Airport Lounge Access: An Affordable Luxury

I spoke to a cruise executive several months ago who told me that one of her frustrations was that the general public still viewed cruises as a luxury item. Not that it’s a bad thing once you get on the ship, but the image kept people from even exploring the option, since they feared it would be too expensive.

I tend to feel the same way about airport lounges: It’s a great product that doesn’t cost too much, but most people think of them as a luxury. But it isn’t, a fact that you will find out as soon as something goes wrong with your flight. Either of the two types of lounges will help you in that situation.

Airline-Owned Lounges

airport lounge

American Airline Admirals Club Lounge, Buenos Aires                Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Airline lounges are those run by the airlines themselves. They tend to be somewhat cookie cutter, but large and comfortable. Food generally consists of snacks or very light meals, such as soup, but it’s free (although you might end up paying for drinks). Best of all, though, it’s staffed by airline employees. An airline lounge is a comfortable place to wait, but its real value comes when something goes wrong. Flight cancelled? Gonna miss a connection? Got stuck in a middle seat between two Sumu wrestlers? No problem, these are among the best agents that the airlines have. So, how do you get into an airline lounge? Here are some of the most popular*:

  • Buy a membership. Most cost $500-700 annually, with discounts given for members with elite status. Delta Diamond members get free access to SkyClubs. Sound like a lot? Well, if you’re flying once or twice per month, it’s worth it. If you really need access on a particular day, you can buy a day pass.
  • Get a high-end credit card. The Big-3 (American, Delta and United) all have credit cards sub-$500 that will get you lounge access or membership (The former may only get you in if you are flying the airline that day.). The American Express Platinum card will get you into Delta lounges.
  • Fly on the airline (or a partner) in Business or First class internationally. A few select transcontinental routes will also get you in.

Independent Lounges

The bar at the London Gatwick Priority pass lounge

Private lounges are run by independent companies. Some of them include Priority Pass, Escape and American Express. The size, quality and admission rules can all vary, although the American Express Centurion Lounges tend to be fairly consistent. The amenities tend to be better and often include full meals, but again, your experience may be different from airport to airport. I visited an incredible Priority Pass lounge with full waiter service (Everything was free, of course.) at London Gatwick, and then followed it up a few days later at Dublin with a PP lounge that had a few snacks, no air conditioning and non-functioning internet. These lounges are not run by the airlines, so don’t expect assistance with your flight.

  • American Express Centurion Lounges (CL) are highly consistent and provide a top-notch experience. They’re free for Platinum Card and Centurion Card holders and other American Express cardholders can buy passes. The lounges offer meals, drinks, good WiFi and comfortable seating. There are only seven of them now but, if you live in or travel to a city that has one, they’re worth the $450-550 annual fee, even without any other perks.
  • There are over 1,000 Priority Pass Lounges around the world, so they may be your best deal, particularly if you travel internationally. Priority Pass Lounge access generally comes with the high-end credit cards, but be careful of access rules. They’re different for every credit card. Some allow just you in, some allow guests, some make you pay, etc. Most of the high-end Chase cards offer the best rules. Amex Platinum and Citi Prestige are also good. These lounges are privately operated and most people in them have some sort of membership. All of them have food and internet access, but amenities after that might vary. In general, though, the PP lounges are superior to those that the airlines offer, sometimes dramatically. The cards with the best access rules generally have a $450 fee.
  • There are other lounges out there, generally accessible through your credit card. For example, Escape Lounges are in a few airports scattered around the country. They clearly have some growing pains in Minneapolis, where they didn’t serve meals due to a lack of staff and the “high speed WiFi” clocked in at a painful 4-5 Mpbs. You can buy day passes which, at $40-45 are a good value if you have a long layover.

Here’s the point I want to convey: Lounges are an above-average experience that can be a lifesaver (or flight-saver, as the case may be) when needed or simply a nice place to relax after the craziness of security. If you’re a frequent flyer, lounge access of some sort is worth your time and money.


*This list is somewhat basic and doesn’t involve some of the ins and outs of using a partner’s lounge. Generally, though, if you have a business class ticket, you can get into an alliance partner’s space, as well.

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