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The Best Credit Cards for Airport Lounge Access

By Paul Rubio

Oct 13, 2021

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Pull up a seat at the bar at Amex’s newest Centurion Lounge that opened at London Heathrow in October 2021.

Courtesy of American Express

Pull up a seat at the bar at Amex’s newest Centurion Lounge that opened at London Heathrow in October 2021.

Avoid the airport masses, sip complimentary cocktails, and even get a free massage—just by carrying the right travel credit card.

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Today, fliers are desperately seeking ways to dodge congested airport concourses while also enjoying preflight indulgences that celebrate the return of travel. Both are entirely possible thanks to the reopening of airport lounges, some offering amenities that include celebrity chef–driven food presentations, artisanal cocktails, design-forward relaxation areas, and micro spas. 

Back in the day, relaxing in an airport lounge was reserved for those holding business-class tickets, but nowadays the right credit card is your ticket into most of the world’s airport lounges—even when flying economy. Here are the best credit cards to suit your lounging and travel needs, keeping your willingness to pay hefty annual fees (or not) in mind.

The overall best credit card for airport lounge access

We’ll cut right to the chase: The Platinum Card® from American Express is hands down the best personal credit card available for airport lounge access, in terms of both quantity and quality. The American Express Global Lounge Collection grants Platinum Card holders entry into more lounges than any other credit card on the market. Plus, the card is your ticket into Amex’s collection of highly coveted Centurion Lounges. Frequent fliers will want to consider applying for this card.  

The most extensive lounge network

Most travel credit cards with annual fees of $450 and above come with Priority Pass Select membership, which grants complimentary entry to over 1,300 lounges across 130 countries, regardless of airline or class flown. These credit card memberships allow up to two guests per visit, free of charge. For most travel credit cards, the lounge access story ends there. However, the Platinum Card’s lounge network goes further. In addition to Priority Pass lounges, Platinum Card holders can also enter Delta Sky Club airline lounges, Plaza Premium lounges, AirSpace lounges, Lufthansa lounges, International American Express lounges, and . . . drumroll . . . the Centurion Network, which includes 40+ Centurion Lounges and Escape Lounges-the Centurion Studio Partner.

Top-tier Centurion Lounges

Centurion Lounges are the signature airport lounges of American Express. They are exclusive to Platinum and Centurion cardholders (and their guests) and bring a lot of glamour into the airport experience. These state-of-the-art establishments feature noteworthy food and beverage programs, often created by local celebrity chefs and mixologists, thoughtfully designed work and relaxation spaces, and sometimes salons and spas, where complimentary treatments are given. In short, they’ll make you want to linger in the airport and even arrive a few hours before departure.

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There are 13 currently in major U.S. airports (Charlotte, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York-LGA, New York-JFK, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Seattle) and a growing number internationally. On October 12, 2021, American Express debuted the 7,000-square-foot Centurion Lounge at London Heathrow, which pays homage to its location through menus by noted British chef Assaf Granit, a tea cart rife with hot and cold selections plus pastries, a British-tinged cocktail menu (John Collins, anyone?), and photography by celebrated fashion photographer Norman Parkinson.  

Platinum Card holders can enter any Centurion Lounge on their date of air travel, regardless of airline flown or class of travel and with up to two guests per visit, free of charge. 

Why apply now?

It seems more relevant than ever to escape airport crowds—and taking refuge in a snazzy lounge is a smart solution. But beyond the promise of unapologetic preflight lingering, the Amex Platinum Card is posting its own all-time best introductory bonus: a welcome offer of 100,000 bonus points after spending $6,000 in the first six months of card membership. Plus, you’ll earn 10 points per dollar on up to $25,000 in combined purchases in the first six months at restaurants globally and when you Shop Small in the United States at businesses that participate in this Amex program. (Terms apply.) Also helping offset an annual fee of $695 (see rates and fees) are such perks as annual statement credits per calendar year toward incidental fees on the U.S. airline of your choice, $200 in statement credits each year on prepaid bookings made through Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts and the Hotel Collection through Amex Travel, monthly Uber/UberEats credits (amounting to $185 annually), monthly digital entertainment subscription credits for the likes of SiriusXM and the New York Times (up to $240 per year), and more (enrollment required for select benefits, terms apply). 

