Hanging out in an airport can get old pretty quickly, especially if you're trapped for hours at the gate because of a flight delay.

An alternative to the chaos is an airport lounge, where you can sit in comfy chairs while enjoying free drinks and food. With day passes usually available for purchase, you don't necessarily have to carry a first-class ticket to take part.

Sadly, many U.S. airport lounges aren't worth the price of admission. In contrast to the luxe surroundings you find in many airports in Asia, many U.S. lounges are cramped and a little run-down, with food offerings of rubbery cheese cubes and a lackluster nut selection. But there are a few shining stars in the U.S. lounge system, where weary travelers can find showers, fresh food, and even (in one case) a full spa where you can wait out the weather.

If you'd never pay for lounge access, we've also highlighted three bonus lounge-like experiences in the U.S. and Canada that all fliers can enjoy as part of their economy-class tickets.

Getting Past the Velvet Rope

If you hold a first-class or business-class ticket, or you're a high-level elite frequent flier, you automatically get access to your carrier's lounge. But there are ways for more plebeian folks to cross the threshold as well.

Most lounges offer day passes, usually for $50; there can be additional discounts if you hold an airline's credit card. American Express Platinum Card holders and Diner's Club card holders both get free access to some lounges. The Priority Pass organization ( also gives you access to 600 lounges for rates starting at $99, plus $27 per visit.

Top 10 Lounges in the U.S.

To judge the top lounges, I checked with frequent fliers, Frommer's editorial staff, major airlines, and Priority Pass, which hands out its own awards for lounge quality. All of the lounges that made it into the Top 10 have interesting design and plenty of seating, but they're separated by the quality of the views, the food options, and level of accessibility.

Denver (DEN):
The current jewel of American Airlines' Admirals Club system is the new lounge in Denver, at the north end of the A Gates Bridge. The big draw here is technology: lots of Hewlett-Packard PCs to use, including a special children's area with "age-appropriate programming." Liquor is free, but food and Wi-Fi aren't.

Houston (IAH):
By far the most-cited lounge in my survey, the Continental President's Club in Terminal E (not the other terminals' clubs) is the ultimate airline lounge in the U.S. The three-story, 26,000-square-foot club has showers, conference rooms, and work areas, along with free snacks and liquor. editors singled out the staff for their "sophisticated Texas charm." This lounge also won Priority Pass's 2010 Lounge of the Year award.

Los Angeles (LAX): I got several votes for the new OneWorld lounge in the international terminal at LAX. Shared by British Airways and other international airlines, this flagship lounge has nine showers, free food and liquor, and free Wi-Fi. editors said the food here is particularly good, at least as airport lounges go.

The independently-run ReLAX Lounge (, also in the international terminal, is one of the most affordable U.S. airport lounges -- you can hide out here for an hour for a mere $15, no matter what kind of ticket you have. The amenities aren't great; there's no free liquor and no showers. You will, however, find free non-alcoholic beverages, snacks, and Internet access. Plus, it's a quiet and spacious place to watch the planes taxi around and take off.

Miami (MIA): Some lounges are run by airports. The Club America Lounge in Terminal J is operated by an independent company. This lounge gets high marks because it's only a few months old and has plenty of room and decent views. Amenities include soup and sandwiches as well as free liquor. You can also freshen up in one of the showers. Make sure to stop by the lounge in Terminal J, though -- the one in Terminal F is less appealing.

New York City (JFK): It's hard to get into the Emirates lounge ( in Terminal 4, but once you're in, you're treated to a relatively luxurious time. There's a full bar, free Internet, and plenty of reading material. The buffet selection is unusually rich: according to Emirates, it includes "Arabic, Far Eastern, Western or vegetarian cuisine." Stressed? Massages are also available.

British Airways' Terraces lounge ( in Terminal 7 has the Elemis Travel Spa, which gives complimentary treatments to premier-class passengers. Everyone else can enjoy a lounge that's up to top-notch international standards, including a "larder" with snacks and soups, free alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, and a full restaurant. The showers are also a must for passengers on red-eye flights.

San Francisco (SFO): United Airlines said the Red Carpet Club in Terminal 3 is their best, but travelers rate it just average. No, the real star here is the International First Class Lounge in the International Terminal, which has showers and other enviable amenities (this lounge keeps the free drinks and free sushi coming). You must have a first-class ticket to access this area, which looks more like a hotel lobby than an airport lounge. If only more Red Carpet Clubs were like this.

Seattle (SEA): Priority Pass's members picked the Alaska Airlines Board Room at Concourse D in Seattle as a favorite lounge in 2010. The lounge has two floors, both with bars, but it's the food that stands out here. The club has a pancake machine. Yes, it's a button-activated machine that makes pancakes. According to one post, "the pancake machine went haywire and spit out a three-foot-long mega-pancake." If you fear the mega-pancake, the lounge also serves soup.

Washington Dulles (IAD): United million-mile frequent flier Gabe Zichermann nominated the Lufthansa lounge at Washington's Dulles airport, which brings some European style to the airport. It's great for hungry travelers: a tour on shows its unusually rich spread of meat, potatoes, and desserts; according to, there's also Japanese food if you arrive at the right time of day.

Honorable Mention: Three Lounges in the U.S. & Canada for Everyone

Three lounges don't quite fit the standard lounge model, but they can give ordinary fliers at least a taste of the lounge experience.

Everyone who flies Porter Airlines, a small airline with a hub in Toronto, gets to hang out in the Porter Lounge at Toronto City Airport. Everything about this airport is a little classier than dull, distant Pearson International; it's small and you can reach downtown Toronto in minutes via free ferry. All Porter travelers get free newspapers, access to iMac workstations, cookies, and hot and cold beverages.

If you're flying between New York City's LaGuardia Airport and Washington, D.C., the entire terminal at the Delta Shuttle is on the verge of a true lounge experience. The Delta Shuttle leaves from a classic 1930s building set apart from the rest of the airport, with a striking WPA mural in the entry hall. Once you pass the very quick security check, there's free coffee and juice, magazines and newspapers, and an excellent working area with desks, outlets, and a river view. Some would argue that the Delta Shuttle terminal is a nicer place to hang out than some of Delta's dispiriting Sky Club lounges.

Finally, travelers to Dallas DFW Airport should keep an eye out for little niches near the monorail stations sponsored by Samsung. No, there's no free food or drink here. But Samsung provides comfy chairs, soothing lighting, and lots of power outlets; I found the Samsung "lounges" to be a haven on some recent Dallas layovers.

Have you had any great lounge experiences? Tell us in the comments below.