This article is being updated.
Anyone who has ever had a long layover or waited in a crowded gate area with no seating knows the trials of air travel. Luckily, there is a solution to these problems: airport lounges. With Wi-Fi, food, alcohol, ample outlets, seating and pockets of silence, these semi-private spaces are a welcome relief from the hustle and bustle of airport terminals.
These days, airport lounges are more accessible than ever, with apps like LoungeBuddy and subscription-based services like Priority Pass democratizing the lounge experience previously reserved for airline elite status holders.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the easiest ways to gain admission to the oasis of calm that is an airline lounge.
The airline-specific lounge
Major airlines allow travelers with premium class tickets to enter their airport lounges. The rules vary depending on the airline and class code of your ticket, so you will always want to confirm availability before travel. Airline-specific lounges can also have reciprocal agreements with their partner airlines. For example, if you have elite status with oneworld, the airline partnership that includes American Airlines, you may have access to a host of partner airline lounges during your travels.
As there are many ways to gain admission to a traditional airline lounge, the cost varies widely. Beyond frequent flyer elite status and premium tickets, which often offer lounge visits as a free perk, most airlines provide the option to buy a daily or annual access pass to their lounges. Some airline-specific credit cards offer lounge access as a perk. Many of these types of cards carry high annual fees.
» Learn more: When is an airport lounge day pass worth the splurge?
If a lounge begins to fill up, travelers with premium class tickets on that airline are less likely to be turned away than those trying to enter with day passes or using subscription-based lounge services.
Often, you can enter airline lounges only if you’re flying that airline or one of its partners. For example, to access the Delta Sky Club with an eligible credit card, you still need to show a Delta boarding pass.
Other airlines have elite lounges designated only for passengers traveling in premium cabins. For example, the United Polaris lounge is only accessible to those traveling in United Polaris business class on international flights. If you’re flying in ordinary United business class, you’ll be relegated to the less swanky United lounges. The only exception is for travelers flying international first or business class on a partner airline. Those passengers can access the United Polaris lounge at their international departure airport only.
LoungeBuddy is primarily app-based. With no annual subscription fee, LoungeBuddy allows you to quickly search nearby airport lounges, assess available amenities and buy a day pass. American Express acquired LoungeBuddy in 2019, and, as of April 1, 2019, only American Express cardholders could use LoungeBuddy’s reservation platform.
LoungeBuddy is an aggregator of available airport lounges, which are priced individually. While access can be as low as $25 a visit, many lounges are in the $40-60 range.
» Learn more: Everything you need to know about AmEx Centurion Lounges
LoungeBuddy provides reviews and detailed entry information for all airport lounges, not just the ones you can book with them. It’s a one-stop shop to see if your flight ticket or status can grant you access to an airline lounge, and it provides the information you need to determine if a lounge you’re considering visiting has the complimentary amenities to make the visit worthwhile for your wallet. Furthermore, the app makes it convenient to reserve spaces in those lounges, provided you use an American Express card for payment.
The visit fee for each lounge varies, making it harder to budget for your lounge visit. Since American Express’ acquisition, you’ll need an AmEx card to book through LoungeBuddy, which makes the platform less accessible.
Priority Pass is a subscription-based service that offers lounge access to a network of over 1,200 lounges throughout the world. Along with entry to lounges, the Priority Pass app provides discounts at airport retail shops, restaurants and spas, though the restaurant discount will be going away in August 2019.
» Learn more: 5 Priority Pass lounges that are worth a visit
In the U.S., Priority Pass subscriptions range from $99 to $429 a year. With the $99 standard plan, you will also be paying a per-visit fee of $32. The standard plus plan is $299 annually but includes 10 free visits before charging a $32 per-visit fee. The prestige plan at $429 has no visit fee, meaning if you’re likely to stop into 14 Priority Pass lounges each year, you will come out ahead with the elite tier. That doesn’t include the perks you can use, such as discounts at retail shops and spas while you’re waiting for your flight.
There are many different ways to get a Priority Pass membership. If you aren’t sure about paying for a subscription, you can get access with select credit cards. With AmEx’s never-ending quest to expand its lounge program, it’s no surprise that Priority Pass is included in its Global Lounge Collection. Still, even for those without an American Express card, Priority Pass is one of the most flexible options for getting airport lounge access.
The U.S.-based lounges are more limited than expected, and the perks at airport restaurants can be disappointing. Some airport restaurants, such as the American Tap Room at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, will charge you a lounge fee of $32 in return for $28 off your bill. So it’s important to review the terms of each lounge.
How to maximize your rewardsYou want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2020, including those best for:
- Airline miles and a large bonus: The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
- No annual fee: The Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card
- Flat-rate rewards with no annual fee: The Bank of America® Travel Rewards Visa® credit card
- Premium travel rewards: The Chase Sapphire Reserve®
- Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
- Business travelers: The Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card
Planning a trip? Check out these articles for more inspiration and advice:
Credit cards with airport lounge access
NerdWallet’s top travel credit cards
5 reasons why you should be using airport lounges