Best credit cards for airport lounge access

Take a break from the crowds: These cards offer complimentary access to airport and hotel lounges

Aaron Broverman
Personal finance journalist
Host of the podcast Speech Bubble

Best credit cards for airport lounge access

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Travel, whether for business or pleasure, has become a stressful, cramped and exhausting experience, but it doesn't have to be – at least, not before boarding the plane.

Several rewards credit cards and travel credit cards offer complimentary access to airport lounges, where you can relax, work and make up for the lack of food in-flight with full meals, snacks and drinks.

These travel, airlines and hotel cards can get you access to the best airport and hotel lounges around the world.

See related: Hidden card benefit: Save money and sanity in airport lounges

Best cards for airport and hotel lounges

Premium card pick: The Platinum Card from American Express

American Express Platinum cardholders will always get a chance to take a break from the crowds since they get access to pretty much every airport lounge that exists. This includes Centurion, which are the most high-end of lounges in the American Express lounge network, and over 1,100 lounges in the Priority Pass Select network.

In both instances, the card allows you to bring up to two companions with you at no charge.

American Express Platinum also offers access to these lounge networks:

  • Delta Sky Clubs when flying on Delta Airlines – you can bring up to two companions at a discounted rate.
  • International American Express lounges.
  • Escape and Airspace lounges – where you can bring up to two guests for free.

Other benefits offered by American Express Platinum include:

  • Cruise Privileges Program (special amenities and savings on river, ocean and luxury cruises).
  • 5 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent on flights booked on airlines or through American Express.
  • 60,000 Membership Reward points if you spend $5,000 in the first three months.
  • $200 in annual Uber credits.
  • $550 value benefits when you book fine hotels and resorts.
  • $200 airline fee credit.
  • $85 TSA Precheck or $100 Global Entry credit.
  • $550 annual fee.
Tip

Tip: “If you have any big holidays or vacations coming up, sign up for this card [American Express Platinum] around that time and you’ll easily get to $5,000 in three months, giving you the 60,000 bonus points, so it should immediately offset your annual fee for the first year,” said Ahmed Bhuiyan, founder of the travel advice website yourTripguru.com.

Premium alternative: Chase Sapphire Reserve Card

Chase Sapphire Reserve’s slew of premium benefits, which includes access to the Priority Pass lounge network, is what makes the card a perennial favorite among travel experts.

In addition to the lounge perks, rewards and sign-up bonus below, you’ll also get a $300 statement credit on travel purchases. This perk alone makes this card a near bargain, as it offsets the high annual, effectively reducing it to $150 after the credit.

  • Complimentary access to over 1,000 airport lounges around the world after one-time enrollment to Priority Pass Select.
  • 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points (worth up to $750 in travel) after spending $4,000 in the first three months.
  • 3 points per dollar spent on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide.
  • 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Points worth 50 percent more when redeemed through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal.
  • Transfer Ultimate Rewards 1:1 to myriad frequent flyer and hotel reward programs.
  • $450 annual fee.
Tip

Tip: “The fact that there’s now these two cards out there with very similar benefits, it really boils down to the fact that many people don’t accept AmEx internationally, whereas the Chase Sapphire Reserve is a Visa and that’s accepted everywhere, so you don’t run into the same issues,” said travel industry consultant Monica Zaman.

Premium airline card pick: United MileagePlus Club Card by Chase

United Airlines frequent flyers who love a large lounge network should consider the United MileagePlus Club card.

Sure, the AmEx Platinum includes access to the more premium Centurion Lounges and Priority Pass Lounges, but this is the card for those who prefer United Clubs or Star Alliance Lounges, or who fly to airports that don’t have a lot of these other premium options.

Having Star Alliance in the repertoire brings the United MileagePlus Club’s lounge total to over 1,000, which is competitive with the AmEx Platinum.

Also, United MileagePlus Club gives a better return than most lounge access cards on everyday purchases with 1.5 miles for every dollar spent and 2 miles for every dollar spent on United purchases.

Other benefits include:

  • United Club Membership includes free snacks and beverages and access to all United Clubs and Star Alliance lounges around the world.
  • First and second checked bags are free for you and one traveling companion.
  • 50,000 bonus miles when you spend $3,000 in the first three months.
  • $450 annual fee.

