Airport Lounge Access via Credit Card is Nice, but Know the Limits

Your credit card won't get you into any lounge you desire, and you may also need a separate membership card to get in at all. Limits on time and group size are also common.
Claire TsosieAug 12, 2021
Airport Lounge Access

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When you get a premium credit card with airport lounge access, you might have a grand vision of entering the first lounge you see with a flash of your credit card and a smile, then sipping complimentary wine and enjoying free massages until your flight boards.

Those lofty expectations might not match reality.

“The airlines aren’t always as clear as they need to be in the marketing,” says Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group. “They sell you this great image of what you can do, but are not great on the details until after you sign up.”

Before you boldly go to lounges where you’ve never gone before, here are five things you need to know about the fine print on credit cards with lounge access.

What to know about airport lounge access via your credit card

1. Your credit card doesn’t give you access to every lounge

Lounges are operated by different airlines, airports or third parties. A card with lounge access only gets you into certain lounges, not all.

Your lounge choices might also be constricted by the airline you're flying.

Your lounge choices might also be constricted by the airline you're flying. For example, Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card holders can only access Delta Sky Club lounges with “a Delta-coded, Delta-operated flight, or Delta-marketed WestJet operated flight booked through Delta,” according to its terms (see rates and fees).

That's great if you're seeking Delta lounge access — but not if you want American Airlines lounge access, or United lounge access.

Make the most of it

Check your card's terms for the type of lounge access it grants, and find out if there are any locations in the airports you'll be using before your next trip. You can look up information about lounge locations at the websites listed in the table below, incluing

Premium consumer credit cards with lounge membership benefits

Credit card

Lounge access

American Airlines’ Admirals Club and partner lounges, including lounges operated by oneworld carriers

Priority Pass Select lounges

The American Express Global Lounge Collection, which includes the Centurion® Lounge, International American Express Lounges, Delta Sky Club, Priority Pass Select, Airspace and Escape Lounges

Priority Pass Select lounges

United Club and participating Star Alliance lounges

As of February 2021

2. You might need to register

Some credit cards double as lounge passes, letting you in with just that card, a boarding pass and, in some cases, identification. Others make you jump through more hoops, requiring a separate lounge membership card and possibly a separate registration for that card.

The airlines ... sell you this great image of what you can do, but are not great on the details until after you sign up.
Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst, Atmosphere Research Group

The Platinum Card® from American Express, for example, lets users access several lounges just by presenting the card, a boarding pass and ID. But to get into a Priority Pass Select lounge, you’ll have to activate the Priority Pass Select membership online — and receiving your membership card in the mail could take about two weeks. Terms apply (see rates and fees).

Make the most of it

If your card requires a separate registration for lounge access, complete it as soon as possible. A handful of cards with Priority Pass Select access (including The Platinum Card® from American Express) will give you a digital membership card via the Priority Pass app during the wait. Most lounges accept these digital cards, according to Priority Pass.

3. The lounge you visit might not be the swankiest

Most lounges offer freebies such as food, booze and Wi-Fi. But don't expect your lounge to offer every single service.

“Airline and airport lounges can vary widely in their capabilities and amenities,” Harteveldt says. He notes that some have a large assortment of free food and beverages, while others have more limited selections. Some provide complimentary spa services, and others charge for these services or don’t offer them at all. “The hub airports will obviously have the largest and, frankly, the most appealing lounges.”

The hub airports will obviously have the largest and, frankly, the most appealing lounges.
Henry Harteveldt, Atmosphere Research Group

He notes that some of the richest amenities are offered in more prestigious lounges, which you generally can't access with just a credit card. For example, United's Polaris lounges offer meals developed by a chef and “handcrafted cocktails,” among other goodies. But access to the lounge is available “exclusively to our international premium cabin travelers,” according to the airline. Likewise, American Airlines' Flagship Lounges, also exclusive to select travelers, feature “chef-inspired meals” and a “premium wine table,” among other amenities.

Make the most of it

If you’re flying first class or traveling internationally, check the eligibility requirements for those super-fancy lounges. Travelers interested in certain amenities — say, a kids' play area or an open bar — can generally check for these benefits online before arriving.

4. Unlimited guests? Maybe not

For parents traveling with kids, airport lounges might be a welcome respite from waiting at the gate with everyone else. But sometimes it costs extra to get the whole gang into the lounge.

Sometimes it costs extra to get the whole gang into the lounge.

Some credit cards that offer lounge access limit you to two free guests. In other cases, you'll be limited to two guests — and you'll have to pay for each one. Certain cards may not limit the guests you can bring to Priority Pass Select lounges for free. However, individual lounges within the Priority Pass Select network might set guest limits for these cardholders. Be aware, too, that some lounges restrict access for those under 21.

Make the most of it

Before visiting a lounge, check the lounge’s guest policy as well as the terms on your credit card. Even if your card requires you to pay a fee for guests, you might be able to get out of it if you’re traveling with kids. Some lounges admit kids under a certain age for free.

5. You can't stay forever

When a lounge gives you everything you need in life for free — showers, Wi-Fi, food and a recliner — you might feel like staying for as long as possible. But you might not be able to.

Some lounges are open 24/7, but most aren't.

Some lounges are open 24/7, but most aren't. A lounge might also limit the length of your visit. Many Priority Pass Select lounges, for example, only allow you to stay for three hours, though the enforcement of such policies varies by location. Some lounges admit only travelers with same-day travel itineraries.

Make the most of it

Sleeping in an airport lounge before an early morning flight might be a viable option if you don’t need to check bags; typically, you can’t check bags until about three hours before your flight. Before visiting, just make sure the lounge will be open, has the amenities you need and won’t limit your stay.

What's next?


To view rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, see this page. To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card, see this page.

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