Airports aren’t exactly oases of tranquility. Stressed-out crowds full of weary travelers, long security lines, packed bathrooms, uncomfortable chairs at waiting areas, slow (and usually not free) Wi-Fi are just a few of the common inconveniences.
That’s why airport lounges, those seemingly exclusive sanctuaries behind glass doors or concealed from the masses, can be incredibly enticing. Most airport lounges offer amenities like comfortable seating, peace and quiet, plenty of power outlets, free Wi-Fi and snacks and beverages. Swankier lounges may offer places for travelers to shower, enjoy premium food, and take advantage of luxuries like day beds and personal assistants.
“Airport lounges can be an amazing getaway,” said Tyler Dikman, CEO and co-founder of LoungeBuddy, a smartphone app that helps users find airport lounges around the world. “Whether you’re just getting off a red-eye and can hop in a shower and grab some breakfast at the lounge, or your flight’s delayed two hours and the gatehold area is full of upset people, the airport lounge can make all the difference.”
Another benefit of airport lounges are the personnel who work there. If a flight is delayed or canceled, most passengers rush to the one or two gate agents to help with rebooking or changes. But, says Dikman, “When you’re in a lounge, you typically have access to much more senior agents who are more experienced in being able to solve problems.”
If you’re flying domestically in the U.S., a first-class ticket (and sometimes business-class) typically earns you entrance to your airline’s lounge. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us flying coach have to be shut out. Here’s how you can get in:
Obtain elite status.
“At the highest elite levels of frequent flier status, you usually have access to your airline’s lounge,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of IndependentTraveler.com. But this typically applies to international travel, not domestic, she added. United Airlines, for example, gives its Premier Gold and higher members Star Alliance Gold status, which qualifies them for lounge access, also on its international partner airlines within Star Alliance, such as Air Canada, Germany's Lufthansa or Singapore Airlines.
Buy a yearly pass.
Most airlines sell yearly memberships to their clubs. For example, the Delta Sky Club annual membership costs $450 or 70,000 Delta miles. United and American both charge $500 for their annual lounge memberships. These, of course, make sense only if you travel frequently and on the same airline. For travelers like Muhammed Chaudhry, such memberships are a no-brainer. Based in San Jose, Chaudhry is the president and CEO of Silicon Valley Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization. He says he flies frequently for work and easily racks up 100,000 flight miles each year. His yearly pass to the United Club has been indispensable; he frequently takes advantage of fast Wi-Fi, snacks, coffee and a quiet place to work.
Sign up for the right credit card.
But Chaudhry isn't limited to United’s lounges. He also owns the American Express Platinum Card, which entitles him access to Delta’s Sky Clubs, American Express Centurion Lounges, and more than 600 other airport lounges around the world. Of course, that access doesn’t come cheap: The card’s annual membership fee is $450. (It comes with many other travel perks, like a $200 fee credit on any airline and reimbursements for Global Entry or TSA Pre-Check programs that many say help the card pay for itself.) Citi Prestige World Elite MasterCard, which costs $450 a year, grants unlimited entry to American Airlines’ Admirals Clubs, plus access to 600 other airport lounges worldwide. The Dr. Credit Card website rounds up some of the other credit cards that offer lounge access here.
Buy a network membership.
Both the American Express and MasterCard mentioned above actually offer membership to Priority Pass, an independent airport lounge program, as a perk that allows their cardholders access to more than 600 airport lounges around the world. If you’d rather not open up another credit card, you can join the Priority Pass program directly. Standard membership is $99 a year, and you pay $27 per visit to any of the network’s lounges. Standard Plus membership costs $249 and includes 10 free lounge visits ($27 per visit after that). Its Prestige membership costs $399 and allows unlimited lounge access.
Buy a day pass.
Many airlines now sell day passes, and for most travelers, a one-time pass probably makes the most sense. Most passes cost around $50. “If it’s a decent lounge, with decent food, it’s worth it during a long layover,” said Brown. And there are ways to get a discount, as well. If you own a co-branded Delta credit card, for example, you can access the Delta SkyClubs for $29. And some airlines will offer a discount pass to the lounge if you buy it when you book your ticket. For international travel, check out LoungePass.com, which sells day passes to 150 lounges worldwide, or Plaza-Network.com, which allows you to book space in one of its independent lounges from its network around the world.
But before you buy a day pass, remember that all lounges aren’t created equal. “If you are going to pay for a few hours of relaxation, you need to make sure there is ample space to do so,” said Zachary Einzig of the app GateGuru, which helps travelers find amenities at airports around the world. “Airports can be crowded and hectic places, and it's important to make sure that a lounge can accommodate a rush and provide an oasis.”
Brown agrees. “A good airport lounge can provide a little bit of sanity in an insanely chaotic experience,” she said. “But with more access, lounges are becoming more democratic but also more chaotic. For example, I wouldn’t pay $50 for the United lounge in Newark. It’s like a bus depot.”
LoungeBuddy, which is free on both Android and iOS, is an app that every lounge-seeker should have on his or her smartphone. It can help you avoid the “bus depot” lounges of the world. The app features 1,800 lounges at 550 of the world's busiest airports. Each lounge profile details the amenities available, showcases pictures, and includes user reviews. So if you’re in Atlanta, for example, you’ll know to avoid the Delta Sky Club in Concourse B, which one reviewer described as “the worst club in Atlanta and possibly the entire Delta system.” Instead, you might choose the Sky Club in Concourse C, which has been newly renovated and elicits all positive reviews. Day passes for both clubs cost $50 ($29 for Delta credit card holders).
But most importantly, LoungeBuddy tells you which lounges you have access to by analyzing your trip details. You simply tell the app which credit cards you own, which, if any lounge memberships you’ve paid for, elite status on the airlines you travel, and your trip details with airline and itinerary.
“We have about 11,000 access rules baked into the app,” said Dikman. “For example, say you have Gold Elite status on United. You may not realize that when you’re traveling domestically, you have access to Lufthansa’s Senator Lounge in Newark. The app will tell you that.”
For example, if you’re flying on United from LaGuardia Airport in New York City, you may contemplate buying the $50 access to the United Club in Terminal B. But the LoungeBuddy app will tell you, if you own an American Express card, that you also have access for $50 to the swanky new American Express Centurion Lounge there, which which features premium food like frittatas with fresh tomatoes, udon noddles or fried chicken with a honey lemon glaze at no extra cost. And a meal like that before a long flight could make all the difference in the world.