When you’re walking through the airport, do you ever see people disappear behind frosted glass doors? Do you wonder what luxury and glamour lies behind those doors, and how to get inside? You’re not alone – airport lounges are both a valuable travel asset and also widely misunderstood.
The truth is that airport lounges vary widely. Some have mind-blowing amenities such as masseuses, private rooms and spacious showers. Others are more pedestrian, offering snacks and workstations, but not much more. Let’s take a look at the various types of lounges, and most importantly how you can get in at the lowest cost. The major distinction between lounges is if they are domestic (inside North America) or foreign (abroad).
U.S.-based airlines have a pay-for-access philosophy to their clubs, where members pay an annual fee for access. These fees run in the $300-$500 range, and are discounted based on a traveler’s elite status, if any. The higher their elite status, the lower the cost of an annual membership. Non-members can also buy day passes, typically for $50.
Domestic airline lounges are a nice place to escape the hustle and bustle of a busy airport, although at larger airports these lounges can also be packed during peak times. Inside are seating areas (usually with power ports), workstations, snacks and a bar. There’s also a ticket desk inside most lounges, which can come in handy during weather events or mechanical delays, as you’ll have a much shorter wait to talk to an agent than you would at the gate.
On the whole, domestic lounges are good for long connections and during delays. Of course, some international airlines have lounges in the United States, and these tend to be of a much higher quality than the lounges run by domestic airlines. See the international lounge section below for a better understanding of these lounges.
How to get in: Buy a membership or a day pass or be a member’s guest. Also, elite members of mid-tier status or higher receive complimentary access when traveling on an international (outside North America) itinerary.
International lounges can be a traveler’s dream. (Included in this category are the lounges of U.S.-based airlines in foreign airports.) Hot food, showers, complimentary alcohol and other benefits await. In some of the better lounges, usually run by foreign airlines, you’ll find cabanas, masseuses, private rooms and other high-end benefits. Some airlines even allow you to pre-order your meal for an overnight flight and eat it in the lounge before departure, maximizing your sleeping time on the plane.
International airlines operate their lounges on a different model than U.S.-based airlines. Instead of pay-for-access, international airline lounges are open to their program’s elite members, their airline partners’ elite members, and anyone traveling in business or first class, whether with miles or on a paid ticket.
There’s a further distinction: Some airlines have special lounges that are just for first class passengers. That means you must be on a first class ticket to get in (or have very high level status in some cases).
How to get in: Travel on a business or first class ticket, whether booked with miles or paid for. Or have mid-level or higher elite status with a partner airline.
Here’s an example:
A traveler with American’s Platinum status (Oneworld Sapphire) flies from Los Angeles to London, and then on to Delhi, all in economy, on American Airlines and British Airways. At LAX, she can use the AA Admirals Club. When she arrives in London for her connection, she can use either the Admirals Club or a British Airways business class lounge. This access would be entirely free, and based on her elite status with American, which would be recognized by American’s partner British Airways.
If that same traveler had no status but was traveling in first class, she could use AA’s Flagship (first class) lounge at LAX, and then the British Airways first class lounge at London Heathrow. This access would be based on her ticketed cabin on the flights.
Having elite status on an airline can yield many benefits, and lounge access is one of the better ones when traveling abroad. There are few things better than a hot shower during your three hour layover at Tokyo Narita after a fifteen hour flight from the east coast.
Have you ever been into an airline lounge before? What did you think?