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The Best Airport Lounge Passes for Travelers

By Mike Arnot

04.11.19

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The Delta SkyClub in Atlanta has one of the rarest amenities when it comes to airport lounges—fresh air. 

Courtesy of Delta Air Lines

The Delta SkyClub in Atlanta has one of the rarest amenities when it comes to airport lounges—fresh air. 

Yes, you can buy your way into premium airport lounges—but they’re not as accessible as they once were.

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Airport lounges have swung from the exclusive domain of business- and first-class passengers to a free-for-all for almost anyone with a premium credit card. And while some lounges might feel like they’re always crowded, access to these private spaces is actually becoming increasingly restricted once again. If you’re looking for a place to relax before or between flights—without paying the price of a premium ticket—there are still a few ways to visit airport lounges in the United States.

Purchase a single-visit pass or day pass

Generally, travelers can purchase access to airline lounges with a single-visit pass (for one specific airport lounge only) or for a day pass (redeemable at any of the airline’s lounges that you might encounter on your travels that day). Each airline has its own set of rules—here are some of the biggest airlines that allow guests to purchase entrance.

United Club and American Admirals Club
All travelers can purchase a day pass for the United Club and American Airlines Admirals Club for $59, even if they’re flying with a different carrier. However, in response to overcrowding at the clubs (particularly during late-afternoon peak periods every day), United and American will begin to restrict entrances. Beginning in November, passengers on both airlines will be required to present a same-day boarding pass with their respective airline (or a partner airline) to get into the clubs. This is true even if you have a yearlong club membership, which costs $550 for United and starts at $550 for American, where the costs range based on your frequent flier status. There are additional charges for pass-holder guests, generally running around $30 per person.

The American Airlines Admirals Club in Rio di Janeiro

Delta SkyClub
Delta is even more restrictive than its fellow domestic carriers. In response to demand exceeding capacity, Delta no longer offers single-visit passes to its SkyClubs at all. To pay to get into the SkyClub, passengers need to purchase a yearlong club membership for $545 (or access the lounge as a credit card benefit on a Delta-branded card or the American Express Platinum Card). Members can bring up to two guests at $29 per guest.

Alaska Airlines
Seattle-based Alaska Airlines charges $50 for a day pass (or $25 if you are an Alaska Airlines Visa cardholder). The airline is opening new clubs—SFO opens in 2020—to complement its existing lounges at JFK, LAX, Portland, Seattle, and Anchorage. The best part? Alaska doesn’t care which airline you’re flying with—all are welcome.

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Virgin Atlantic and Lufthansa
Some of the best airline lounge passes are with non-U.S. carriers. For example, if you’re flying Premium Class with Virgin Atlantic, you can purchase a $79 day pass for its coveted Clubhouse—normally available only to Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class cabin. Access includes excellent dining, a complimentary massage, and an overall relaxing experience akin to that of a boutique hotel. (If you’re flying economy class, however, you’re out of luck.) 

Lufthansa, meanwhile, allows visits to its lounge network before 2 p.m. for $40—which is a great deal if you’ve got a long layover from a connecting flight at a Lufthansa hub. It’s not so useful if you’re departing from a Lufthansa U.S. hub, however, because flights to Europe typically depart in the late afternoon and evening.

Access through your credit card

Some premium credit cards provide access to airline lounges as a primary benefit, but you’ll have to pay hefty annual fees for the cards. For example, you can get into the Delta SkyClub by presenting a Delta (or SkyTeam airline) boarding pass and your American Express Platinum Card. The card itself has an annual fee of $550. The same is true with United’s MileagePlus Club Card (for access to the United Clubs; the annual card fee is $450) and Citi AAdvantage Executive Card (to get into to American Airlines Admirals Club; the annual fee is $450.)

The Delta SkyClub in Phoenix

Your Amex Platinum Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve card also comes with Priority Pass Select Membership, which includes unlimited access to an independent network of lounges, too.

Get in with Priority Pass

For travelers lacking status or business-class tickets, Priority Pass gets you into to some 1,180 lounges worldwide (and growing). Regular pass holders pay a membership fee starting at $99 (which allows you pay-per-visit lounge access of $32 per entry) or $299 (which affords travelers 10 lounge visits, and then it’s $32 per visit thereafter). If you pony up $499, you and a guest get unlimited visits to the Priority Pass Select network. Both the American Express Platinum Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve include this unlimited membership.

But online reviews of Priority Pass are decidedly mixed, with members reporting that the lounges often hit capacity and will not allow access to cardholders.

“With Priority Pass, you have to be careful about the available hours for Priority Pass members and how long you’re allowed to stay,” says frequent flier James Freiman. “I’ve never been denied, and it’s included in my AmEx Platinum Card.”

The Alaska Airlines lounge at New York’s JFK airport.
So how extensive is the network? For U.S. airports, you’ll need to do your research because availability varies. Some included examples are single-day passes to the Alaska Airlines lounges, while at airports such as Philadelphia, Charlotte, and Dallas, pass-holders get access to Minute Suites, which offer entirely private spaces for one hour (but with no food). Also part of the network is The Club, an independent network of lounges at airports such as Atlanta, Seattle, Boston, Dallas, and Las Vegas.

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At JFK, you can visit the Air France lounge for a maximum of three hours, space permitting. However, the hours leave much to be desired: Priority Pass members can enter from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and then again after 11:00 p.m. Finally, where there aren’t extensive lounges available, Priority Pass does get you a discount of $28 off of the cost of a meal at select restaurants, such as Bobby Van’s Steakhouse at JFK.

International airports are Priority Pass’s strong suit; membership includes nine lounges at Dubai (including the SkyTeam lounge), eight lounge options at Heathrow, 11 in Singapore, and more.

Look on LoungeBuddy

LoungeBuddy is a must-have resource for the lounge-savvy. (So much so that American Express recently bought the San Francisco–based startup.) The app and website contain helpful information about almost every lounge worldwide. Users can also pay for access to a number of lounges (including the highly rated Lufthansa lounges). The lounges in its network vary in pricing because some of them offer higher-quality amenities and levels of service than others, explains Blake Griffith, a cofounder of LoungeBuddy.

“Our strengths are at international hubs like Heathrow, Dubai, Hong Kong, and Singapore, which typically cater to lots of international flights with connections or long layovers,” says Griffith. For example, the app lets travelers get into 10 lounges at Heathrow (including the Lufthansa business-class lounge for $117) and nine lounges in Dubai (starting at $39). “We actually help to smooth the demand out in the lounge and actively work with our partners—airline and independent lounge operators—on not driving more demand during periods of peak overcrowding,” he adds.

Check on eBay

Smart travelers have long perused eBay for lounge passes. For example, on eBay you can purchase United Club passes for as little as $29. Members of the various United credit cards receive two one-time passes per year with their card. It’s against the rules to sell them, which hasn’t prevented a robust market—but note that there’s always a chance you could be denied entry. Typically, the passes expire within a few days or weeks, so they’re best used for your immediate travel plans.

Ultimately, is it worth it to purchase a pass through one of these avenues? We’d say yes, especially if you have a long layover. And if it's not too late to take advantage of the United and American day passes, consider that an airport meal alone will cost upwards of $20. An additional $39 for a solid internet connection, coffee, and peace and quiet can add on lots of value.

>> Next: The Best Airline Lounges in the United States

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