To weary travelers, the airport travel lounge seems like an oasis. Sure, you could spend your layover in the boarding area, but that means fighting strangers for elbow room and electrical outlets. If you're spending a decent amount of time at the airport, that's no way to live.
So, what's so different about airport lounges? The exact amenities vary by airport and airline, but most offer premium beverages, comfortable seating, complimentary snacks, and high-speed internet access. Some offer additional perks including private showers, private phone booths, child playrooms, and sleeping areas. They're great places to refresh between flights, particularly on long layovers.
Perhaps most importantly, travel lounges are often the quietest places in an airport. If you're the type of person who likes to thumb through a newspaper, perform some light work, or simply zone out before a flight, you'll appreciate the serenity. Most also have dedicated airline employees to help travelers change seating assignments, get upgrades, or verify flight details, and because lounges are typically near gates, they make boarding a much simpler process.
There's just one problem: Airline travel lounges are notoriously expensive. United Airlines' United Club charges $550 for an annual membership, while Delta's Sky Club costs $545 per year (or $50 in monthly installments). Delta's “executive" Sky Club, which allows for two guests per visit, costs $845 per year. Hawaiian Airlines' Premier Club costs $299 per year, but most of their travel lounges are in -- you guessed it -- Hawaii.
So, are annual memberships worth the considerable cost? You'll have to do some math to decide, but as a rule of thumb, they're generally not worth the investment unless you'd use the services at least 10 times a year. If you travel for business and frequently need a quiet work space, you can justify spending a few hundred dollars for the privilege.
For the vast majority of travelers, however, annual memberships aren't really an option. Fortunately, there are other ways to get into a travel lounge -- some of which are better than others.
If you're not plunking down hundreds of dollars for an annual pass, a day pass might seem like an affordable alternative. Day passes typically cost between $29 and $75. That's not exactly cheap, but if you're stuck on a lengthy layover, it might be worth the expense. That's especially true for working vacations; chances are, you'll be much more productive in a quiet travel lounge than a busy waiting area, so your day pass might quickly pay for itself.
Before traveling, check to see what each airport offers. Cleveland's Airspace Lounge, for instance, offers single-day memberships for as little as $20 (although when we tried to book the lounge, we saw a more typical rate of $35, with a $5 discount for active military).
The Airspace Lounge offers “complimentary [beverages], small snacks, WiFi, and use of our private restrooms,” plus a nondescript “credit toward other menu items.” That's a pretty solid value at an affordable rate.
Unfortunately, private lounge availability varies greatly by airport, and many airline lounges restrict access to first- or business-class passengers...or anyone with the right credit card.
This option is best for: Infrequent flyers who want to try a travel lounge without making a long-term commitment.
Many airlines offer travel credit cards with lounge benefits. The United MileagePlus Explorer Visa, for instance, offers two “free" lounge passes per year. We put “free" in quotations, because the card has a $95 annual fee after its first year. However, the card's other benefits -- two miles for each $1 spent on United purchase, one free checked bag per flight, and priority boarding, along with a host of other perks -- might help to justify the cost.
That's not really the case with the American Airlines AAdvantage Executive card. It provides an annual membership in the Admirals Club, but costs a whopping $450 per year (and since the airline requires AAdvantage membership for lounge access, it's basically a means of charging membership fees via credit).
You don't have to use an airline's branded credit card to gain lounge access. American Express's Platinum card provides access to more than 1,200 airport lounges in 130 countries (“and counting,” per the card's website). That includes Centurion and International American Express lounges, which often have luxurious amenities when compared with airline lounges. The card has a hefty $550 annual fee, but comes with a host of other benefits including $200 in U.S. Uber credits annually.
If you're considering a travel credit card, be sure to read the fine print. Make sure that the card offers ongoing access to lounges -- not just one or two entries per year -- and check to see whether you'll be able to bring guests. Watch out for high annual fees, and make sure that the additional benefits justify the hassle of opening a new line of credit.
That said, if you travel frequently, opening a credit card might be a smarter decision than paying for lounge access outright. We'd recommend trying a few day passes before taking the plunge. Make sure that you'll actually use the available amenities and that you're not simply tempted into an expensive purchase by the prospect of free pretzels and unlimited drinks.
This option is best for: Infrequent flyers who don't mind opening a line of credit to get a few perks.
Some airlines allow lounge access regardless of your flight class, provided that you've accumulated enough miles. United Club, for example, allows travelers to purchase an annual membership for 70,000 miles.
By gaining Elite status with your airline -- which usually means racking up 50,000 miles or more per year -- you may be able to gain travel lounge access. Air Canada offers lounge access at 35,000 miles, while the oneworld loyalty program (an airline alliance that provides combined access to American Airlines AAdvantage, Finnair Plus, Qatar Airways Privilege Club, and various other airline loyalty programs) offers lounge access when members attain Sapphire status. That usually means racking up around 60,000 miles, although the program's qualification algebra is fairly complicated.
The downside here is that you generally need to stick with a single airline, but alliance programs like oneworld, Star Alliance, and SkyTeam make the process slightly less restrictive. If you travel regularly, look into your airline's policies -- it's possible that you've been eligible for lounge access for a while without realizing it.
