elite status.
But if you only want to use a lounge a few to several times a year, there are economical third-party options available, usually in the form of a membership or a pay-as-you-go service. Lounge passes like Priority Pass can also be a great way to save money at the airport if you typically dine or drink on a long layover; pricey airport meals add up quickly. Let’s review two popular examples of these services to weigh the price and advantages of each.
One of the most popular lounge pass options out there, Priority Pass, is a membership service that provides lounge access at a meaningful discount over airline-affiliated lounges. The program offers three membership tiers:
- Standard (for “occasional travelers”): $99 annual fee plus $32 per lounge visit
- Standard Plus (for “regular travelers”): $249 annual fee; covers 10 visits, additional visits are $32 each
- Prestige (for “frequent travelers”): $429, unlimited lounge visits
Right off the bat, the only Priority Pass tiers that really make sense are the Plus and Prestige. Let’s do some quick math: If you opt for the Standard tier and make five lounge visits in a year, your total cost (including the annual fee) would be $259. That’s $10 more than the Standard Plus tier for half as many lounge visits. In other words, Standard is not a good deal.
Fine, let’s say you purchase the Standard and make just three lounge visits instead of five: You’d spend $195 total, or roughly $65 per visit, which we’ll see later is still a substantial overpay for lounge access. Even if you’re using Standard minimally, it’s not a good deal.
Conversely, the Standard Plus option actually delivers decent value if you use it six or more times per year, and especially if you use the full 10. At six visits, the per-visit cost for the Standard Plus would be $41, going down to $25 per visit if you use the full 10. Just $41 is reasonable for a lounge visit, and $25 is relatively cheap, not to mention about how much you probably already spend on a sub-par airport meal in the busy terminal.
Long story short, for most travelers it’s Standard Plus or bust. (Note: Guests are $32 per visit, regardless of tier.)
As for what you get, Priority Pass grants access to 1,200 lounges. The options include a mix of independently-owned and airline-affiliated options, but if you aren’t picky there’s a good chance you’ll find something in your airport. That said, check before you sign up to make sure your most frequented airports and terminals have facilities covered by Priority Pass. In Boston, for example, Priority Pass only offered facilities in Terminals B, C, and E, and the Terminal B option isn’t lounge access at all: it’s a $28 discount at one of the post-security restaurants, instead. Priority Pass has relationships with several credit cards that offer this restaurant credit, but American Express notably reduced its agreement earlier this month.
On the other end of the spectrum we have Lounge Pass, a fairly a straightforward a la carte service that lets you book individual lounge visits. Lounge Pass says you can book these for as little as $19 per visit, but that will vary. The Lounge Pass network is smaller, with just 500 lounges available at 300 airports worldwide.
As for pricing, a quick search of Boston, again, delivered three options (and no odd restaurant discount situations) available for between $35 and $40 per visit. I found similar prices in Seattle ($40), Chicago O’Hare ($40), Dulles in Washington, D.C. ($50), and Newark ($38). Compare these prices to the per-visit cost of a Standard and it’s clear this is the better option for less-frequent travelers, especially considering many of the lounges are the same in both programs.
Priority Pass and Lounge Pass are both owned and operated by the same company, Collinson, which also provides various loyalty and customer experience services to major airlines, as well as to retailers, banks, and other businesses. In effect, these two options are simply different versions of the same product.
Priority Pass does throw in some window-dressing benefits, including vague “exclusive offers,” 24/7 membership support, and a mobile app with a digital membership card and the ability to pre-order take-out from airport restaurants. (But, aren’t the lounges supposed to have food?) These are certainly nice to have, but don’t add significant value to the program.
Ultimately, which version you prefer probably depends on how much money you’re willing to shell out in one purchase, and how often you use or surmise you’d need an airport lounge. Priority Pass is a good pay-ahead option if you fly more often, while Lounge Pass is more pay-as-you-need for less-frequent or non-business travelers.
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Readers, have you ever booked an airport lounge for your travels? What service did you use? Comment below.