With my napkin for protection, I gingerly pushed aside the half-full bowl of tomato-cheddar soup and hummus plate the last occupant had left behind. It was a minor inconvenience to make room for my own bowl of free chow. Besides, it had already taken me several minutes to secure a table at a very crowded airport lounge.
Not that I’m complaining. Pretty much any lounge beats sitting around in the main airport terminal.
Even so, if you’re looking for a quiet spot to escape the mosh pit at the gate, you may find you’ve got plenty of company. Crowding inside these terminal sanctuaries was a persistent problem even prior to the pandemic, dating back to 2016, when credit card companies started issuing travel-friendly plastic that allowed many more people to get past the velvet rope. And now, airport lounges are filling back up again.
Unfortunately, the larger crowds make the experience feel a little “less glamorous Hollywood party,” according to Michael Williams, a frequent flier and men’s style influencer from the website A Continuous Lean. But even if you’re not exactly alone, there are still ample perks in these elevated waiting rooms that often make them very much worth the barrier to entry.
Air France–KLM lounge and spa at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York
Best for pampering
You can get a head start on your trip to France in this multilevel lounge, where there’s plenty of room to relax over a glass of fine wine or have a restaurant-worthy preflight meal. Another distinguishing feature? There’s a full-service spa managed by Clarins, the French skincare and cosmetics company. The spa was temporarily shuttered during the pandemic but is now scheduled to reopen in the fall of 2022, according to a spokesperson for Air France.
How to access
A premium-class ticket on Air France or affiliate carriers. Priority Pass will also get you in and there are day passes available
Alaska Airlines lounge at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport
Best for local flavor
Given its long history of providing service to Seattle, it’s no surprise that Alaska’s lounge at Sea-Tac is the largest among the carrier’s six branded lounges in the United States—at 16,000 square feet, it has space for 340 guests. One standout feature: The west-facing space offers sweeping views of not just the runways but also the Olympic Mountains in the distance. And in a nod to the local coffee and craft beer scene, the bar has 12 popular brews on tap, plus hand-crafted coffee.
How to access
Standard annual membership in the carrier’s lounge program, with access to Alaska operated lounges, starts at $350 for elite members and at $450 for non-elite members. It is also open to those holding qualifying premium-class tickets on Alaska or with oneworld Alliance partners.
American Airlines Flagship First lounge at Miami International Airport
Best for dining and drinks
American Airlines Flagship First lounges win high praise from finicky travelers, such as branding expert Spencer Baim. “American put a lot of time and attention into it for their fliers,” he says, citing examples like spacious shower suites, DIY Bloody Mary stations, and menus curated by local chefs under the aegis of the James Beard Foundation. Other Flagship lounges are located in Chicago, Dallas–Fort Worth, Los Angeles, and JFK in New York, but the Miami location gets particularly high ratings for its food and beverage service.
How to access
Travel in first or business class on a qualifying same-day international, transcontinental, or other domestic flight marketed and operated by American, a oneworld airline, or marketed by JetBlue and operated by American.
Delta Sky Club at Los Angeles International Airport
Best for outdoor access
Fresh air is an elusive commodity at most airports, making a lounge with an outdoor patio hard to beat. And stateside, there’s no better place to enjoy the views and sunshine than at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), which after a massive renovation and expansion now boasts some of the country’s top-ranked airline lounges.
LAX is home to one of Delta’s newest and biggest Sky Clubs, which opened at Terminal 3 in the spring of 2022. According to a sneak peek that AFAR got in early 2022, “The new Delta Sky Club at LAX is a huge upgrade from the previous Delta lounge at LAX and it’s a great way to begin a long journey.” The massive space—it’s 30,000 square feet and has room for 500 travelers—includes a spacious Sky Deck patio, with a bar and a retractable roof and heaters to make it comfortable in all weather conditions.
For those on the East Coast, Delta’s Sky Club at JFK in New York also gets top marks for its open air deck with a ringside seat to all the action on the runway. “It sits as a tiny oasis with outdoor seating over the tarmac where you can not only power your phone but order a drink as well,” says Christine Martino, an advertising executive based in New York City.
How to access
There are multiple ways to access Delta Sky Clubs, including buying an annual club membership—rates start at $695 a year (as of January 1, 2023, annual memberships are only available to Medallion Members of the Delta SkyMiles Program); holding an American Express Platinum Card or certain Delta-branded credit cards; or flying business or first class with Delta.
Lufthansa at John F. Kennedy International Airport
Best for relaxation
Lufthansa’s JFK lounge is at once elegant, spacious, and sharply designed. The food and drink options win high marks from travelers—the burrata cheese plate and a tasty chicken marsala were excellent and a cut above what I’d had at most other lounges. Best of all, the atmosphere is very calming with airy, gorgeous views out of the floor-to-ceiling windows and ample, comfortable seating. The lounge has three levels, with a separate space for first-class passengers to enjoy private dining. Showers are also available. The first-class area is unique to Lufthansa at JFK; the airline also has highly rated lounges in Boston, Detroit, Newark, and Washington Dulles.
