Airport lounges are spaces, operated either by airlines or other companies, that offer an escape from the chaos of the terminals. They give you a comfy spot to sit and recharge. Here’s what you need to know if you’re thinking of plunging into the world of airport lounges for the first time.
Tired of jostling through crowded terminals, paying top dollar for airport food and having no place to charge your phone?
Airport lounges will change how you travel, and the right credit card opens the lounge door.
Travel photographer Charlie Gardiner just started using airport lounges last year after getting a membership with Priority Pass, a company that offers access to a network of independent airport lounges.
His first lounge experience came after spending 14 hours taking photos in Kiev, Ukraine. Before departing for Bangkok, Thailand, he headed to the airport lounge. There, he took a shower – he received an “amenities pack” with a fresh towel, robe, slippers, toothbrush and toothpaste – then ate dinner and drank a glass of wine before catching his overnight flight.
“It was a total revelation,” Gardiner says. “It was like night and day compared to other layovers in the past before I started using lounges.”
See related: Best credit cards for airport lounge access
5 tips for your first time in an airport lounge
The ins and outs of airport lounges
Airport lounges are spaces, operated either by airlines or other companies, that offer an escape from the chaos of the terminals. They give you a comfy spot to sit and recharge – both yourself and your phone, tablet or laptop.
One of the main perks of airport lounge access is free food and drinks. You can help yourself to a spread that often includes cheese cubes, crackers, chips, hummus, veggies and dip, soups and salads.
And there’s typically also a bar that serves wine, beer and house brand liquor at no charge, says Stephanie Zito, travel hacking expert and author of the CreditCards.com column “Have Cards, Will Travel,” who uses airport lounges all over the world.
“In most lounges, you can buy a premium drink if you want to,” she says.
In addition to the sustenance that bolsters tired travelers, airport lounges also offer other perks that may include:
- Free Wi-Fi – You’ll get a code when you enter the lounge so you can surf the web, watch a movie or get some work done.
- Showers – Lounges in hub and international airports often have showers where you can clean up and refresh, Zito says.
- Work areas – You’ll find desks and a printer in many lounges.
- Spa services – Some fancier lounges even offer free facials, massages and mani-pedis, and others offer spa services for a fee.
But airport lounges also have their downsides. First, these spaces are getting more crowded as more travelers get access through credit cards.
“Sometimes I leave the lounge to go to the terminal because the terminal is less busy and I can actually hear myself think,” says frequent flyer Bryan Del Monte, president of The Aviation Agency, an aviation marketing firm.
The quality of lounges also can vary widely. For example, in a lounge in Bangkok, Gardiner was pleasantly surprised to find chefs cooking fresh food to order in an open kitchen. The lounge also gave out free 15-minute head massages.
In other places, the airport terminal might be nicer than the lounge. At a lounge in Bilbao, Spain, Gardiner was disappointed to find only cold tortillas, chips and nuts to eat.
“I’ve been in some lounges where I just turned around and walked right back out,” Zito says, adding: “Bigger airports usually have nicer, larger lounges.”
Your ticket into an airport lounge
Wondering how to get into an airport lounge? There are many different types of airport lounges and many ways to get access, Zito says.
Your ability to get into a particular lounge may depend on factors such as: which airline you’re flying, whether it’s a domestic or international flight, what class of ticket you bought, which credit card you have and what kind of status you have with an airline, Zito says.
If you’re totally new to airport lounges, a credit card probably will be your best bet for getting in the door.
“Start small,” Zito says. Look at your travel patterns, decide which airline’s lounges you’re most likely to use and pick the credit card that offers access to those lounges, she recommends.
Cards that offer free lounge access tend to have high annual fees, but the sign-up bonus can offset the cost in the first year. Some cards with lower fees may offer you a limited number of lounge passes or the chance to buy lounge day passes.
Each major airline has a card that allows free access to that airline’s lounges. For example:
- The Platinum Card® from American Express offers free access to Amex Centurion Lounges and Priority Pass Select Lounges, as well as Delta Sky Club lounges when you’re flying Delta. It has an annual fee of $550.
- The Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card allows you free access to Delta Sky Club lounges when you’re flying Delta. The annual fee is $550.
- The United MileagePlus Club Card from Chase offers access to all United Club lounges and participating Star Alliance affiliated clubs around the world. The annual fee is $450.
- The Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard offers an Admirals Club membership.
Another option is to consider a card that comes with Priority Pass membership or just buy a Priority Pass membership directly. The Chase Sapphire Reserve card offers a Priority Pass Select membership and has an annual fee of $550.
If you’re considering Priority Pass, take a look at its website to see what lounges it offers in the airports you fly into and out of the most, Zito says. If there’s not a Priority Pass lounge, then that’s probably not a good option for you.
Or, you can choose a credit card with a lower annual fee and more limited lounge options. For example, the United Explorer Card charges $0 the first year then a $95 annual fee, and offers two one-time United Club passes.
“Figure out which option is going to work for the travel you’re doing now,” Zito says.
See related: The ultimate guide to airport security options
Tips for your first time in an airport lounge
Nervous about stepping into an airport lounge for the first time? Here are five tips on how to maximize your lounge benefits like a pro even when you’re new to lounges:
1. Not sure if you can get into the airport lounge? Just ask.
If you’re confused about your lounge access, you can contact your airline or your credit card issuer before your trip. If you’re already at the airport, just walk up to the lounge entrance and ask, Zito says. You will need to present your access credential (such as the credit card that includes access or your Priority Pass card), your photo ID and your boarding pass, Zito says.
2. Scope out lounge offerings before you go.
You may only have one lounge choice or even none. Not all airports will have lounges you can access, points out Andrew D’Amours, co-founder of the travel site Flytrippers. If you’re stuck in an airport with no lounge and you have Priority Pass membership, you may be able to get up to $30 worth of free food at member restaurants.
“If there are multiple lounges to choose from, the LoungeBuddy app is my go-to tool to see reviews and see which one has more food offerings,” he says.
3. Factor in lounges when booking your flights.
Making sure you have time to kick back in the lounge can help you arrive at your destination refreshed and relaxed. For example, D’Amours chooses flights with longer layovers in order to get more lounge time.
“They’re cheaper too,” he says of these flights.
He also plans his itinerary with lounges in mind.
“I even rule out some destinations or airports from trips if they don’t have a lounge,” he says.
4. Get help from lounge staff to iron out travel glitches.
Lounges can help you get where you’re going faster. Imagine your flight gets canceled because of a snowstorm, says Nick Kamboj, a Chicago CEO and frequent flyer.
“The gate agent tells you to go to customer service, where 200 other people from the same flight cancellation are already lining up in to determine what their options are,” he says. “However, a savvy traveler with airline lounge access will quickly go the lounge, go to any one of the nearly empty counters, have agents quickly determine their best options and get rebooked.”
5. Not traveling solo? You may be able to bring guests.
Some credit cards that offer free lounge access also allow you to bring a few guests with you for free. In other cases, your companions must pay.
For example, the Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard offers complimentary Admirals Club access to authorized users. And the Delta SkyMiles Reserve American Express Card allows you to bring a guest into a Sky Club lounge for $39. Check your card benefits to see if your traveling companions can get access and at what cost.
Lounge access is not just for frequent flyers
So, should you get a new credit card and pay an annual fee to get access to lounges?
“Bottom line is that given how expensive airport food is, it’s definitely worth getting lounge access even for more casual travelers,” D’Amours says. “Lounges are great for budget travelers as much as frequent flyers.”