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Airport lounges are enticing, but can be expensive to visit.

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How to Access Airline Lounges for Less

Four Alternatives to Costly Annual Memberships

An airline club lounge can be an oasis of civilized tranquility in an otherwise harried crowded airport experience.

This is part 1 of a series on airport lounges - please also visit

1.  Four Alternatives to Costly Annual Memberships
2.  Choosing the Best Airline Lounge Membership Option for You



Haven't you looked enviously at the closed doors into airport/airline lounges and wished you could enter those hallowed spaces too?

But at $400 or so for a year of membership, their cost is hard to justify for all but the most frequent of travelers.

Here now is information on other ways you can also access airport lounges for less than $400.

The Airport Lounge Experience

Even if you've not had the good fortune to access airport lounges before, you probably understand they offer a very much more civilized way of waiting for your flight.

Although most lounges are not quite as ultra-luxurious as they might present themselves to be (and as we might wish them to be as well), and although there is a large variation in lounge style and quality, most lounges share some common features.

Lounges usually have a mix of comfortable seating and some work area seating. They usually provide coffee and soft drinks for free, and may also have an open bar or may charge for alcoholic beverages. They will probably provide light snacks for free, and may have additional food options at normal meal times, either also free or perhaps for a fee.

They usually have their own washroom facilities, and a few even have showers too. There are probably phones and some computer workstations, and most lounges these days provide free Wi-Fi access too.

Magazines, newspapers, and television viewing areas are common.  Some lounges also have conference rooms available, which can be booked in advance, possibly for a fee.

Note that most lounges these days are on the secure side of airports.  If you are planning on attending a meeting in an airport lounge and are not a ticketed passenger, you would have to make advance arrangements (they usually recommend making these arrangements at least 24 hours in advance) with the airline to get through security to access their lounge.

Lounges can be quiet and peaceful, with some lounges choosing not to announce flight departures, while others will make such announcements.  You might need to keep an eye on the monitors and your watch so as not to miss your flight.

Lounge Desk Staff

A sometimes very helpful part of any lounge can be the airline staff at the lounges front desk. They are usually senior experienced agents, and will be more helpful if you have travel challenges than the regular agents in the public concourses, dealing with regular passengers.

Do You Even Need to Belong to an Airline Lounge Program

Sure, there's a lot of 'feel good' factor to being able to walk through the closed doors, into the more genteel atmosphere of an airline lounge when at an airport, but how often will you actually do this?

It could be argued that an hour in an airport lounge is not a bonus and benefit, but rather a wasted hour that could have been spent at home or work instead.  This is true of airports you start your travel at, but an unavoidable exception may of course be when you're making a lengthy connection between an incoming and ongoing flight at a hub somewhere.

Furthermore, at some of the larger airports, there might be a considerable distance between the lounge and your gate, and unless you're flying first class, you'll probably want to be at your gate so as to be able to board early rather than late (so as to be sure of getting some overhead space for any carry-ons you have).

So you might find yourself having to detour some distance to go to the lounge, and then only spend ten or fifteen minutes there before then having to walk an extended distance to your gate.  In such a case, is this really beneficial to you at all?  Why not just go directly to the gate, save yourself a bunch of walking, and be able to then sit and wait at the gate.

The bottom line question

If you have a multi-hour layover, then the benefit of lounge access if clear.  You could benefit from possibly a work booth for you and your laptop (complete with power socket) and free Wi-Fi is fairly plain, or, from a different perspective, the ability to just relax comfortably, read, watch television, chat with a companion, and perhaps sip on a cocktail.

But if you're only likely to have 30 minutes free time to spend in a lounge, how much is that worth to you?  Sure, you might get a free soda and maybe a packet of chips, but how much will you be willing to pay for this and a more comfy chair to sit in while feeling self-important for 30 minutes?

Four Alternatives to Regular Annual Lounge Programs

In addition to the obvious approach - buying an annual membership in an airline lounge program, there are four other ways to get yourself inside the lounges of your choice when traveling.

Depending on your travel style, any of these might be a better alternative to the approximately $400/yr cost of an annual lounge membership.

1.  Lounge Day Passes

Almost every airline with an airline lounge program will sell you day passes, costing about $40 - $50, and entitling you to (usually but not always) access all the lounges in their system for a single day.

This means if you are on a multi-journey flight, or doing a single roundtrip somewhere, you can access all their lounges at all their airports on your journey.

Some of the programs are more restrictive (eg United Airlines), with a pass allowing you entry only to a single lounge, if you wish to enter a second lounge at a second airport on the same day, you need to buy a second pass.

There are two main 'gotcha' issues associated with day passes.  The first is that unlike annual memberships, you can't bring any guests into the lounge with you.  Most annual memberships allow you to bring up to two guests (or even more family members) into the lounge with you; if you have a day pass, you'd have to buy admissions for each of them.

