Courtesy of Lufthansa
Courtesy of Virgin Atlantic
The colorful Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at LAX airport in Los Angeles
U.S. airline lounges vary vastly in size, quality, and perks. Here are our picks for the best lounges in the country, whether you’re looking for relaxation, great views, or excellent food.
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 necessary, 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 lounge.
Not that I’m not complaining. Pretty much any lounge beats sitting around in the main airport terminal.
“With the proliferation of credit cards that enable more and more people to access lounges, the experience has become less glamorous Hollywood party and more bus depot at max capacity,” observes Michael Williams, a frequent flyer and men’s style influencer from the website A Continuous Lean.
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. In addition to popular credit cards, apps such as LoungeBuddy and membership programs like Priority Pass have made it easier to pay for a day pass at select airport lounges (although domestic carriers Delta, America, and United don’t allow access with these type of airport lounge passes). Typically, lounges are only open to first- and business-class flyers or travelers with elite status.
So which airline lounges still maintain a sense of glamour and which are more like Greyhound stations? Airline lounges vary in quality and reputation, so I consulted with several frequent flyers, like Williams, to get their take on the best airline lounges in the United States.
The travelers I spoke with consistently cited non-U.S. airline lounges at JFK, including Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, and Lufthansa, as some of the best in the United States. That’s not a surprise to me—New York is our most international city, where every airline wants to make a great impression. So just why do these airlines shine?
“I think historically the U.S. airlines misread what the lounge was,” says Henry Harteveldt, an airline industry expert with the 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.” That’s why lounges that belong to European carriers feel much more luxe and like an extension of the first- and business-class experience.
“U.S. carriers are never going to have the very best lounges in the world,” says Seth Kaplan of Airline Weekly and an airline industry expert. “Even if they won’t quite say it this way, they know that beyond a certain point, there’s a declining return on investment—the very best lounge is a lot more costly to build and run than a rather good lounge, but the very best lounge is not going to generate a lot more revenue for the airline than a rather good lounge.”
That said, U.S. carriers are increasingly upping their game, with United making a major investment in Polaris lounges for international first- and business-class passengers at its domestic hubs. And Alaska Airlines recently announcing an upcoming 8,500-square-foot lounge at SFO with views of the runway and the bay.
Lufthansa’s JFK lounge, which I recently visited, is at once elegant, spacious, and sharply designed. The food and drink options, such as a 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 Lufthansa lounge is very calming with airy, gorgeous views out of the floor-to-ceiling windows and ample, comfortable seating. Looking out at a Lufthansa Boeing 747 ready to fly to Frankfurt feels like a real-time advertisement for the German carrier. The lounge has three levels, with a separate space for first-class passengers to enjoy private dining. The first-class area is unique to Lufthansa at JFK; the airline also has highly rated lounges in Boston, Detroit, Newark, and Washington Dulles.
To access: Fly in business or first class with Lufthansa (or its partner carriers), or purchase a day pass with LoungeBuddy for $40, depending on how busy the lounge is that day.
To access: Fly in Upper Class with Virgin Atlantic, or Premium Class passengers can purchase a $79 day pass.
My wife and I once experienced the British Airways Concorde lounge, a special, separate lounge within the regular lounge reserved for first-class passengers. The business-class lounge is already impeccable with a fine selection of scotch and plenty of food. But it’s the first-class lounge that really shines. There, we sat down to enjoy truly fine dining—perfectly cooked veal medallions and a creamy gazpacho—before boarding our flight to Heathrow. (We even spotted a British celebrity there.)
To access: For the Concorde lounge, fly in first class. For the business lounge, fly in business class. In each case, you may have access with British Airways Executive Club membership.
Kiersten Rich—known as The Blonde Abroad on Instagram—says getting some sunshine at the airport is a real treat, especially at LAX, her home airport. “My favorite lounge is the Star Alliance Lounge at Tom Bradley International,” she says of the LAX-based terminal. The Star Alliance lounge at LAX is the only one in the United States and one of a handful around the world in cities including Paris, Buenos Aires, and Rome. “There are few lounges in the world that feature outdoor terraces, and L.A. is the perfect city for it,” says Rich. “You get nearly perfect weather in L.A. year-round, and there are outdoor fireplaces so you can enjoy some fresh air even on colder days.”
the airport life a few days a week.” A New York–based traveler, she highlighted the same unusual feature at JFK’s Delta Sky Club: the great outdoors. “JFK’s Sky Club rises above the rest due to one simple amenity: the opportunity to get fresh air while at the airport,” Martino says. “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.”
