The Ultimate Guide to Airport Lounge Access
I used to be like you -- sitting in those uncomfortable airport chairs next to your departure gate, watching person after person scurry through smoked glass doors with a smile on their face, boarding pass in hand. "Those people must be rich, to get into the lounge," I used to think to myself. "It's expensive to fly first class!"
But that was before I began my hobby-turned-career in the world of points and mile, and now that I have mastered airport lounge access, I know you don't have to be a VIP to gain access to them. In fact, sometimes it's as easy as having the right credit card in your wallet! In this comprehensive article, I'll detail exactly what steps you need to take to make your airport experience a little more V.I.P., and a little less S.A.D.
Before we dive into it, here's a primer on airport lounges.
Airport lounges are a respite for the weary traveler journeying to all points on the map. At a bare minimum, they provide a basic room that is separate from the rest of the terminal where you can relax or conduct business. But some provide a full-day (and night) experience complete with full-service dining, spa services, hotel rooms, bars, and still more offer a truly immersive first class service.
There are lounges in airports across the world, and you can gain access to many of them using the tools I detail below. This article will go into excruciating detail in the hopes that it will be a resource for you as you traverse the globe.
So how do you get into an airport lounge?
There are five main ways of accessing an airport lounge: flying First or Business class in certain circumstances, having elite airline status, having a certain credit card, which grants access based on several different benefits, paying for lounge membership, and buying a day pass. I'm going to break these five ways down for you and end with a detailed bonus section for power readers.
1. Fly First or Business Class.
The very first way to get into an airport lounge is by flying first or business class, but the rules of access vary depending on the airline and where you're flying. Let's dive in.
If you are flying first class on a fully-domestic flight (that is, in the lower 48 states), you most likely do not have lounge access for JUST flying first class.
All eligible customers must be traveling on an international1 itinerary or on a p.s.® Premium Service flight, available on select transcontinental routes.
But, what constitutes "international" for United? I dug through the terms and conditions, and they define international as:
An international itinerary includes travel to or from any destination outside the 50 United States. Travel to or from Canada, the Caribbean, Central America, Guam and Mexico are considered international itineraries for the purposes of United Club access.
So, a four-hour flight from Phoenix to Seattle in first class would not have lounge access, but a two-hour flight in first class from Phoenix to Cabo San Lucas would have access.
You'll also see above a reference to "p.s. Premium Service," which is the one exception to this rule. Because these flights are "premium," with lie-flat beds in first class, better meals, and more on their transcontinental flights between New York/Newark (EWR) and San Francisco (SFO) or Los Angeles (LAX), you'll have United Club access on a domestic flight.
Another exception: if you're flying in first class before or after connecting to a United flight internationally, you would also have access to the lounges in the airports you are traveling through.
Delta has similar rules as United. You won't have access to Delta SkyClubs if you're just traveling in domestic first class, but you will have access to SkyClubs on nonstop transcontinental Delta One flights from New York/JFK to Los Angeles (LAX) or San Francisco (SFO).
For connecting flights on international itineraries, Delta says that those who have access that are traveling on a...
[d]omestic Delta flight connecting to/from a same-day international Delta flight in Delta One or travel in international First/Business Class on a SkyTeam-operated flight. (In order to qualify for Club access, the customer must be confirmed in the premium (first or business class) cabin for the international segment of their itinerary.)
Delta defines international travel a bit differently, excluding "travel to/from the Caribbean, Guam and Saipan."
American is the stingiest of the bunch when it comes to its definition of "international." You won't be able to access Admirals Clubs when traveling within the US, Caribbean, Canada, or Mexico (excluding Mexico City).
You will have access, though, through first or business class travel on more transcontinental routes, between New York (JFK) and Los Angeles (LAX), New York (JFK) and San Francisco (SFO), or Los Angeles (LAX) and Miami (MIA).
If you are traveling in first on an international flight operated by American or a oneworld carrier, it must be five hours or longer (direct), or connecting to one on the same day, or before 6 a.m. on the next day. So, if you're traveling from Miami to Medellin, Colombia (about a three hour flight), this wouldn't qualify you for lounge access, even if you're in first class. If you're connecting from Austin to Washington, DC for a flight the next day, but it departs at 7 a.m., you also don't qualify for lounge access. Boo!
Alaska Air has perhaps the most lenient policy of all the American carriers.
Passengers traveling on a paid First Class or a First Class Award ticket (e.g. A, D, F or P class of service) on flights operated by Alaska Airlines have access to the Alaska Airlines Board Room only on their day of flight. These fares do not include entrance agreements into other airline clubrooms. To access the Board Room passengers must show their same day First Class boarding pass (or equivalent) to the Concierge in the Board Room. Passengers traveling on an upgraded ticket booked in U class do not have access to the Board Room.
So, if you're traveling in first class (and didn't get upgraded due to status, but redeemed an award ticket or paid for it), you can use Alaska's Board Rooms.
