Getting Airport Lounge Access on the Cheap

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If you travel frequently for business, airport lounge access is nice to have, though it can be costly. Here are some tips to take the bite out of the cost.

When you have time to kill before a flight, the most comfortable place to be is in an airport lounge. Airlines, airports and other providers operate these lounges, and each one includes useful amenities for business travelers wanting to be productive at the airport. 

Lounge access can be costly, though, with day passes usually running around $50. Since you typically won’t spend more than two hours in an airport lounge, it’s not worth it to overpay. Fortunately, there are other methods to access them.

Do you need airport lounge access?

While the exact amenities depend on the lounge, most offer free Wi-Fi, complimentary drinks (alcoholic and nonalcoholic), snacks, and entertainment, such as televisions and magazines. The seating is far more comfortable than in the boarding area and lounges are much quieter. Some include meeting rooms for additional privacy.

If you’re a frequent business traveler who works remotely, lounge access is nice to have. It’s easier to get work done, and you’ll have a more professional area to make calls, away from the typical airport noise. If you simply value comfort while you travel, you can gain access to airport lounges without breaking the bank every time you fly.

How to access airport lounges

Purchasing a business-class or first-class ticket grants you access to that airline’s lounges, provided it has one at your departure airport. But if you usually book economy tickets, it doesn’t make sense to spend several hundred dollars or twice as many frequent flyer miles solely for lounge access.

Annual memberships are a more economical option. These typically cost between $350 and $550, although airlines offer discounts to travelers who have reached elite status tiers. Another option is a priority pass membership, which isn’t attached to any airline and instead has a network of select lounges. A priority pass has three levels of membership available, with its Prestige option providing unlimited lounge access for $399 per year.

By far the best choice from a value perspective is signing up for lounge access with a credit card. Every airline has at least one credit card with this benefit. The annual fee for most of these cards is $450, which is similar to an annual membership in an airline’s lounge program. These credit cards also include other benefits, such as free checked bags and bonus frequent flyer miles, so you gain more from paying with a credit card than you would if you paid a similar amount for just a lounge membership.

Airline credit cards aren’t the only cards with lounge access. American Express, Chase, Citi, and U.S. Bank all offer premium credit cards that include lounge access as one of their perks. Make sure you read the fine print, because lounge networks and terms of access vary from card to card. For example, both the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve include a free priority pass membership. However, the Sapphire Reserve offers unlimited lounge visits, and you can bring guests free of charge. The Altitude Reserve only offers four free lounge visits and four free guest visits per year, after which it costs $27 per visit.

Lounge access is one area where American Express leads the pack. Its Platinum card has the largest lounge network of any credit card, and this includes the American Express Centurion lounges, which are top of the line.

The best airport lounges in the United States

While most airport lounges provide an excellent experience, a select few go above and beyond. 

American Express Centurion lounges

The American Express Centurion Lounges in Dallas (DFW), Houston (IAH), Las Vegas (LAS), New York (LGA), Miami (MIA) and Seattle (SEA) are worth visiting if your travels take you their way. American Express cardholders can access the Centurion lounges, although only Platinum card members get in free (everyone else must pay $50 for a day pass). Each of these lounges has its own unique features, but they all have showers, computer workstations, premium cocktails, fine wines and foods crafted by a chef from the local area. These lounges truly take travel comfort to the next level. 

Delta Sky Club in New York (JFK)

This lounge is open to cardholders of the Delta Reserve and the American Express Platinum Card. It’s Delta’s largest lounge, and the spacious showers are perfect for rinsing off before or after a long flight. The highlight here is the outdoor SkyDeck where you can watch planes take off and land.

Alaska Boardroom in Los Angeles (LAX)

Priority pass members can access this lounge, so if you have a credit card that includes that as a perk, you’re in. The relaxing boardroom has a rustic theme and some excellent breakfast snacks, along with coffee and espresso machines.

You may not need lounge access, but it dramatically improves your experience at the airport. If you travel for business frequently, getting a credit card with complimentary access is a wise and comfortable move.

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