It's a commonly held truth among American travelers that airports are a miserable slog. You wait in line to check in, then you shuffle through security, enduring a hands-up pat-down, only to get to your overcrowded gate and see your flight has been delayed three hours. For good reason, it turns out, do we regard commercial air travel, a marvel of engineering and logistics, with the excitement of prepping a 1099 or getting a filling replaced.
But it doesn't have to be that way. We already told you how signing up for TSA PreCheck will make your traveling life literally 1 billion times simpler. But there's another way to make a trip to the airport less of a chore: airport lounges.
"What?" you say. "You mean those places reserved for first-class passengers, celebrities, and people who spend more time in airplanes than they do at home? Not happening."
And that, dear miserable traveler, is where you're wrong. Airport lounges, those gated oases from the airport masses, are, in fact, completely accessible if you're willing to shell out a little cash. Cash that's frequently less than you'd spend in an hour at the in-terminal Chili's, or at the faux-Irish joint that doesn't put prices on the beers, which turn out to be $13 a pour. Got a two-hour layover? At most mid-terminal watering holes, you're not getting away with a burger, two drinks, and a tip for less than $50. For just a little more scratch, though, you can get waved into a catered lounge.
It doesn't stop there. Knowing how to navigate lounges will change your whole outlook on flying. You will -- unbelievably -- look forward to going to the airport.
What an "airport lounge" is and isn't
What it sounds like is, in fact, what you get: a quiet, professional place with comfy chairs, high-speed Wi-Fi, and power outlets you don't have to share with the entire passenger manifest of a 737. Airlines operate some lounges, airports manage others, while still others are the domain of third parties. They all have one thing in common: they're a hell of a lot better than the rest of the terminal.
Most lounges have a bar where the drinks are included. And while we don't recommend going all Dean Martin on the place, especially if you're about to board a long flight at high altitude, it's a huge upgrade over a trip to the airport bar. The lounges tend to offer a nice spread of complimentary food, as well -- cookies and sandwiches at some, and meals by celebrity chefs at others.
Even if you're not planning to be the Dionysus of the D Terminal, the lounges always have big, soft chairs that don't require you to share armrest space with strangers. Most have desks, for working, and some have spas and showers. This is your mini-resort in the midst of chaos, the kind of place that makes flight delays as enjoyable as a snow day.
Yes, there is a fee involved (more on that later). But if you eat or drink in airports, the cost of getting in isn't much more than you'd pay at a normal restaurant.
What are the different lounges I can go to?
The lounges run by the airports or individual concessionaires typically have names like "The Club at DFW" or "Wingtips Lounge Terminal 4." You can get in for a day rate of $45-$60. Compared against a $50 bar bill and people sloshing beer on your laptop, it's a bargain.
The major airlines have lounges in most major airports; some have networks of lounges around the world. International airlines have lounges at select US locations that offer day passes. Far and away the most common are our domestic airlines' lounges.
American Airlines offers the Admirals Club, with access to 90 lounges worldwide. Membership starts at $550 annually for AAdvantage members, and tapers down depending on status level. This gets you into every Admirals Club lounge in America whenever you want, and on the same day as your flight in international lounges and Alaska Airlines Board Room locations, as well as some third-party lounges. You can also buy a one-day pass for $59.
Delta Air Lines' Sky Club has access to 51 lounges around the world, with an annual membership fee of $695. As a member, you may also bring up to two guests. Or visitors can pay $59 for a single day.
The United Club costs $550 a year, and gets you access to 45 locations worldwide, as well as select Star Alliance lounges. A day pass here runs $55.
Alaska Airlines' Board Room has locations in Seattle, Portland, LAX, and Anchorage, and costs $450 a year. Four locations might sound pretty limiting, but Board Room members also get access to most domestic Admirals Club locations for the member and their spouse, or up to two guests. If you don't fly much internationally, this is a pretty good hack that'll save you $100 over what American charges. If you live in Alaska, it's a no-brainer.
The granddaddy of them all is the American Express Centurion Lounge. AmEx Centurion cardholders get access to over 1,000 lounges worldwide, but the seven actual Centurion sites (in Las Vegas, DFW, Miami, LaGuardia, SFO, Seattle, and Houston) blow them all away. Most feature all the amenities we've listed above, plus spa services and food crafted by top chefs. Scott Conant in Vegas and Michelle Bernstein in Miami, to drop a couple names.
Access here is free if you have a Platinum or Centurion card, and $50 for other AmEx cardholders. They're the only lounges not open to anyone with a same-day ticket, but are also just an AmEx application away.
So how do I get in?
That depends on the lounge. Those run by airports or third-party vendors can often be nicer and less crowded than the airlines'. They're also a lot more accessible, as they don't require you to be a member of any frequent-flyer program. You can walk up to the reception desk and buy a day pass there, or buy at LoungePass.com. Some are subject to availability, meaning if it's Thanksgiving week and there's a blizzard and the entire metroplex is downing Bud Heavies in The Club at DFW, your online day pass might not fly.
You can also buy an annual membership though Priority Pass, giving you access to over 900 lounges worldwide. These include lounges run by international airlines, US carriers, and third-party lounges. It's a great plan for an international traveler who flies different airlines. Lastly, many airline credit cards offer discounted admission or a handful of day passes as a member perk.
Look, going to the airport doesn't have to be a miserable experience. You don't HAVE to shuffle through biblical security lines and then origami yourself into gate waits where you wait your turn for an electrical outlet. If you're willing to drop a few bucks and do some homework, you can make an enjoyable day of it. Sign up for TSA PreCheck, breeze through security, then head up to the airport lounge for a few cocktails, a pre-flight meal, and maybe even a massage. You'll look incredibly exclusive for less than the price of an airport dinner.
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