How to Get Airport Lounge Access—Even if You Don’t Have Airline Status

Relax preflight in an airport lounge thanks to the right credit card, membership, or boarding pass.

Doha, Qatar, Al Mourjan Business Lounge, Hamad International Airport

Qatar Airways’ stunning Al Mourjan Business Lounge at Doha Airport is one of our favorite airport lounges on the planet. Read on to find out how you can access it.

Photo by Shutterstock

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As airports grow busier and more stressful to navigate, it’s no wonder fliers are seeking calm within the chaos and ways to enhance their preflight experiences. An optimal solution is to seek refuge in an airport lounge. Depending on the lounge, amenities may include full-service cocktail bars, gourmet food spreads, showers, micro-spas, design-forward relaxation areas, and dedicated work zones (not to mention simpler luxuries of personal space, power outlets, and free Wi-Fi).

Once upon a time airport lounge access was exclusive to those holding business- or first-class tickets, but times have changed. Nowadays, scoring entrance often entails having the right credit card or buying your way in. Here are seven different ways you can obtain airport lounge access and transform your airport experience into an enjoyable one.

Get a top-tier credit card with lounge benefits

Many high-fee travel credit cards offer airport lounge access as a primary perk of being a cardholder. Lounge access varies by card, but at a minimum, most top-tier travel credit cards provide a form of Priority Pass Select membership that allows unlimited access to more than the 1,300 airport lounges in the Priority Pass network globally. Entrance is granted on the flight date, regardless of airline or class flown, with up to two guests complimentary.

Those with the Platinum Card® from American Express ($695 annual fee, see rates and fees)—hands down the best personal credit card available for airport lounge access—have much to choose from outside the Priority Pass cohort (enrollment required). They can also enter over 40 Amex-branded Centurion Lounges and Escape Lounges, Delta Sky Club airline lounges, Plaza Premium lounges, AirSpace lounges, Lufthansa lounges, and more. Holders of the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card ($395 annual fee) can enjoy the Priority Pass network, Plaza Premium lounges, and Capital One’s growing network of amenity-rich branded lounges. Chase Sapphire Reserve® ($550 annual fee) cardholders also will soon have options beyond Priority Pass lounges; Chase’s new lounge concept, Chase Sapphire Lounge by the Club, will be unveiled later in 2022.

Other personal credit cards that offer a Priority Pass Select membership with unlimited access to lounges include Citi Prestige ($495 annual fee), Hilton Honors Aspire Card ($450 annual fee), and Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card ($650 annual fee—see rates and fees).

For frequent fliers of legacy airlines like American, Delta, or United, it may be worth getting a premium airline-specific credit card with lounge benefits. The United Club℠ Infinite Card ($525 annual fee), for example, comes with United Club membership while the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® ($450 annual fee) comes with access to Admirals Club lounges, and the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card ($550 annual fee) provides entry to Delta Sky Club.

Get the $95 annual fee Hilton Surpass credit card

It may seem odd that a low-fee, hotel-branded credit card is the smartest—and cheapest—solution to airport lounge access, but that’s exactly the case. With the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card ($0 intro annual fee the first year, then $95, see rates and fees), you get 10 free lounge visits to Priority Pass’s 1,300+ lounges for every year enrolled in Priority Pass Select membership. You can use these 10 visits on yourself or your travel companions, all at once or spread throughout the year.

This clearly isn’t the unlimited entry of a high-fee card, but for those who travel infrequently or want to dabble in airport lounging, it’s a wise choice. No other personal credit card at this fee level offers such lounge access.

Buy a Priority Pass membership

You don’t need to have a credit card to enter lounges in the Priority Pass network. It’s possible to buy a membership outright (though it doesn’t make sense financially).

There are three levels of membership—Standard, Standard Plus, and Prestige—all of which have an annual membership fee and charge for guests.

Priority Pass Membership LevelAnnual FeeAccessGuests
Standard$99$32 per visit$32 each
Standard Plus$29910 visits free, $32 thereafter$32 each
Prestige$429Unlimited$32 each

If you are considering buying a Priority Pass membership, getting a credit card is more cost-effective. As seen above, the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card offers essentially the same as the Standard Plus Membership but for a $0 intro annual fee the first year, then $95 instead of $299. Meanwhile, the cost of Prestige membership is in the ballpark of the annual fee commanded by most premium credit cards (while credit card membership allows two guests free of charge versus $32 apiece).