The best low-fee credit card for airport lounge access

If you simply can’t swallow the Platinum Card’s annual fee, regardless of the myriad benefits, the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card is an inexpensive way to score lounge action. With a $95 annual fee (see rates and fees), you clearly won’t get the unlimited entry of a high-fee card, but you will get 10 free lounge visits to 1,300+ Priority Pass lounges for every year enrolled in Priority Pass Select membership. There is no other personal credit card at this fee level to offer such lounge access. (Popular low- to mid-range fee cards like Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, Citi Premier® Card, and American Express® Gold Card do not offer any type of lounge perk.) You can use these 10 visits on yourself or your travel companions, all at once or spread throughout the year. Those who travel infrequently or who just want to dabble in airport lounging should consider this card.   

Why apply now?

Taking advantage of the 10-pack lounge visit, which would cost $320 if purchased directly from Priority Pass, more than covers the annual fee of Amex Hilton Surpass. But further sweetening this deal is a current welcome offer of up to 180,000 bonus points. Earn 130,000 points after you use your card to make $2,000 in eligible purchases within the first three months plus an additional 50,000 points after you make $10,000 total in purchases on the card in the first six months. Cardholders also enjoy automatic Hilton Honors Gold elite status and earn a minimum of three points per dollar spent on purchases. (Terms apply.)

The best credit cards for Priority Pass Select membership

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Many high-fee travel credit cards provide cardmembers with Priority Pass Select membership, allowing them to access more than the 1,300 airport lounges around the world in the Priority Pass network. These cards are Chase Sapphire Reserve® ($550 annual fee), Citi Prestige ($495 annual fee), Hilton Honors Aspire Card ($450 annual fee), Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card ($450 annual fee—see rates and fees), and the Platinum Card from American Express ($695 annual fee). All five cards allow entry on the flight date, regardless of airline or class flown, with up to two guests complimentary. 

However, Priority Pass membership obtained through the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Citi Prestige is superior to membership obtained through an American Express–branded card. Why? Well, in addition to its lounges, Priority Pass has numerous airport restaurants, cafés, and bars in its network. At press time, there are 29 of these so-called lounge alternatives where Priority Pass members receive a food and beverage credit of $28 to $32 per guest. Unfortunately, those who obtain membership through an American Express–branded credit card are not privy to the credits at Priority Pass’s lounge alternatives, while those who do so through Chase or Citi are. If you don’t happen to live in or transit often through cities with Amex Centurion Lounges, you may want to gain lounge access by applying for one of these Priority Pass front-runners. 

In our opinion, the Chase Sapphire Reserve is the best choice given its $300 annual credit for travel purchases (effectively dropping the annual fee to $250), a current welcome bonus of 50,000 Ultimate Rewards Points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first three months on account opening, and a rewards earning structure filled with bonus points in certain spend categories. (Terms apply.) What’s more, Chase recently announced the future opening of its own airport lounges, beginning with outposts at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, Boston’s Logan International Airport, and Hong Kong International Airport.

The best credit cards for airline loyalists

If you are loyal to a particular airline and fly it often, it may be worth getting an airline-specific credit card. The United Club℠ Infinite Card, for example, comes with United Club membership while the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® comes with access to Admirals Club lounges, and the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card provides entry to Delta Sky Club. However, to enter these lounges, you must be flying the carrier of your branded card. For those who want more freedom in where they lounge and who they fly, a credit card with some sort of  Priority Pass membership or the Platinum Card from American Express is a wiser choice. 

Takeaways

If you can get over the initial shock of the hefty annual fee (and realize that the benefits outweigh the fee), the Platinum Card from American Express provides entry to more lounges than any other credit card and experiences at some of the world’s best. There’s no other card like it, and frequent fliers should strongly consider applying for this card.  If a full Priority Pass membership offers enough options for your liking and you don’t feel the need for the Platinum card’s mega-selection, go for the Chase Sapphire Reserve. Finally, if you don’t fly often and simply want to visit a lounge when you do, the Hilton Honors Surpass is your best option. Regardless of which you choose, you’ll thank us when you are sipping that morning mimosa and feeling great as you board your next flight. You’re welcome. 

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.

>> Next: 10 Best Travel Credit Cards to Apply for Right Now

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