How to access
Fly in business or first class with Lufthansa or its partner carriers. Depending on how busy the lounge is on a particular day, day passes may be available. A Priority Pass will also get you in.
Star Alliance lounge at Los Angeles International Airport
Best airline alliance lounge
The spacious Star Alliance business-class lounge at Tom Bradley International is run by the world’s largest airline fraternity—which includes United, Lufthansa, Singapore, and other major players—and is the only one in the United States. (Others are located in international cities that include Paris, Buenos Aires, and Rome.)
How to access
Those who fly business or first class with a Star Alliance carrier will be able to access the lounge. Gold members have access no matter what class they’re flying in, and United Club members are eligible for access on outbound flights.
United Polaris lounge at Chicago O’Hare International Airport
Best for first- and business-class fliers
United’s Polaris lounge for international first- and business-class passengers at Chicago’s O’Hare is truly impressive. Beautifully designed with soothing lighting peering through quartz countertops, it has an area with daybeds for a quick nap and private shower facilities that rival those at a luxury hotel. Other Polaris lounges are located at Newark, Houston, San Francisco, and Washington Dulles.
How to access
Polaris lounges are reserved exclusively for long-haul international business-class travelers on United, as well as business- and first-class travelers on Star Alliance partner carriers.
Virgin Atlantic Clubhouses at JFK, LAX, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.
Best for glamour
Virgin Atlantic’s lounges—known as Clubhouses—are an extension of the airline’s recognizably playful branding. At JFK, the space is decorated in the airline’s signature red and purple tones, and there is even a purple-colored pool table. On my last visit to the Clubhouse in JFK, I noted the high-backed chairs (including a pair of Eames lounge chairs worth $7,000 apiece) and enjoyed a pumpkin bisque that was on point for the season. There are showers, but the spa, which once offered manicures and massages for weary travelers, is currently closed. Virgin Atlantic also has equally cool clubhouses at Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., along with a flagship at London’s Heathrow.
How to access
Fly in upper class with Virgin Atlantic or in business or first on Delta. Amex Platinum card holders can also get in.
While the above lounges represent some of the absolute best airline-run lounges at major U.S. hubs, a few more merit an honorable mention. They include:
Qantas first-class lounge at LAX
The Aussie flag carrier’s posh L.A. lounge, known for its California Knoll furnishings and a 48-foot-long bar, reopened on August 11. Open to Qantas International First customers and eligible Qantas frequent flier and oneworld members.
Emirates lounge at JFK
This spacious Emirates lounge is known for elegant decor, sweeping views of the runway, and fine food and drink. It is open to the carrier’s first- and business-class passengers as well as to economy-class fliers for a fee.
Turkish Airlines lounge at Washington Dulles
Known as one of the best lounges at Dulles, with the airline’s trademark emphasis on food and drink, it’s also open to Priority Pass members, in addition to Turkish and Star Alliance premium-class fliers.
How to access airport lounges
If you don’t have elite status with any of the airlines, there are numerous other ways that you may be able to gain access to an airline lounge.
Several credit cards, including the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the American Express Platinum, come with Priority Pass Select membership, which gives travelers access to a network of lounges once they activate their membership. There is also a growing network of credit card–branded lounges, including Amex-branded Centurion and Escape lounges, forthcoming Chase Sapphire lounges, and Capital One–branded lounges, which serve as added benefits for traveling cardholders.
In addition to popular credit cards, apps such as LoungeBuddy, which was acquired by Amex in 2019 and helps users locate lounges, and membership programs like Priority Pass have made it easier to pay for a day pass at select airport lounges, depending on availability—if you can find a facility that still offers this single-visit perk.
The bar for admission is typically higher at the lounges operated by foreign flag carriers serving the United States, which often restrict entry to first- and business-class fliers or travelers with elite status. And U.S. airlines are moving to more of a two-tiered system so their best customers will also get that VIP feel: Delta Air Lines, for example, has announced a new line of Delta One lounges exclusively reserved for those traveling in the carrier’s long-haul first-class cabins, with the first one slated to open in 2023 at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK). American Airlines has a more exclusive Flagship First product for those holding first-class and some business-class tickets, and United is making a major investment in Polaris lounges for international first- and business-class passengers at its domestic hubs.
In other moves to ease overcrowding at popular spots, some airlines have added limits on the number of hours travelers can spend per visit, as well as on how many guests they can bring.
“I think historically the U.S. airlines misread what the lounge was,” says Henry Harteveldt, cofounder and travel analyst with Atmosphere Research Group. “In Europe, it was never a membership club, but for the flag carriers, a premium cabin experience and a part of the journey.”
But while the ambiance at many domestic airports may feel more like a bus terminal on a bad day, at most major gateways, there are a few havens that retain a sense of glamour. Here, a sampling of top airline lounges in the United States, drawn from first-hand experience, along with input from frequent fliers and industry insiders. Keep in mind that the rules on hours, access, day pass sales, and other features can change, so check first with your carrier or credit card company to see what’s available closer to flight time.
Barbara Peterson contributed reporting.