How to Get Airport Lounge Access

Melanie Wynne
Jan 13, 2023
7 min read
Melanie Wynne
January 13, 2023
7 min read

Imagine an airport as a noisy, overbooked conference with scores of attendees, mediocre food, and too few power outlets. An airport lounge, then, is like a VIP breakout room: a stylish oasis of calm, focus, and comfort amidst the sensory overload. Here you can freshen up, enjoy tasty bites and a glass of joy, settle into a cozy arm- or spa chair, catch up on work, or let the outside world drift away—until it’s time for your plane to board. 

The upshot? If you love to travel (and we know you do), gaining access to the many perks of an airport lounge will happily change your life. 

What to expect in an airport lounge

Seattle airport lounge

Seating

When it comes to seating, lounges offer the style, peace, and coziness you’re unlikely to find <gestures at rest of airport> out there. 

The interior design of a great airport lounge can rival that of a luxury hotel lobby, with stylish couches and armchairs settled into soft carpet or atop gleaming tile floors. Most of these seats are upholstered in wool, microsuede, or even leather, often with accompanying side tables, lamps, and power outlets. Configurations range from solo spots to living room layouts, inviting everything from quiet reflection to a group catch-up. 

Most airport lounges offer bars with at least a few cushy stools, and some feature semi-private pods with adjustable lighting for getting serious work or napping done. Some have gas fireplaces for getting cozy, while a handful of lounges—such as the Delta Sky Clubs at LAX and JFK—offer outdoor decks with views of the runway. 

Wifi

If you want to get some work done, play a game on your phone, or simply scroll the internet, you’ll be glad to know that free wifi is a standard lounge perk. And because each lounge generally has its own router, you won’t have to compete for a signal with everyone else in the airport. Throw in power outlets, charging stations, and often a printer, and an airport lounge becomes your pass(word) to being as productive as you’d like. 

Amenities

As airport-lounge popularity soars, providers like airlines and credit card companies race to expand square footage and upgrade user experiences—which translates to amenities up the wazoo. While many lounges have long offered luggage storage and/or access to a seasoned travel agent, increasingly you’ll also find a kids’ play areas and game or media rooms. 

Wellness areas are also becoming more common, some with yoga spaces, relaxation pods, and audio-visual guides for meditation. The Sanctuary by Pure Yoga, found at Cathay Pacific’s The Pier business class lounge at Hong Kong International Airport (HKG), has all of these features and more.

Some high-end lounges—such as the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at London Heathrow (LHR) and the Air France-KLM lounge at New York-JFK—even have their own in-house spas, offering complimentary treatments, salon services, or even a hot tub. Others have their own swanky cocktail bars where skilled bartenders mix libations from scratch (often for free), while others offer full-service, sit-down restaurants. 

Food & drink

Centurion Lounge buffet.

While most busy airports have stepped up their eatery options in the last decade (we see you, SFO, MIA, LAX, and DFW), it’s still hard to beat the food in a great airport lounge. Ever-changing buffets full of hot and cold items, plus self-serve snack dispensers, are the norm. However, you might also see omelet and sandwich stations, espresso bars, soft-serve ice cream, and comprehensive wine lists.

Culinary standouts include American Airlines’ Flagship First Lounges, which offer restaurants with seated service and menus by James Beard Foundation-honored local chefs, and American’s Admirals Club lounges, which often feature make-your-own guacamole bars. However, just about every airline lounge has something delicious to offer, such as Cathay Pacific’s business class lounge noodle bars, Turkish Airlines’ authentic baklava at its Dulles (IAD) lounge, and 12 local beers on tap at Alaska Airlines’s lounge at Seattle Airport (SEA). 

Showers

shower in a Delta Sky Club.

Ever wished you could freshen up with a hot shower in the midst of a long-haul journey, or before a redeye flight? Many airport lounges fulfill this desire with a shower room, or sometimes several. Often tiled to the nines with luxurious marble, state-of-the-art chrome fixtures, and high-end bath products, these lounge showers are either first-come, first-serve (which means you’re likely to encounter a wait) or must be reserved in advance. 

The United Polaris Lounge at SFO (the airline’s largest lounge) has all of eight dazzling shower rooms. Their walk-in rain showers and private toilets are already exciting, but there are also marble vanities and benches, soft music, backlighting, and Saks Fifth Avenue-branded towels. American Express Centurion and Qantas also have notable shower suites at most of their lounges around the world. 

Domestic vs. international airport lounges 

Lounges in the international terminals of major hubs are generally lauded for their stellar interior design, delicious food and drink, great service, and cutting-edge amenities. Domestic-terminal lounges have long suffered in comparison, with a reputation for being more utilitarian than luxurious. 

