How to Get in the World’s Best Airport Lounges for (Nearly) Free
News flash: You don't have to deal with airport chaos when you fly. Instead, relax in comfort and style—with free food and drinks—at the best airport lounges.
Tell me if this sounds familiar: You arrive at the airport only to discover that your flight has been delayed, and you now have multiple hours to fill in an overcrowded terminal before you can board your flight. I’ve had this happen more times than I care to count. After an especially excruciating delay trying to fly from Newark to Puerto Rico with my young son in tow (where we spent hours sitting on the floor because all the seats were filled), I finally took the plunge into the world of airline lounges. That was more than a decade ago, and I’m here to tell you that the best airline lounges are an airport’s best-kept secrets, and they’ll make you feel like you’ve gotten a flight upgrade.
The best lounges I’ve visited have made-to-order food, sleeping areas and showers—and one even had a champagne bar! But even the least memorable provided some basic free amenities and food, not to mention a more private spot than the food court or the flight gate. And this comes in handy not only when you’re delayed or have a long layover but also when you just want to have a more pleasant airport experience.
So how do you access these magical sites? By knowing some strategic air-travel tips, including using the best travel credit cards. And here’s the big secret: You might already be entitled to access. Here’s what you need to know.
Get Reader’s Digest’s Read Up newsletter for more travel tips, tech, humor, cleaning and fun facts all week long.
What are airport lounges, anyway?
At their core, the best airport lounges are a respite from the busy airport terminal, a kind of private living room away from the hustle and bustle of the airport. “Some lounges are barely more than a quiet space with a bowl of pretzels, but some are an oasis in which to escape from an airport’s many announcements,” says Ryan Smith, a senior editor at AwardWallet, a service that helps you track any type of loyalty account and manage your travel plans. Common amenities, he adds, include free Wi-Fi, drinks and light bites.
There are three types of lounges: those operated by the airlines, those affiliated with specific credit cards and those that operate on an individual membership basis. The perks you’ll get at airport lounges also vary by city, country and airport. In small regional airports (especially those that don’t have international service), you may not find any lounges at all.
What types of perks will you find at an airport lounge?
Jeff Greenberg/Getty Images
Aside from a quiet place to chill before your flight, food is a big draw, but as mentioned, the type and quality varies. I’ve been to United lounges in the United States that are only “grab and go,” meaning you can bring food on the plane (think: packaged cheese and crackers, cookies and cans of soda or bottled water). My favorite airport lounge, though, was Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong. It had a dumpling bar and made-to-order noodle bowls that were among the best I’ve eaten anywhere.
And food isn’t all you can expect. “Some lounges will have showers, separate areas for sleeping or for children, and even sit-down meals,” says Smith. “In order to know what you’ll find at various lounges so you can choose from your available options, look for photos online from recent visitors. These will tell the full story of what the lounge has or what it lacks.”
Another excellent, under-the-radar benefit? If you’re visiting an airline lounge, you’ll have front-of-the-line access to airline help-desk personal, who maintain a separate desk in the lounge only for those passengers with club access. This is a priceless perk when dealing with delays, canceled flights or missed connections.
Why should you care about airport-lounge access?
OK, let’s address the elephant in the room: From the outside looking in, airport lounges seem a lot like elitist waiting rooms, yet another pay-for-play amenity at the airport. However, let’s say you’re in the middle of long-haul travel—like, New York to Nairobi with a multi-hour layover in Frankfurt. At an airport lounge, you’ll have a place to sit down and close your eyes without worrying about your bag’s safety (one of the perks I truly appreciate). You might also have a spot to shower or lay down, since some lounges have rooms where you can take an uninterrupted nap.
You can see how those benefits would be totally worth it in that sort of travel situation. But even if you’re flying domestic, being able to grab a meal and charge your electronics while sitting in a comfy chair and having a glass of wine—all gratis—can go a long way toward soothing a tense trip.
“I love visiting the Capital One Lounge at DFW (Dallas Fort Worth),” says Senitra Horbrook, who covers how to get lounge access at her Points Travelher Instagram (and is often my first source of info about credit card travel perks). “The lounge not only has a stylish design—it also has extensive amenities such as a relaxation room, cycling and yoga room, and food stations with convenient individual portions available.”
