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Using credit cards to unlock elite airport lounges

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Cashing In
Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for CreditCards.com

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Question Dear Cashing In,
I have just gotten a job where I am going to be traveling 50 percent of the time, flying all around the country, as well as internationally. With those long hauls, I want to have good airport lounge access. Which cards are best for that? -- James B.

Answer Dear James,
First off, congratulations on the new job. 

For people who travel frequently, airport lounges offer a break from the crowded terminals that teem with crying babies and beeping carts. They feature comfortable seating in a quiet setting as well as snacks and drinks. Business travelers appreciate them for their work carousels, conference rooms, free Wi-Fi and other work-friendly amenities.

There are three main ways to get in: travel in business or first class, buy access (with a day pass or annual membership) or flash the right credit card for free entry. Usually, when you buy an annual membership or have the right plastic, you have access to the airline's lounges and those of its partner airlines abroad. 

None of these options is cheap. Day passes usually sell for $50 or more. Annual memberships to an airline's lounges typically go for $400 or more.

The credit cards that offer lounge access are also expensive. But their fees can be lower than the cost of buying a membership outright, and they often include other perks, such as free checked baggage and the waiving of other annoying fees. If you're considering buying a membership, look first at the credit cards that are co-branded with your preferred airline. 

For instance, buying an annual membership to United Clubs costs $500 a year (although members of the airline's elite flier programs can buy it for as little as $400). The Chase United MileagePlus Club Visa has an annual fee of $395 and includes a $100 statement credit on first use, two free checked bags, priority check-in and boarding, the waiving of certain award-ticket fees and platinum membership in Hyatt's frequent traveler program.

Other airline-branded credit cards with lounge access include the American Express Delta Reserve card (annual fee: $450) and the Citi Executive AAdvantage World Elite MasterCard (also $450). Many other airline credit cards include a day pass or two per year. 

There are also premium travel cards unaffiliated with the airlines, such as the American Express Platinum card (annual fee: $450) and Visa Black Card (annual fee: $495), which allow access to certain U.S. and international lounges, although you'll want to check the details before applying.

The best way to choose among these options is by working backward, says Tyler Dikman, CEO of LoungeBuddy, an iPhone app that helps guide travelers to airport lounges. First, consider where you are likely to be traveling and having layovers. Then determine what clubs exist at those airports and which cards get you into them. For instance, if you travel frequently to Miami and Latin America, it would make more sense to have access to American Airlines lounges than United's, because American has more lounges in the region. 

Lounges aren't just a place to escape and relax, he says. They can be essential for business travelers like you.

"These airport lounges make that time so much better," Dikman says. "Being able to make the most of your time when you are traveling for business can mean ... being twice as productive on your trip."

See related: Which credit cards are best for expedited airport security?, Credit card perks can save you cash this Christmas, Who owns frequent flier miles from a corporate credit card?

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Gary Foreman, New Frugal You columnist Gary Foreman,
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Published: December 24, 2013


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