To counter this perception and boost member incentive (see more on this below), major lounge providers have been stepping up their domestic-terminal lounge game for the last several years. Square footage of domestic lounges has been increasing, decor is being steadily refreshed, and new amenities and food offerings are added on the regular. 

How to get lounge access at the airport

united Polaris lounge.

Airline lounge access via elite status

Mid- or top-tier elite status in an airline’s mileage program can be your ticket to complimentary lounge access, but this status is generally earned through miles flown. For frequent fliers such as business travelers, or for those willing to take “mileage run” flights, earning these qualifying miles can be an easy task.

If you’re more of a shopper than a flier, though, getting a branded credit card for a major airline (e.g., American, Delta, United, Alaska, JetBlue, Southwest) can help you fast-track your elite status by earning you roughly 1 to 5 miles per dollar spent on various purchases. Major mileage programs like American’s AAdvantage, Delta’s SkyMiles, and United’s Mileage Plus also enable you to enroll any credit card in their dining programs and earn 1 to 10 miles per dollar spent at participating restaurants.  

Having elite status with a major airline will also generally grant you elite status in one of the three major airline alliances, with the following lounge privileges: 

Oneworld (650+ lounges): Oneworld Emerald tier (e.g., AA Executive Platinum, JetBlue Mosaic, Alaska MVP Gold 75K or 100K) flyers can access first class, business class or frequent flier lounges, while Oneworld Sapphire tier (e.g., AA Platinum) flyers can use business class or frequent flier lounges (with the exception of Qantas Domestic Business lounges). For either tier, one guest can be invited if they’re also on a Oneworld flight.

SkyTeam (750+ lounges): SkyTeam Elite Plus members (e.g., Delta Medallion Gold, Platinum or Diamond) flying on a same-day international flight operated by a SkyTeam airline have access to a lounge. One guest can be invited if they’re also on a SkyTeam flight.

Star Alliance (1,000+ lounges): Star Alliance Gold Status members (e.g.,United Premier Gold, Platinum or 1K) have access to any Star Alliance Gold lounge, and one guest can be invited. Note that United Premier Gold members can only access United Clubs in the US when they’re flying internationally.

Airline lounge access via premium cabin tickets

On most US airlines, flying internationally in business or first class gives you automatic access to that airline’s lounge (or an alliance lounge) while you await your departure. However, flying in a premium class on a US domestic flight doesn’t always guarantee lounge access; you might also need elite status in that airline’s mileage program. Most international carriers allow lounge access to their premium-class travelers on both domestic and international flights.  

Credit card lounge access

Many credit cards include complimentary lounge access as a cardholder benefit. Some of the most popular cards that include lounge access are the American Express Platinum Card, as well as Amex’s branded cards for Hilton Honors, Marriott Bonvoy, and Delta SkyMiles; Capital One Venture X Rewards; Chase Sapphire Reserve; United Explorer; and Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard. 

Any credit card that provides lounge access will charge an annual fee, generally between $95 (e.g.,United Explorer) and $550 (e.g.,Chase Sapphire Reserve). Note that in addition to being a cardholder, you may also need to enroll in a lounge’s membership program before you receive your lounge benefits; check your credit card’s details for more info before you travel. 

Centurion lounge access

Designed to compete with international airline lounges, the 21 posh American Express Centurion lounges are now so popular that access is limited to three hours before your same-day departure time. This limited access is only available to cardmembers of the following American Express credit cards:

  • American Express Platinum
  • American Express Business Platinum
  • American Express Corporate Platinum
  • Delta SkyMiles Reserve
  • Delta SkyMiles Reserve Business
  • Centurion (aka The Amex Black Card) 

To access a Centurion Lounge, a cardmember must show their valid credit card, a government-issued ID, and a boarding pass showing a confirmed reservation for same-day travel. A Delta SkyMiles Reserve cardmember, however, must present a boarding pass showing a confirmed reservation for a same-day Delta-marketed or Delta-operated flight that’s been purchased with any American Express card issued in the US. 

As of February 1, 2023, American Express Platinum cardmembers will be charged $50 apiece for each guest ($30 each for children aged 2 through 17, with proof of age). Delta SkyMiles Reserve cardmembers can bring up to two guests, for $50 apiece. 

Priority Pass lounge access

Priority Pass membership enables you to access about 1,300 airport lounges in 650 airports across 148 countries. Amenities at participating lounges range from comped refreshments and free wifi to spa treatments, massage rooms, and sleeping areas.