This option is best for: Frequent flyers who stick with a few airlines. If you're not racking up a ton of miles, this probably isn't the best option, but check with your preferred airline to see whether you qualify.
If you're looking for a travel lounge, but you're not particularly picky, you might consider working with a third-party vendor. The most well-known option is Priority Pass, a network that includes more than 1,200 restaurants, mini-suites, and, of course, airport lounges.
Those numbers sound fairly impressive, but many Priority Pass lounges are located outside of the United States. Because they offer a variety of lounge experiences -- some of their lounges are private, while others are associated with specific airlines -- quality varies significantly by location.
The main advantage of the Priority Pass program is its low cost. An unlimited annual membership is available for $429, which is significantly less than what you'd pay for an airline's proprietary lounge. A standard membership is available for $99, but after paying your membership fee, you'll still have to shell out $32 per travel lounge visit.
Priority Pass offers a smartphone app, which you can use to verify lounge availability and access at your airport (and avoid a potentially embarrassing situation).
Despite the caveats, Priority Pass is a worthwhile option for some travelers. If the program has lounges in the airports you travel through, it's worth a look -- just be sure to consider the membership options carefully before you sign up.
This option is best for: International travelers who don't qualify for lounge access via other means.
Lounge Pass is another private pass vendor with a network of 400 airport lounges at over 250 airports worldwide. Unlike Priority Pass, Lounge Pass doesn't require a membership. Its selection is slightly limited; at the time of writing, the service offered lounges in 19 U.S. cities.
Still, Lounge Pass offers a simple way of securing a spot at lounges in Chicago's O'Hare, Los Angeles's LAX, and several other major airports. Prices vary, but Lounge Pass seemed to offer access at lounges that weren't otherwise open to the public. Access to the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, for example, cost $45.
Lounge Pass offers clear information on lounge amenities, and, in general, we found that it offered decent access at accessible prices. Still, you'll want to book your pass early to make sure that you've got a spot -- and download your pass to your smartphone before you show up at the airport.
This option is best for: Infrequent travelers looking for a deal on a day pass to a mid-tier lounge.
The third private pass vendor we found was LoungeBuddy, which offers access to more than 450 travel lounges worldwide. We immediately noticed that their selection wasn't identical to Lounge Pass's network, so if you're using a third-party vendor to book a travel lounge, you should compare the sites' options to make sure that you're getting the best possible rates and amenities.
LoungeBuddy offers a “best price guarantee,” so if you find a cheaper day pass, you can get a refund equal to the difference in the costs of access. The site seems to offer lounges at most major airports in the United States. However, your options are often limited -- in Chicago's O'Hare, for instance, the only available option is the Air France lounge at a not-unreasonable $49.
There's also a LoungePass smartphone app, which is useful if you're reading this article on the concourse. It uses your location to present available options, then allows you to purchase lounge access in seconds. The downside: Some major airports, including LAX, don't have any LoungeBuddy lounges.
This option is best for: Once again, infrequent travelers looking for a deal on a day pass to a mid-tier lounge. We recommend checking prices between LoungeBuddy and Lounge Pass before booking.
If you're flying with friends who have lounge access, check to see whether their membership allows guests. If so, you could get a day pass for free or at a highly discounted rate (typical rates hover around $29 per guest).
When all else fails, you could also hang around the lounge area and ask to be someone’s “guest.” Frequent travelers are often friendly folk, and provided that you meet a lounge's other requirements (for example, Qatar Airlines lounge guests must actually have a ticket for a Qatar Airlines flight), you'll be able to get in.
Forums like flyertalk.com are full of posts from people looking for lounge passes, so if you're particularly thrifty, this method could certainly work. Of course, for some travelers, the hassle isn't worthwhile.
This option is best for: Outgoing people who don't mind making a new friend to enjoy some free snacks and drinks.
If you find yourself using lounges on every trip and you're not interested in obsessively counting miles, remember that annual memberships aren't always a bad idea. $500 might seem steep, but it's cheaper than a dozen $50-a-day passes.
However, before you sign up for an annual membership, check to make sure that your airline actually has lounges in all of your frequent travel destinations. Amenities vary greatly by airport, and some airlines restrict certain amenities to certain types of travelers. Make sure that you know what you're buying -- if private showers, for instance, are important to you, you'll want to make sure your membership actually grants access to that amenity. If you frequently travel with a spouse or friend, you'll want to make sure that you'll be able to bring guests, too.
A final word of advice: Don't assume that the travel lounge experience is the same everywhere. If you've only visited one or two lounges, you might have some misconceptions, and you certainly don't want to pay $50 or more without doing some research.
Look online for lounge information and check user ratings before booking. The aforementioned LoungeBuddy is a great resource; you can quickly find amenities, hours of operation, and access details, along with clear directions for locating the lounge. The site also lets you know if walk-ins are accepted.
If you typically spend your pre-flight time sitting on the concourse, lounges can offer a substantial upgrade to your travel experience. They're well worth the expense, provided that you actually use all of the available amenities. Just be sure to do your research first -- the only thing worse than missing out on a travel lounge is paying for one that you don't enjoy.
Photo Credit: Pixabay / juliaorige