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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’s what you need to know about the fine print on your credit card’s lounge access benefit.
Your credit card doesn’t give you access to every lounge
Lounges are operated by different airlines, airports or third parties. A credit 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. 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.
Make the most of it: Check your credit card offer 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 on the websites below:
You might need to register
Some credit cards double as lounge passes, letting you in with just your credit 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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
Information related to the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card has been collected by NerdWallet and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card.