Airline card alternative: Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard

While the network here isn't quite as extensive as United’s, this might be the option if you’re a regular American Airlines flyer.

In addition, Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard’s sign-up bonus of 50,000 AAdvantage miles is worth the price of admission alone. That is enough miles to get you a round trip ticket to Hawaii at MileSAAver level, which costs 40,000 miles.

The card gives you access to more than 50 Admirals Club Lounges for you and authorized users even if they aren’t with you. Primary cardholders also have access to 60 partner lounges around the world.

Plus, eight people on the same reservation can get one free checked bag, priority check-in, screening and boarding privileges. This benefit covers a pretty high number of travelers compared to other cards.

Other benefits include:

  • 50,000 AAdvantage miles when you spend $5,000 in the first three months.
  • 2 AAdvantage miles on every dollar spent on eligible American Airlines purchases.
  • 1 AAdvantage mile for every dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • $100 Global Entry/TSA Precheck credit.
  • $450 annual fee.
Tip

Tip: “The main difference between these two cards is the size of the network, says J.R. Duren, credit card analyst at consumer review website Highya.com. Both give you access to the airline’s relatively meager branded lounges – less than 60 each – but the MileagePlus Club card gets you access to Star Alliance lounges around the world, increasing the available locations to more than 1,000.”

Everyday hotel card pick: American Express Hilton Honors Ascend

The Hilton Honors Ascend card combines premium airport lounge access and benefits when you stay at Hilton hotels, so you're getting something on two major elements of your trip – giving you a taste of the high-life at a reasonable annual cost.

Other benefits include:

  • 10 complimentary lounge visits a year after a one-time enrollment in Priority Pass Select. Lounge visits are $27 each after your 10th visit.
  • Earn a weekend night reward from Hilton Honors after you spend $15,000 on purchases on your card in a calendar year.
  • Up to 100,000 bonus points: Spend $2,000 in the first three months to earn 75,000 points and then another $1,000 in the first six months for another 25,000 points.
  • 12 points for every dollar spent at Hilton properties.
  • 6 points for every dollar spent at U.S. restaurants, U.S. gas stations and U.S. supermarkets.
  • 3 points per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Complimentary gold status; upgrade to Diamond if you spend $40,000 in a year.
  • $95 annual fee.
Tip

Tip: Starting May 1, 2018, registered members will earn double points on every stay through Aug. 31, 2018, according to Hilton Honors spokeswoman Lauren Skrincosky. There is no earning cap and no minimum stay requirement.

Hotel card alternative: Starwood Preferred Guest for Business Credit Card from American Express

If you prefer to lounge at your destination instead of in transit, look no further than Starwood Preferred Guest for Business.

It includes complimentary access to all 350 Sheraton Club Hotel lounges around the world, including 161 in the U.S. when you book a Sheraton Hotel stay eligible for collecting Starpoints – Westin and Le Méridien not included.

SPG for Business also offers:

  • $100 statement credit after you spend $1,000 in the first three months and an extra $100 credit if you book at participating SPG or Marriott Rewards program hotels in the first six months.
  • Complimentary Gold status if you spend $30,000 in a year.
  • Receive 5,000 Starpoints bonus when you transfer 20,000 Starpoints to a frequent flyer program.
  • 2 Starpoints for every dollar spent on Marriott Rewards hotel purchases.
  • 1 Starpoint for every dollar spent on gas, dining and all other purchases.
  • Note: On Aug. 1, 2018, SPG will convert every Starpoint in a loyalty member account to 3 points. In general, corresponding redemption changes will occur. See our story about upcoming changes as Marriott launches a new combined loyalty program in August.  Visit members.marriott.com for details.
  • Effective Aug. 1, 2018: Earn 6 Starpoints per dollar spent on eligible purchases at participating SPG and Marriott hotels.
  • $0 annual fee in the first year, $95 thereafter.
Tip

Tip: Regardless of which of these credit cards you pick to have access to airport lounges around the world, you can use any of them freely while traveling abroad, as none charges foreign transaction fees.

See related: Are you a VIP jerk? 10 things NOT to do in airport loungesAirport lounge tips from CEO who turned airline clubs into a business


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Updated: 08-15-2018