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Guide to airport lounges

Considering taking the plunge into the world of airport lounges? Here’s everything you need to know

Summary

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.

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Tired of jostling through crowded terminals, paying top dollar for airport food and having nowhere to relax comfortably while you wait for your flight? Airport lounges will change how you travel, and the right credit card will grant you membership for free.

If you haven’t entered a lounge before but you’ve seen the signs when passing through the terminal, you’re probably wondering how it all works. For the most part, airport lounges are spaces – operated either by airlines or other companies – that offer an escape from the chaos found elsewhere. They give you a comfy spot to sit and recharge – both yourself and your phone, tablet or laptop. Airport lounges also offer free food and drinks, and who doesn’t want that?

It’s important to note that there are different types of airport lounges available, and that membership programs and included access can vary.

For example, Priority Pass Select is the most popular airport lounge program offered through credit cards, and it enables members to visit more than 1,300 airport lounges around the world. Most Priority Pass Select memberships offer unlimited visits, while some credit cards provide passes for a certain number of visits per year (typically 10).

In the meantime, there is also a program called LoungeBuddy that lets you visit a similar selection of airport lounges. However, credit cards that offer this benefit typically limit your lounge visits each year.  There’s also LoungeKey, which grants access to 1,000 airport lounges worldwide.

Finally, there are airport lounges offered through specific frequent flyer programs or through credit card programs.

This chart shows a general overview of airport lounge membership options and how they work:

Airline-specific lounges
  • Airline-specific airport lounges are typically more plentiful in hub airports associated with each airline (for example Delta Sky Clubs, American Admirals Clubs, etc.). Members can usually gain entry only when they’re flying with the airline or one of its partners.
  • Some airline credit cards offer this membership, although you can also pay for a membership outright.
Credit card airport lounges
  • Some airport lounge memberships are affiliated with credit card programs themselves. For example, American Express offers its own network of Centurion lounges, and Capital One offers its own co-branded lounges.
  • You can gain access to this type of lounge network only with an eligible credit card.
LoungeBuddy lounges
  • LoungeBuddy lets you enter more than 2,000 airport lounges worldwide.
  • You can pay for day passes through the LoungeBuddy app, and you can get credits toward passes with an eligible credit card.
LoungeKey lounges
  • Enter more than 1,000 airport lounges regardless of which airline you’re flying.
  • You can gain access to this membership with an eligible travel credit card.
Priority Pass lounges
  • This membership lets you enter more than 1,300 airport lounges worldwide regardless of which airline you’re flying.
  • You can secure this membership with a broad selection of travel credit cards.

How to get into airport lounges

There are several ways to get into an airport lounge, including buying an airport lounge membership or day pass or gaining free entry by flying in international First or Business Class. Some frequent flyers with elite status may also get entry into airport lounges when they fly on an eligible itinerary.

Still, the easiest way to get into an airport lounge is by having the right travel credit card. However, you’ll want to choose cards carefully to make sure the membership you receive has locations in places you travel, including your home airport.

Here’s a rundown of the main travel credit cards that offer airport lounge membership benefits:

Card nameAirport lounge access
American Express® Green Card*Receive up to $100 in statement credits for LoungeBuddy each calendar year
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit CardPriority Pass Select membership and free access to Capital One airport lounges
Chase Sapphire Reserve cardPriority Pass Select membership
Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®Free access to American Admirals Club lounges when you’re flying American
Citi Prestige® Card*Priority Pass Select membership
Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express CardFree access to Delta Sky Club lounges when you’re flying Delta
Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card*Priority Pass Select membership
Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card10 Priority Pass lounge visits each year
HSBC Elite Credit Card*LoungeKey membership
Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® CardPriority Pass Select membership
Mastercard® Black Card™Priority Pass Select membership
Mastercard® Gold Card™Priority Pass Select membership
Platinum Card® from American ExpressFree access to Amex Centurion Lounges and Priority Pass Select Lounges, as well as Delta Sky Club lounges when you’re flying Delta
United Explorer CardTwo one-time United Club passes
United Club℠ Infinite CardFree access to all United Club lounges and participating Star Alliance affiliated clubs around the world
U.S. Bank Altitude™ Reserve Visa Infinite® Card*Complimentary 12-month Priority Pass Select membership

As we noted already, many airport lounges offer a pay-per-visit rate for everyone, or for customers with credit cards from certain issuers. Conversely, you can also purchase an airport lounge membership outright in many cases, but not all.

For example, Priority Pass offers three tiers of membership that cost between $99 and $429, although the top tier “Prestige” membership is the only one that allows unlimited visits.

Capital One airport lounges let anyone enter for a per-visit rate of $65. Further, individuals with the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card or the Capital One Spark Miles for Business can enter lounges for a reduced per-visit rate of $45.

Airport lounge perks and features

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. Some airport lounges also offer a lot more food options, including a selection of dishes that are enough for a full meal.

And there’s typically also a bar that serves wine, beer and house brand liquor at no charge, which can be a huge relief when you’re struggling to get through a heavy travel day.

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.
  • 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 can get really crowded because many travelers get access through credit cards. During busy travel times, you may even find that visiting some airport lounges isn’t worth it due to the lack of extra space. In others, you may find that lounges limit entry based on capacity. In other words, they won’t let you enter because they’re really full.

The quality of lounges also can vary widely, which is something you’ll quickly notice if you use more than a few lounges throughout the year.

For example, Priority Pass has lounges that offer little more than a pot of old coffee, a handful of soft drinks and snacks and free internet access. However, Priority Pass’ nicer lounges can feel like a palace within the airport thanks to comfortable seating and full buffets of premium foods.

How to make the most of airport lounges

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 if you’re eligible for entry.

If you are, note that 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.

2. Scope out lounge offerings before you go

You may only have one lounge choice or even none or there may be times where the one lounge you can access is in the wrong terminal.

If you have lots of options, on the other hand, it can help to gauge what’s available ahead of time. You can use the Priority Pass app or the LoungeBuddy app to quickly search for available lounges near your gate or to compare offerings in terms of food and available seating.

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. To be as prepared as you possibly can, look for flights with layovers where you know a solid lounge is available.

On the flipside, you’ll also want to make sure your home airport has at least one lounge you don’t mind visiting.

4. Get help from lounge staff to iron out travel glitches

Lounges can help you get where you’re going faster. If your flight gets canceled or delayed, for example, your airport lounge customer service agent may be able to help or give you advice.

This is especially true in airline-specific airport lounges since customer service reps can log in to look at your specific itinerary and your options on the spot.

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. Meanwhile, most credit cards that offer Priority Pass Select membership let you bring in two guests for free.

Check your card benefits to see if your traveling companions can get access and at what cost.

Bottom line

Airport lounges can give you a place to escape when you’re stuck killing time in an airport, and you don’t even have to pay for membership if you don’t want to. Many credit cards offer access for free, as well as rewards on your spending and other travel perks you’ll enjoy.

But, don’t take our word for it. Compare the best credit cards with airport lounge access and all they have to offer, and you could be enjoying some peace and quiet in between flights in no time.

*All information about the American Express Green Card, Citi Prestige Card, Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card, HSBC Elite Credit Card, and U.S. Bank Altitude™ Reserve Visa Infinite® Card has been collected independently by CreditCards.com and has not been reviewed or approved by the issuer.

Editorial Disclaimer

The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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