The second 'gotcha' is that day passes are usually good only at lounges operated by the specific airline that sold you the pass.  You're unlikely to get reciprocal benefit access to other airlines lounges (for example, if you buy a Continental day pass, you couldn't use that to access a United Red Carpet lounge).

But if these two restrictions are not a problem, then for someone who only occasionally flies (and, more to the point, only occasionally needs to access lounges), buying day passes as and when needed will probably be less expensive than buying an annual membership.

2.  30 or 90 day Memberships

If you're going to be doing an extensive burst of travel for a short period, then the 30 or 90 day passes offered by some airlines might be a good alternative to day passes or annual memberships.

They cost more than twice a single day pass, but less than an annual pass, and in the case of US Airways, give you guest privileges too.

3.  American Express Platinum Card Access

Amex Platinum card holders can access American Airlines Admirals Clubs, Continental Airlines Presidents Clubs, and Delta Sky Clubs at many locations around the world, free of charge, when flying on the relevant airline in any class of service.  Over 200 club locations participate in this program.

This special membership benefit also allows you up to two companions to enter with you.

This benefit may go much of the way to justifying the $450 annual fee for an American Express Platinum card.

4.  Priority Pass

The Priority Pass program can sometimes be a better deal, both for infrequent travelers and for very frequent travelers (they have three different membership levels giving you good alternatives whatever your travel style may be), particularly if you are usually flying alone rather than with companions.

Because Priority Pass is a very different program, independent of the airlines, we've devoted the next section to a more detailed discussion of how Priority Pass works.

Priority Pass Program

Priority Pass is a company unrelated to any of the airlines and their lounges.  It has contracted with many different airlines and the various other companies that also operate airport lounges, giving their members access to over 600 lounges, in more than 300 cities, in more than 100 countries.  There are 70 participating lounges in the US.

They have three membership plans.  The top level of membership (Prestige) costs $399 annually, and gives you unlimited access to all 600 lounges.  This price is in line with most regular airline lounge memberships, but gives you access to more lounges than you could access with any single airline lounge membership.

The entry level membership (Standard) costs $99 a year and then you pay $27 each time you visit a lounge.  The $27 per visit fee is less than the typical $40 - $50 day pass charged by airlines directly, and after something like five or so admissions, the $99 annual fee is probably recovered by the saving in each day pass cost.

Their midlevel membership (Standard Plus) costs $249 and includes ten visits; after ten visits you pay $27 for each extra visit.

Which airline lounges participate

There is no clear rhyme nor reason, as best we can establish, to which airline lounges participate and which do not in the Priority Pass program.  At some airports, you'll see some airline lounges featured and other airline lounges excluded, but at other airports, you'll see different airlines participating.

I've generally had moderately good success at being able to find a participating airport lounge close to the gate I'm flying out of, but not always.

For example, at LAX, Priority Pass has lounges in terminals 1, 2, 3, 6 and the international terminal, but not in any of the other terminals (4, 5, 7, 8).  At JFK, there are lounges in terminals 1, 4 & 7 (but not for terminals 2, 3, 6, 8 or 9).  At LHR, there are lounges in terminals 1, 3 & 4 but not terminal 5 (terminal 2 is currently closed for reconstruction).

So, as with other lounge programs, it is helpful to research the likely locations you're going to be looking for lounges in.

Pay for every lounge visited on the same day

A downside of the Priority Pass program is that whereas some airline day passes can be used at multiple lounges during its day of validity, you have to buy a separate pass for each different lounge you visit under the Priority Pass system (unless you have the Prestige level membership).

If you validly believe that you will get multiple uses from an airline day pass, obviously that will always be less cost than buying two Priority Pass admissions).

Guests cost extra

Unlike annual airline memberships, you always pay $27 per guest.

This is good if you are comparing the Priority Pass programs to buying day passes (where guests will be paying the same $40-$50 fee) but bad if comparing Priority Pass to annual memberships (allowing free guests).

Their three memberships compared

  • A Standard membership is best if you'll only use it five or fewer times a year - but in such a case, perhaps just buy regular airline day passes.

  • A Standard Plus membership is a better deal than a Standard membership if you expect to use it 6 - 15 times in a year.

  • A Prestige membership is the best deal if you expect to use it 16 or more times a year.

Is Priority Pass right for you

See also our discussion on the second page of this article, about the best airport lounge program in general.

Priority Pass works well for someone who travels alone, who flies internationally but not in first or business class, who isn't an elite level frequent flier, and who either expects to use airport lounges 6 - 10 times a year, or more than 15.

Read more in the second part of this article

This is part 1 of a series on airport lounges - please also visit

1.  Four Alternatives to Costly Annual Memberships
2.  Choosing the Best Airline Lounge Membership Option for You

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Originally published 23 Apr 2010, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.


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