VIP Airport Lounges: How to Get In
Imagine arriving at the airport for a domestic flight, first-class ticket in hand, only to find that you aren’t welcome in the airline’s lounge. It’s a rude shock, especially if you used 15,000 frequent-flyer miles plus a $75 co-pay to upgrade from coach.
A domestic first-class flyer on many airlines may discover he has no more pre-flight perks than the backpacker in row 48 who got a discount economy ticket from a back-alley bucket shop. The only difference is that the backpacker doesn’t expect to be treated well by the airlines. Front-of-the-cabin customers usually hope for better.
That’s exactly what happened to me before a recent flight from Newark to Phoenix. To say I was disappointed does injustice to my blighted hope. I had been looking forward to a nice glass of chilled Sancerre blanc, a complimentary copy of the New York Times, free Wi-Fi, and a little something to nibble on—maybe some Beluga caviar on organic toast points—while I basked in the comfort of a cushy leather armchair. Instead I found myself sipping a Styrofoam cup of weak coffee on a hard bench at the dismal McDonald’s stand in Terminal C. Bummer.
Had I been better prepared, I might have considered one of several alternative ways to get into the executive lounge. I could have bought a membership, or even a day pass. I could have chosen to go to Phnom Penh instead of Phoenix (international business- and first-class passengers almost always get lounge access.) As I later discovered, there are numerous ways to get first-class treatment at the airport even if you’re not a first-class passenger.
In my case, relaxing in the lounge wasn’t crucial. But sometimes access to one of those sought-after sanctuaries is almost a necessity—especially if you have a long transit wait on an international flight, or if you must check out of your hotel at noon but have work to do for the next 10 or 12 hours until your red-eye departs.
So if you don’t otherwise qualify for lounge access, consider one of the many optional ways to elicit the magic words, open sesame.
Buy an Annual Membership
A 12-month membership in an airline club will cost $450–$500. Most airlines will let you pay membership dues with frequent flyer miles. Delta, for instance, charges non-elite frequent flyers $450 or 70,000 miles.
Good Strategy For: Anyone who flies the same airline often.
Sign Up for an Independent Airport Lounge Program
Priority Pass, which offers three levels of membership, from $99 to $349 a year, gives you access to more than 600 airline lounges in more than 300 cities worldwide. Plaza Premium Lounge has 50 lounges in 16 cities in seven countries, mostly in Asia, with a wide range of services and prices.
Good Strategy For: Travelers who want a flexible plan and fly often on various airlines.
Buy an International Upgrade
Upgrade to business class on an international flight using frequent flyer miles. Almost every airline lets those flyers use the lounge. To get an idea of the cost, Continental will charge you 20,000 miles for a one-way upgrade plus a co-pay of $300–$550 (no co-pay required for full-fare economy upgrades) on flights between North America and Europe.
Good Strategy For: Non-elite frequent flyers with lots of excess miles.
Sign Up for the Right Credit Card
Get a premium-level charge card that allows you to use an airline’s VIP lounge. Some cards require you to have a same-day ticket on the corresponding airline. Annual elite card fees range from $150 to $450. Examples include the American Express Platinum Card* and the Ameriprise World Elite MasterCard.
Good Strategy For: Charge card users who would benefit from the other business- and travel-related amenities associated with a premium card.
* Full disclosure: American Express is the parent company of Travel + Leisure.
Try a Day Pass
Buy an airline lounge day pass for $29–$50. But don’t wait until you arrive at the airport to purchase it. US Airways, for instance, charges $50 at the airport but only $29 if you buy it in advance online.
Good Strategy For: Those who fly infrequently or need a lounge only occasionally.
Look for Sales
Last March US Airways offered a one-year club membership (regularly $450) for just $259, including access to all Star Alliance lounges. United recently put its Red Carpet Club day passes on sale for $39 (normally $50). How can you find out about such discounts? Subscribe to your favorite airlines’ email newsletters, like them on Facebook, or follow them on Twitter. Sales like these may last for only a few days.
Good Strategy For: Anyone who doesn’t need an annual membership.
Use Frequent-Flyer Discounts
If you have a lot of miles and elite status in your airline’s frequent-flyer program, you may be able to get a discount on an annual membership. American Airlines AAdvantage Platinum members pay only $400, a 20 percent discount.
Good Strategy For: Elite-level frequent flyers.
Check the Resale Market
Occasionally you can find a single-use lounge pass for sale on auction sites like eBay. Proceed with caution until you are sure that the pass’s terms and conditions allow the purchaser to use the pass.
Good Strategy For: Opportunistic flyers who are willing to wait for the right deal to come along, then bid on it.
Find a Lounge Alternative
You’ll find day rooms and roomettes at many international airports, including London’s Heathrow and Gatwick, Amsterdam’s Schipol, Tokyo’s Narita, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, and Philadelphia International. Some include a bathroom with shower. Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport recently opened a prototype SleepBox, a private compartment with two beds, Wi-Fi, storage space, electrical outlets, and LED lighting, priced at $15 an hour.
Good Strategy For: Anyone who wants to rest in comfort for a very short while.