There are three tiers of Priority Pass membership: 

Standard:

$99 annual fee
$35 member visit
$35 guest visit

Standard Plus:
$299 annual fee
10 free member visits
$35 guest visit

Prestige:

$429 annual fee
Unlimited free member visits
$35 guest visit

To gain access to Priority Pass lounges, you can either present your physical Priority Pass card or flash your account info via the Priority Pass app. Available for both Google and Apple, this app also enables members to book rental cars and airport transfers, shop duty free, and access discounts on in-airport dining and retail. 

Some credit cards give you Priority Pass membership as a cardholder benefit, such as the American Express Platinum and Business Platinum; Hilton Honors Aspire; Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant; Chase Sapphire Reserve; Citi Prestige; Mastercard Black and Mastercard Gold. 

Third-party lounge access

LoungeBuddy, Plaza Premium, and The Club

Third-party lounge providers LoungeBuddy, Plaza Premium, and The Club don’t require you to purchase memberships, but instead enable you to purchase single-use lounge passes as little as one hour prior to travel (space permitting). Each pass is only valid for the date, time, and specific lounge you book.

Plaza Premium has their own branded lounges, but along with LoungeBuddy, also offers access to airline-, airline-alliance-, and other branded lounges throughout the world. Plaza Premium offers access to only seven lounges in US airports, while LoungeBuddy offers access to 35. Passes range from $30-$80 for Plaza Premium and $25-$90 for LoungeBuddy. 

The Club offers its own branded lounges in 16 US airports and two London airports, Heathrow (LHR) and Gatwick (LGW); a single-use pass for a The Club airport lounge costs $50. 

Escape Lounges

As a partner of American Express’ Centurion Studio, all Escape Lounges offer complimentary access to Amex Platinum and Delta SkyMiles Reserve cardmembers. However, regardless of the airline or class of service flown, anyone can also purchase day passes (using another credit card or PayPal) for $40 a pop. Included in each day pass is a complimentary menu of food and non-alcoholic drinks, as well as the use of wifi and reading materials in stylish, comfortable surroundings. 

Dragon Pass

Dragon Pass member lounges are found in 760 airports throughout the world, including 17 in the US. Member lounges include those branded by Plaza Premium, major airlines, and airline alliances. Similar to Priority Pass, China-based Dragon Pass offers three tiers of membership:

Classic:

$99 annual fee
$31 member visit
$31 guest visit

Preferential:

$219 annual fee
8 free member visits
$31 guest visit

Prestige:

$399 annual fee
Unlimited free member visits
$31 guest visit

Members can gain access to Dragon Pass member lounges by flashing either their physical card or their account info via the mobile app (available for both Google and Apple). 

Day passes 

You can purchase day passes via third-party lounge providers like LoungeBuddy, Plaza Premium, The Club, and Escape Lounges (see above), but some airlines also enable you to purchase passes to their branded lounges. Day passes to American Airlines’ Admirals Club and United Airlines’ United Club may be purchased for $59 by those flying either the parent airline or a partner airline. Day passes for Alaska Airlines’ Alaska Lounges—at San Francisco (SFO), Los Angeles (LAX), and New York-JFK only—may be purchased for $60; non-members of Alaska’s mileage program must purchase their day passes in person at their chosen lounge.

Military access

American Airlines’ Admirals Club and United Airlines’ United Club offer complimentary lounge access to active military members who present their military ID and same-day ticket (on that airline, in any class) at the lounge door. American Airlines requires you to be in uniform, while United does not. 

Major airport lounges 

Major airlines with their own lounges

Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge 

Air France Lounge 

American Airlines Flagship First and Admirals Club 

British Airways Concorde Room (only JFK and LHR), Galleries First, Galleries Club, Arrivals

Cathay Pacific Lounge, The Wing, and The Pier (only HKG)

Delta Air Lines SkyClub

Emirates First, Business, Worldwide, and Marhaba (only DXB)

Etihad First Class, Business Class, and US Premium

Lufthansa First Class Lounges and Business Lounges

Qantas Club, International First, International Business, and Domestic Business

Qatar Al Safwa First, Al Mourjan Business, Al Maha, Oryx, Silver, and Platinum

Singapore Airlines First Class, SilverKris, KrisFlyer Gold 

Turkish Airlines Lounge

United Polaris Lounge and United Club

Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse 

Major airline alliances

Oneworld

SkyTeam

Star Alliance

Major third-party lounge providers

American Express Centurion

Dragon Pass

LoungeBuddy

Priority Pass

Plaza Premium

The Club

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Last Updated 
January 13, 2023
Melanie Wynne
Freelancer

Passionate about travel, wine, and words, Melanie has visited 67 countries. She grew up in Washington, D.C., went to NYU Film School, spent 23 years in LA, returned to D.C. for a bit, learned to make wine in Sonoma County, and is now in Richmond, VA. The former Travel Editor for The Points Guy, she's written for Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Marriott Bonvoy Traveler, and more.

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