When airline lounges were first introduced (at the LGA American Airlines Admirals Club in 1939), a First Class ticket or pricey annual airline club membership were required to gain access. Today, even a First Class ticket is not a guarantee of admission at some U.S. airports. So, what does it take to get into airport lounges these days?
Use Credit Cards with Lounge Access
Airlines earn some 40 percent of their revenues from selling frequent flier miles through credit cards, and some of those promotions are directly linked to airline lounge access. Perhaps the gold standard for this method is the Platinum Card from American Express, which costs $695 annually and offers entrance to more than 40 Amex-branded Centurion Lounges and Escape Lounges, as well as Delta Sky Club airline lounges (when flying Delta), Plaza Premium lounges, AirSpace lounges, International American Express lounges and a host of other benefits and rebates that offset the high fees.
Chase Sapphire Reserve comes in at a close second for free lounge access benefits. The card offers Priority Pass access (otherwise freely available for $99/year) and, soon, Sapphire branded lounge access. It also allows cardholders to bring two guests into the lounge, all for a weighty annual fee of $550 (although partially offset by other offers and benefits).
Admirals Club fans will want the Citi/Advantage Executive World Elite card that, for $450 per year, offers American Airline Admirals Club access and admission to some partnering OneWorld Alliance Lounges. The cardholder can usher in family plus an additional two guests.
Capital One also recently entered the field with its Venture X Rewards card costing $395 per year. Lounge benefits include Priority Pass Lounge access (1,300 and counting) as well as admission to a burgeoning list of Capital One-branded lounges (currently only one lounge is open – at DFW). The cardholder can bring in two guests and add four other authorized users who will then have the same lounge access as the original bearer.
Get a Day Pass
A number of airports around the world offer buy-in admission to non-branded lounges that do not require a membership or a card. Guests pay an entrance fee for comfortable seating and some snacks, beverages and Wi-Fi.
United offers day passes to its United Clubs for $59 through its app. Or frequent flyers can pay $650 or 85,000 bonus miles for an annual membership. And the United Explorer Card offers two single day passes per year to its branded club venues for a $95 fee that starts on the first anniversary.
Then, there are Centurion Studios—also known as Escape Lounges—which have a couple of dozen locations in the U.S. and ask $40 for admission online and 24 hours in advance, or $5 more at the door.
The LoungeBuddy app allows users to gain access to airport lounge passes starting at $25 through the company’s proprietary relationships. The app also offers an easy way to locate accessible and lesser known lounge options in the airport you are passing through, often with discounts into those venues.
Buy an International Business Class Ticket
Those traveling internationally in Business Class or First Class will automatically be waved past the lounge admission desk. The ticket may have been purchased with points, be a free ticket issued by the airline, or a discounted ticket purchased from a consolidator. No matter: It will still be recognized as proper same-day fare for admission to the lounge connected to the airline at the departure airport.
The Bottom Line
Lounge access for flyers is a bit of a shell game: you may think you deserve access, but the rules change and suddenly you don’t. Plus, with demand often outstripping supply in some locations, airline lounges can afford to get cagey—for instance, asking more for access or offering less. Delta Sky Club recently began restricting time spent at certain lounges to three hours from departure time. Some airports, specifically JFK, restrict Priority Pass lounge access to members during peak hours, depending on the crowds. For now, lounges are becoming more accessible—you just need to find the right way in.