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Years ago, there were business travelers and there were leisure travelers, and nary did the perks of the high-flying former trickle down to the economy-focused latter. Airport lounges that offer cozy chairs, free buffet spreads and an open bar while you wait to board? Those were reserved for the business traveler in the tailored suit.
In recent years, the lines have blurred. The airport lounge slowly became not only a haven for the business traveler, but a luxurious treat for a growing number of passengers in all classes of service. That’s because those who hold certain credit cards can unlock access to airport lounges.
Here’s a look at how credit cards have fueled a huge surge in airport lounge visitors, and how that affects your odds of being able to visit one on your next trip — even if you have the right card.
How credit cards made airport lounges accessible
American Express launched the original luxury credit card for travel as far back as 1984. But in the past few years, the market has exploded with options. A new crop of premium travel credit cards from issuers like Chase and Capital One have sprung up in competition. Many times, a new cardholder can get a splashy six-figure points bonus when they open the card, along with all the perks it packs, in exchange for its hefty annual fee.
Access to airline lounges is one of the most popular benefits for these cardholders. Many cards offer admission to networks of lounges like Priority Pass, which operates more than 1,300 lounges across 600 cities around the world. But issuers have created their own branded lounges, too. American Express, Chase and Capital One are all doubling down on airport lounges, expanding offerings across the country.
And it’s not just premium credit cards. Some co-branded credit cards that come with more accessible annual fees also offer lounge visits. Select airline credit cards offer limited day passes each year you renew the card; others give discounts to cardholders who pay at the door.
Lounge realities may not live up to promises
But sometimes when everyone can get in, no one can get in. As many travelers return with a vengeance amid easing pandemic fears, airline lounge crowding is an increasingly frustrating issue. Priority Pass lounge network reported a 46% increase in lounge traffic for the first half of 2021, compared with the previous six months.
Sue Meyer from Ashland, Kentucky, was looking forward to a comfortable seat and a light bite in the lounge with her sister on a recent trip. But thanks to some fine print, they were unsuccessful at gaining entrance. Though Meyer is an authorized user on a card that grants lounge access, only primary cardholders are admitted.
Her sister has a credit card that allows her to purchase lounge day passes at a discount, but they discovered too late that this doesn’t apply at certain airports. "I think a lot of this stems from the overuse of lounges so they get crowded," Meyer says. "They use it as a control issue.”
Even cardholders who fork out nearly $700 a year in annual fees aren’t immune to overcrowding issues. P. Katta — a frequent traveler based in Long Beach, California — witnessed a line down the hallway and snaked around the corner to access the American Express Centurion Lounge in Denver. “I haven’t seen a line of this size before," he says. "It’s outrageous when you pay so much for a card (but) you can't use the benefits."
It’s not uncommon to walk past an airport lounge these days and see a "full" sign blocking the door. That often means that unless you’re flying in business or first class, you’ll be denied entrance no matter the credit card, lounge card or day pass you possess.
What you need to know before you plan to visit a lounge with your credit card
Credit card issuers have put up some guardrails around accessing lounge benefits. American Express, for example, will begin charging $50 per guest a cardholder brings to the lounge in 2023. (Currently, up to two guests are free.)
While the restrictions may help alleviate overcrowding, they may also make it more difficult for you to access a lounge when you’re traveling. Here’s what to know before you plan on lounging at the airport before your next flight.
Bring your lounge card: Even when credit cards offer access to lounges as a perk, in many cases you’ll receive a lounge pass card that's separate from your credit card. Sometimes, you’ll have to enroll in order to get the pass. Most times, you can’t show up at the desk of the lounge and waive your credit card. You’ll need the physical or digital lounge pass in order to gain access.
Check before you go: Real-time knowledge is power. The American Express app, for example, will tell you how full the lounge is at the moment, and will give you a QR code to gain admission if there’s room. Before you schlep all the way across the airport to that Priority Pass lounge you see exists in a list, give them a call first to make sure there are no restrictions. If you can make a reservation beforehand, you’ll likely be glad you did. Some lounges have never even reopened since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Be aware of time restrictions: Unexpectedly have a big flight delay and searching for solace in a lounge to kill time? Not so fast. Many lounges now have strict time limits. Delta Sky Clubs, for example, now allow visits only within the three hours before your departure. If you have a five-hour layover, you’ll have to kill the first two hours doing something else.
NerdWallet writer Sara Rathner contributed to this report.