How can you get into the world’s best airport lounges?
Jeff Greenberg/Getty Images
There are multiple ways to get access to the best airport lounges and clubs, and you may be surprised at how many of them don’t involve paying for individual visits. Some are as easy as having the right credit card in your wallet, having elite frequent-flier status or flying in a premium-class seat on an international flight.
Even if you don’t have any of these, you can enter some lounges for about $35 a visit (for example, with Priority Pass, as you’ll see below), or purchase a pass for multiple visits, which brings down the cost. Scan the list below for the method that best suits you and your travel plans.
Use a credit card with travel perks
Airport-lounge access is one of the most popular travel credit card benefits, according to WalletHub. And you may already have this perk as part of your credit card’s benefits and not realize it, especially if you have a credit card from your employer. Some travel credit cards have an airline allegiance, and they may provide anywhere from two free lounge passes (for example, the United Explorer card, which has an annual fee of $95) to unlimited access to the branded clubs for a year (the United Infinite Card, with an annual fee of $525).
You can also apply for a card that gives you access to a range of lounges. The American Express Platinum Card was the original, high-end travel credit card. Today, it will get you into any Priority Pass network lounge, any Delta Skyclub (as long as you hold a Delta ticket) and American Express’s own branded clubs (Centurion Lounges), which often offer free spa treatments, wine tasting and other premium amenities. Note that for this level of access, the annual fee is $695, but you’ll also receive other perks, including large travel credits for hundreds of dollars.
The Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card is Horbrook’s pick. The annual fee of $395 is less than the others in this category, and not only can you visit Capital One lounges, she says, but “you can also access more than 1,000 other lounges worldwide via the membership in Priority Pass this credit card provides.”
Buy premium international tickets
Most airlines have branded lounges in their hub airports and in airports where they have extended flights. (Note that budget airlines don’t have lounges.) These are available to passengers flying business class or first class. However, it’s important to note that most airlines require you to be flying in a premium cabin internationally—not just, say, from Dallas to Chicago—to get lounge access, says Smith.
Earn elite status on an airline carrier
If you fly United or one of the two dozen other Star Alliance airlines (these include international carriers such as Lufthansa, Singapore and Turkish Air) and have Gold frequent-flier status or higher, you can access any of the nearly 1,000 Star Alliance lounges around the world. This is the best free perk I’ve enjoyed with my elite United status, which I earned simply by flying (OK, by flying a lot) and not by paying any additional fees. With this perk, I’ve enjoyed a buffet of treats at airports in Athens, Frankfurt and even South Africa, thanks to my status, and I haven’t paid an extra dime.
Have active military status
If you’re a current member of the United States armed services, you are eligible for free USO lounge access. These special lounges can be found across the United States and are available to U.S. Armed Forces active duty, Reserve and Guard service members; family members of these active military-service personal are welcome in the lounges too. The lounges are staffed by volunteers and usually offer free Wi-Fi, snacks and comfy seats.
Purchase a membership
Don’t have airline status, aren’t flying in a premium seat internationally and don’t want to pay for a travel credit card? Don’t worry—there are still ways to get into the best airport lounges without paying a bundle.
Priority Pass allows you to pay for a membership, then pay for individual visits to one of their more than 1,000 lounges and clubs around the globe. The cheapest membership costs $99 per year, and then you’ll pay $32 per visit. The most expensive membership costs $429 per year and includes unlimited visits. (Compare this with having Priority Pass as part of a credit card such as Capital One Venture X, and you’ll start to see why it’s valuable to have a travel credit card).
Finally, you can find lounge access through Plaza Premium Lounges. This site will let you book a single visit through its website starting at about $40 a visit, and it offers access to a large array of lounges around the world, instead of having its own clubs. There’s no membership required, so if you’re in the midst of an airport meltdown and need somewhere to relax, this could give you instant travel serenity for about the price of a checked piece of luggage.
Next, learn how to fly for free, according to frequent travelers.
About the experts
- Ryan Smith is a senior editor at AwardWallet, a service that helps you track any type of loyalty account and manage your travel plans.
- Senitra Horbrook is a travel expert who covers how to get lounge access at her Points Travelher Instagram.