Buy an annual membership to a legacy airline’s lounge network

American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and Alaska Airlines have their own lounge networks, which can be accessed through annual memberships.

While pricing can vary based on elite status or being an active cardholder of a cobranded credit card, here are the starting membership fees for non-elites:

  • Alaska Airlines Alaska Lounge Membership: $450
  • American Airlines Admirals Club Membership: $650
  • Delta Sky Club Membership: $545
  • United Airlines United Club Membership: $650

Note that while Alaska lounges allow members to enter when flying same-day ticketed air travel on any airline, the other legacy carriers require same-day ticketed air travel on their metal or their partner airlines. It’s also important to point out that the annual fees for lounge membership with American, United, and Delta are higher than the annual fees of their respective premium credit cards, which come with lounge membership.

Buy a day pass

It’s possible to get airport lounge access by buying a day pass to select lounges within the Priority Pass network, Plaza Premium lounges, and some airline-branded lounges. One great way to find out which lounges can be accessed for the day is by downloading the LoungeBuddy app or visiting the website. The app and website contain helpful information about almost every lounge worldwide and indicate which can be accessed for one-time use and for how much (starting at $25). At press time, due to overcrowding and the COVID legacy of lounge closures, far fewer lounges are available for day passes than in early 2020.

Type London Heathrow (LHR), for example, on LoungeBuddy, and the page will populate with details on each of the airport’s 44 lounges, including eight that can be potentially booked for the day through LoungeBuddy (we say potentially because three of the eight remain temporarily closed). The five bookable for day passes include the Lufthansa Business Lounge in Terminal 2A for $74 per person and the Plaza Premium Lounge in Terminal 4 for $39 per person. Before booking, note your departure terminal and ensure that you can physically access the lounge via your terminal’s designated security checkpoints.

Although LoungeBuddy is a handy tool, it does not sell day passes to legacy airline lounges. Those seeking to access a United Club for one-time use can do so for $59 through the United app. American also sells day passes to its Admirals Club through its website for $59. Alaska Lounge Day passes can be purchased directly at its San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York–JFK lounges for $60 per person. Delta does not sell day passes.

Fly long-haul business or first class

A boarding pass for a long-haul international flight in business or first class can be the ticket to some of the world’s best airport lounges—ones that aren’t even accessible to credit card holders or Priority Pass members. For example, the only way to access Air France’s La Première lounge is with a first-class ticket on Air France.

One of our favorite lounges on the planet, Qatar Airways’ stunning Al Mourjan Business Lounge at Doha Airport, is included for passengers flying Qatar Airways First Class and Business Class (Elite, Comfort & Classic) and oneworld First Class and Business Class passengers. However, those flying Business Class (Lite) and economy class on Qatar Airways can also prepurchase lounge entry (at press time the price fluctuates around $100).

In some cases, a business- or first-class ticket no longer guarantees lounge access. This rings true for domestic tickets within the United States as well as short-haul international flights from the U.S. to the likes of the Caribbean and Central America.

Achieve top elite status and fly internationally

Some airlines grant airport lounge access to their top elite members under specific circumstances. For example, those with Delta Gold and Platinum Medallion Status are considered SkyTeam Elite Plus and have access to SkyTeam lounges for international flights, even on economy tickets. United Airlines’ MileagePlus Gold, Platinum, and 1K members can enter United lounges with a same-day international United boarding pass, regardless of class flown, as well as Star Alliance partner lounges when flying Star Alliance member airlines outside the United States.

Takeaways

Airport lounge access, with the promise of preflight indulgences, was once reserved for business- and first-class ticket holders only. Nowadays, it’s within easy reach for those holding the right credit card or willing to pay for entrance.

While the offers mentioned above are accurate at the time of publication, they are subject to change at any time, and may have changed or may no longer be available.

Paul Rubio is an award-winning travel journalist and photographer. His byline appears in AFAR, Conde Nast Traveler, Fodor’s, LUXURY, MSN, NerdWallet, Palm Beach Illustrated, Yahoo Lifestyle and more. He has visited 133 countries (and counting) over the past 20 years and won 27 national awards for his writing and photography. When he’s not plotting out his next trip, Paul loves to spend time at home watching reruns of Portlandia and Parks and Recreation with his husband and rescue dog, Camo.