Sam Horine agrees with Martino. He’s a New York–based travel photographer with a stunning Instagram account showcasing his adventures. “The Sky Club gets busy as expected for New York, but it’s still my favorite. It’s got good chairs, decent bar, fast Wi-Fi, and the open air sky deck is always a treat.”
To access: For the Star Alliance lounge, fly business or first class with a Star Alliance carrier. Gold members have access no matter what class they’re flying in, and United Club members are eligible for access on outbound flights. There are multiple ways to access the Delta SkyClub, including holding an American Express Platinum Card, buying a year-long pass (price varies on your Delta status), or flying business or first class with Delta.
Frequent flier Martino says she can describe the ins and outs of every Delta Sky Club in the country. “They are all similar in their decor and layout, but there is always one differentiating food item culturally relevant to the location,” she says. “Atlanta’s [flagship] Sky Club will have the standard cubed cheese and veggies, but then instead of hummus, they’ll have a pimento cheese spread. I think it’s their way to add some cultural flair.”
Brad Olson echoes this, noting his hometown Delta Sky Club in Milwaukee serves Spotted Cow on tap (a beer only available in Wisconsin) and fresh cheese curds. Olson knows a thing or two about brand experiences; he’s the SVP of member services at exercise bike company Peloton and a former executive at Starwood Preferred Guest. “So many domestic lounges look and feel the same from airport to airport, but Milwaukee’s Sky Club is a nice respite from the usual chicken salad and crudités,” he says.
To access: See above. Note that as of late 2018, purchasing a single day pass (previously $59) is no longer an option.
I recently visited United’s Polaris Lounge for international first- and business-class passengers at Chicago’s O’Hare, and it’s truly impressive. Beautifully designed, with soothing lighting peering through quartz countertops, it has an area for daybeds for a quick nap and private shower facilities that rival those at a luxury hotel. The Polaris lounge, which opened in December 2016, is hands-down the best lounge I’ve experienced from a domestic carrier. And I’m not the only one who is smitten.
“Polaris offers an even better experience, from super-fast Wi-Fi to a full-service bar to posh shower suites with Saks Fifth Avenue towels,” say Zach Honig, editor-at-large for The Points Guy. “They’re more widely available, too, with locations in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, and more on the way.”
Harteveldt concurs, noting that United’s Polaris club is “winning the hearts, minds and bellies of long-haul travelers.”
To access: Fly international first or business class on United or on a Star Alliance carrier (which gives you access for an outbound flight). It’s not available for day passes; business-class passengers flying domestically can only access the regular United Club.
Spencer Baim, the chief brand officer of Vice, the Brooklyn-based media company, is on the road frequently, and he says it’s tough to be away from family so often. “The airport lounge experience is a key part of making these trips more pleasurable,” he says. “Time in the lounge is time to recuperate or to push forward with a presentation I am writing. My favorite moments are with a glass of wine and FaceTime with my children.”
His favorite and most frequent stopover is the American Airlines Flagship First lounge. “American put a lot of time and attention into it for their flyers,” he says—high praise from this branding expert.
American takes its drinks seriously as well; there are tubs full of champagne to make a morning mimosa and a DIY Bloody Mary station.
The Points Guy’s Honig notes that “the vast majority of flyers will never have an opportunity to experience the à la carte menu, custom cocktails, and more.” That’s because the Flagship First dining lounge is only available for first-class passengers on American, and there simply aren’t many flights on American Airlines with a separate first-class section. Nevertheless, there are Flagship First lounges at Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, JFK, and, according to American Airlines’s website, new lounges opening soon at Dallas and Philadelphia.
To access: Fly in first class on American Airlines.
“Airports have consistently improved their public spaces,” Harteveldt says, noting the steady investment in improvements by airport authorities across the nation.
“By and large, airports have more comfortable seats, local food options, and much better concessions. Previously, the only place you could get Wi-Fi at an airport was an airline lounge, and now that’s complimentary at most airports.”
Case in point: the United and Air Canada pier at New York’s LaGuardia Airport that opened in December 2018, where each seat has access to a power outlet and a USB port. It’s open to the public and just a short hop over to Shake Shack. On a recent flight from LaGuardia, I was impressed by this new addition to its main terminal. While it wasn’t a private lounge, I had turkey chili from Au Bon Pain, plenty of comfortable, clean seating, nobody sitting next to me, and fast Wi-Fi.
It’s not quite Hollywood glamour, but it was free.
To access: Fly from LaGuardia Terminal B.
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