Getting into airline lounges can make or break the comfort of your travel experience, especially when you're about to embark on a long flight.
But the Shangri-La behind the magic sliding doors of the VIP zone doesn’t have to be reserved for those in the most expensive seats on the plane. You can still tuck into restaurant-style meals and a bottomless cocktail menu before you have to squeeze in with the other sardines on the plane. Here’s how.
Buy a lounge membership
Lounge access comes in many forms. The most straightforward way to visit an airline lounge (at least in the U.S., Canada, and Australia) is by paying for lounge membership.
Depending on the airline, that can cost between around $500 and $1,495 (Delta Air Line’s ambitiously exorbitant new cost for an executive membership permits two guests). Sums like that only makes sense for the most frequent of flyers with a particular airline.
Earn elite status
Another way to gain access to the lounge on international trips is by holding a certain type of loyalty status with an airline or its affiliated partners or alliance.
For example, a Delta flyer with SkyTeam Elite Plus status would be able to access a KLM lounge when traveling through Amsterdam, no matter what cabin their ticket is for.
American Airlines' top-tier elite members holding Oneworld Emerald and Sapphire status would have similar lounge access in many airports when flying internationally.
That's one of the main benefits of status, and there have been so many qualified passengers that it's no longer uncommon to find long lines at airport lounges, which have become so popular that many have wait lists to get in, even for just a few minutes of rest before takeoff.
To respond to their lounges' popularity, airlines have started pulling the red carpet out from some lower-tier lounge visitors.
Delta recently made a similar switch with no notice to flyers. In late 2022, it yanked same-day access to Sky Clubs for Delta SkyMiles SkyTeam Elite Plus flyers in economy class on international itineraries. This change came after many flyers had already requalified for status and were relying on the perk.
Of course, these tightened access rules don't apply to those who have purchased memberships to the lounges—they're only for those relying on elite status to get inside.
If you’re left scratching your head on what to do to enter an airline lounge, there are still plenty of other options.
Sign up for the right credit card
Credit card perks can also unlock the same lounge access that elite status or even a business or first class ticket can.
But only if you have the right card. These credit cards come with coveted lounge access:
The Platinum Card from American Express (as well as the business version of the card) has one of the most expansive lounge access programs of any non-airline affiliated credit card. Dubbed The American Express Global Lounge Collection, it comes with access to a slew of premium airport spaces like Centurion Lounges, Escape Lounges, Air Space Lounges, Delta Sky Club access when flying Delta, Plaza Premium Lounges, plus a membership in Priority Pass, which has more than 1,300 lounges around the world. In exchange for all those benefits, that card comes with a $695 annual fee, but for many people, a year's worth of lounge access is worth it.
In fact, you’ll pay less for a Platinum Amex card, and gain the same type of access, than you would paying Delta directly for a membership. Go figure.
But bringing guests is another story. Effective February 2023, Platinum Amex cardholders can only bring guests into a Centurion Lounge if they pay $50 per guest ($30 for those between the ages of 2 and 17).
There are other cards that come with Priority Pass lounge access. These include the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Capital One Venture X Rewards Card, Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card, and the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express Card. Priority Pass has a sizable number of (often crowded) airport lounges to access, as well as a handful of airport restaurants and bars where you can receive a spending credit.
Still, these cards lack the additional wingspan of the Global Lounge Collection accessed by Amex. While both Chase and Capital One are working to create their own lounge network, it’s slow going as they work with airports to build their lounge program.
So far, Capital One only has one open lounge (at Dallas/Fort Worth) with Denver, Las Vegas, and Washington Dulles coming soon. The Capital One Venture X Rewards Card also provides access to Plaza Premium Lounges, too, which includes a handful of Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse lounges.
Chase is also working on its own network of lounges. The first Chase Sapphire lounge opened recently in Hong Kong. Coming soon are additional lounges in Boston, Dallas/Forth Worth, New York LaGuardia, Philadelphia, and San Diego, among others. Like Capital One's lounges, Chase's facilities are available to qualified cardholders.
(Illustration: Shutterstock / NeMaria)
Buy a day pass
Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, and United Airlines continue to sell day passes to their lounges for around $60, and for those with a long connection in certain airports will find them to be valuable.
American will let you redeem 5,900 AAdvantage miles instead of forking over $59 in cash, too.
Unfortunately, you cannot buy day passes to Centurion Lounges. As part of its recent access changes, Delta pulled the option to buy day passes to its lounges.
Look for a Good Samaritan
While this is not endorsed by airlines or airport lounges, many travelers are able to bring in one or two guests when entering a lounge.
If you belong to social media channels, especially to groups related to travel, you'll find that sometimes people post their travel dates and times indicating the hours in which they can guest someone into the lounge as a courtesy.
For example, Facebook has many unofficial membership groups for those with different airline elite status tiers where people offer guest access as a "pay it forward" goodwill gesture. Meet the right kindhearted traveler, and you could be sipping Champagne in the lounge faster than you may have ever thought.
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