8 Ways to Access Fancy Airport Lounges

By Jason Steele · April 22, 2023 · 7 minute read

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8 Ways to Access Fancy Airport Lounges

Waiting around an airport isn’t most people’s idea of fun. But perhaps you’ve noticed the swanky entrances to hidden airport lounges, or heard about them from a friend.

Private airport lounges offer a comfortable refuge from the crowded waiting areas by the gates. They’re a place to recharge (yourself and your devices), have a glass of wine, and sample upscale prepared foods that are a major improvement over that bag of chips from the vending machine.

These facilities are typically only accessible via a pricey plane ticket or membership. Here, you can learn ways to enjoy luxury airport lounges, for a fee or possibly even for free.

How Do Airport Lounges Work?

There are several types of airport lounges, and they vary from basic to luxurious. The no-frills lounges simply have snacks and drinks, while the most lavish will feature such complimentary perks as a full buffet, table-service restaurant, open bar, and even showers. The seats are way more comfortable than what you find in the standard waiting area, and you may have your choice of reading materials and streaming shows.

Not only can this help fill the time before your flight, but it can save money on food in the airport or onboard your flight, which can be one way families can afford to travel.

If you are traveling with pets, you may find a lounge that allows you to hang out with little Bailey in less crowded conditions than the main terminal. This can be more comfortable for you and your furbaby.

There are a few main types of lounges:

•   The original airport lounges were run by the airlines, and several major carriers still offer lounges at the airports they use as hubs. In the U.S., American, Delta, and United offer large lounge networks, while Alaska Airlines has a much smaller network. Some foreign carriers also offer lounges at major international gateways, such as New York’s JFK and Los Angeles.

•   Another type of airport lounge is the contract lounge. These are third-party facilities that are open to those who have membership with an affiliated network. These lounges are also used for business and first class passengers of airlines that don’t have their own branded lounge. In the U.S., the most common lounge network is Priority Pass Select, which offers members access to over 1,300 lounges around the world. There are numerous travel rewards credit cards that offer a Priority Pass Select membership.

•   You’ll also see lounges that are branded with the name of a credit card issuer, for use by its premium cardholders. The American Express Centurion lounges are the largest credit card lounge network. Capital One and Chase are also in the process of constructing their own branded lounge network. These lounges tend to be the most luxurious.

•   Finally, there are USO lounges that are available to U.S. Armed Forces active duty, Reserve, and Guard service members, as well as their families.

How to Access Airport Lounges for Free

With most lounge networks, the easiest way to gain entry is to purchase a membership or a day pass. However, there are some ways to access airport lounges without forking over cash.

Open a Premium Travel Rewards Credit Card

There are several travel credit cards that offer the perk of airport lounge access. For example:

•   The American Express Platinum Card offers lounge membership with the Delta SkyClubs, Priority Pass Select, and American Express Centurion lounges.

•   The Chase Sapphire Reserve offers a Priority Pass Select membership.

•   The premium airline credit cards from American, Delta, and United each offer membership to their branded lounges.

When you’re deciding about which credit card rewards are most valuable to you, consider whether luxury airport lounge access is an important factor.

Recommended: How Does Credit Card Travel Insurance Work?

Trade in Miles or Use Credits

Another way to enter fancy lounges for free is to redeem airline miles for a membership (you might also be able to redeem credit card miles vs. cash back to gain access). For example, you can redeem 85,000 United miles for a United Club membership, rather than paying the $650 annual fee. Since you are receiving less than one cent in value per mile redeemed, this is considered a poor use of your miles, but no judgment. If it works for you, go for it!

Fly in Business Class or International First Class

When you have a ticket in business class or in international first class, nearly every airline will give you a pass to an airport lounge. It could be a lounge branded by that airline, especially in their main hubs. But if you are traveling from a city with little service on that airline, you’ll likely get a pass to a contract lounge.

Befriend a Business or First Class Passenger

One of the great things about flying in international business or first class is that you will often receive a lounge pass that includes guest access. So if you are flying in economy class but have a friend or colleague with a business class ticket, he or she may be able to “guest” you into the lounge. Likewise, many Priority Pass Select memberships come with access for two guests. If you have a friend or family member with lounge access, you could possibly enter as a guest.

Claim Free Access for Active Military

If you’re an active duty member of the U.S. military, then you may have free access to some lounges. For example, both United and American offer free access to active duty military personnel and their families. However, they may require that you be in uniform and traveling on orders.

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Access Airport Lounges for a Fee

If you’re unable to access an airport lounge for free, you might consider paying for it. Here are some ways to do just that:

Buying an Airport Lounge Pass

Airport lounge memberships are available for sale, either through an airline that brands the lounge, or through a network such as Priority Pass Select. Memberships generally start at a few hundred a year, but discounts are available for those with elite status in the airline’s frequent flier program. If you’re saving up for a few upcoming flights, you might also consider stashing away the price of a lounge pass where you keep a travel fund.

Buy a Day Pass

Many lounges (but not all) offer day passes that can cost $50 per person or more. The Lounge Buddy app also sells discounted access to certain airport lounges. Depending on your situation — how much time you have to fill before your flight, whether you’re hungry or thirsty, whether you need a quiet place to work — this might be a good buy.

Upgrade Your Ticket

If you are on an international flight and are seated in business or first class, then you’ll already have access to the lounges. But rather than pay full price for these tickets, you may be able to book a less pricey class of service and then buy up to business class at check in, perhaps for just a few hundred dollars. Doing so will also result in a pass to the airport lounge.

The Takeaway

When you have to spend time in an airport waiting for your flight, the lounge can be a comfortable place to do it, with comfortable seating, free food and drinks, and other amenities that can make killing time feel luxurious. While it can be expensive to buy membership to a lounge, you may be able to access a luxury airport lounge for free, especially if you have the right credit card. Or you might be able to buy your way in for a modest fee by purchasing a day pass or trying another smart-traveler tactic.

Whether you're looking to build credit, apply for a new credit card, or save money with the cards you have, it's important to understand the options that are best for you. Learn more about credit cards by exploring this credit card guide.

FAQ

Is it worth it to pay for airport lounge access?

If you’re taking a short trip and you want to arrive at the airport as close to departure as possible, then there’s no reason to pay for airport lounge access. But if you have a long layover in the middle of a trip or a long flight ahead, then lounge access can be worth paying for. Also, under certain circumstances, such as needing to finish a work deliverable before your flight, a luxury airport lounge is a much more comfortable place to work.

Which airport lounges are the best?

International first class lounges, where available, are often the most luxurious. The American Express Centurion lounges are also known to feature gourmet food and drinks. Some Priority Pass Select lounges have well-regarded food options, while others are pretty basic. Domestic airline lounges can be pretty spartan.

Which credit card is best for airport lounge access?

The decision of which credit card is best for airport lounge access will depend on personal preference but two options are well-known. The American Express Platinum Card offers access to Delta SkyClubs, Priority Pass Select, and American Express Centurion lounges. The Sapphire Reserve Card offers a Priority Pass Select membership that also includes credits at select airport restaurants.


Photo credit: iStock/andresr

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

Third-Party Brand Mentions: No brands, products, or companies mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third-party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.

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