There are a few U.S. airlines, like Southwest, Spirit, Allegiant, or Sun Country, that do not have lounges, but the tips I've laid out below are designed to help you gain access to a lounge without having to fly a specific airline! If you're flying internationally on a foreign carrier in first or business, more than likely they're a member of an alliance (Star Alliance, oneworld, SkyTeam), and have reciprocal lounge access at your departure airport. Others that aren't in a specific alliance, like Emirates and Etihad, have built their own lounges in many airpots where they have non-stops from in the US. Even a budget carrier like Norwegian gives premium cabin passengers access to a lounge (though it's not their own).
If you're flying internationally on an international airline, like British Airways from London to Hamburg, you'll usually have access just for flying first or business class. International rules differ from airline-to-airline, but I've found this to be the tried-and-true rule.
As I detailed briefly above, there are three alliances: oneworld, Star Alliance, and SkyTeam. Whenever you're traveling in first or business class with these alliances, you'll have access to almost all of the corresponding alliance airlines' lounges.
So, if you're flying American in first class (a oneworld member), you'll have access to a British Airways Galleries lounge if it's in your airport (another oneworld member). If you're flying Delta in first (SkyTeam), you'll have access to Korean Air lounges. If you're flying United in first (Star Alliance), you'll have access to Lufthansa lounges.
However, there are of course exceptions. Some premium airlines have restricted their premium lounges to just their first class customers traveling on their operated aircraft. Notable exceptions include:
- British Airways Concorde Lounges are only available to first class customers flying on British Airways (not business on British Airways, just first)
- Qatar Airways' newly opened first class lounge in Doha is only open to first class customers traveling on Qatar Airways (or top tier Qatar Airways status holders).
- Qatar Airways also has a premium lounge at London Heathrow- that's only for Qatar first/business customers as well
- Lufthansa's First Class Terminal (yes, you read that right) in Frankfurt and First Class Lounge in Munich is only available to top-tier Lufthansa members or those flying in First Class from Frankfurt or Munich
- Swiss First Class Lounge in Zurich is for first class on Swiss Air
- Thai Airways Spa in Bangkok is limited to those in Thai Airways First
- Austrian Airways lounges in Vienna's airport are for Austrian first class customers
- Singapore Airlines' Private Room is just for first class passengers traveling on Singapore
Similar to airline importance, the alliance matters as well. Here are the rules for access for each alliance, in detail:
Star Alliance has rules that matters most on what flight you are departing on. So, for first class, you'll need to be departing in first class on an international flight from your local airport in order to gain access to the Star Alliance lounge. This doesn't necessarily exclude you from all lounge access if you're flying to a gateway city -- as I mentioned above, United allows you to use their lounges when connecting to an international flight when traveling in first.
SkyTeam offers access based on the highest cabin you were in that day of travel. So, if you were in first class arriving into the US, but then had to slum it in economy on the way to your home airport, you'll still have access to business and first class lounges.
oneworld makes its rules based on whatever that international long-haul ticket's class of service was. Same day travel is required (or before 6 a.m. the next day), but this is pretty much in line with SkyTeam's rules.
The Type of Lounge Matters
Many airlines have both first class and business class lounges. For instance, American Airlines has several "Flagship Lounges" at select airports (ORD, DFW, LAX, LHR, JFK), and adding two more in Philadelphia and Miami. They offer premium dining and other "first class" services (in fact, they're investing even more money into them soon).
These lounges are only available to oneworld First Class customers (but they'll be opening up to business class passengers as well soon). United Airlines offers Global First lounges in Chicago, Hong Kong, London Heathrow, San Francisco, Tokyo, and Washington, DC. Other international airlines similarly break out their lounges between business and first class, like Lufthansa, British Airways, and more.
Some airlines also offer arrivals lounges with showers, food, and services to make preparing for that morning meeting a little easier. American offers an Arrivals Lounge to those flying in Business and First class to London Heathrow. United has one at SFO. Etihad has one for its passengers arriving in Abu Dhabi (it even has a barber). To use these, you usually have to be traveling in a premium class to use- status won't get you in.
2. Gain Elite status.
As I mentioned above, elite status will get you access in certain circumstances. It works like this: when you earn status with your favorite airline (say, American Airlines), you'll also gain an equivalent status in its alliance (for American, that's oneworld). Below, I detail which status equates to what in each of the major American carrier's programs. There are different levels of status in each, but only Star Alliance Gold, oneworld Sapphire/Emerald, and SkyTeam Plus grant you lounge access.
- Premier Silver = Star Alliance Silver
- Premier Gold/Platinum/1k/Global Services= Star Alliance Gold
- American Gold = oneworld Ruby
- American Platinum = oneworld Sapphire
- American Executive Platinum = oneworld Emerald
- Delta Gold/Platinum/Diamond = SkyTeam Plus
Now, we'll breakdown the lounge benefits for each alliance.
Star Alliance Gold status allows you to access over 1,000 Star Alliance member airlines' lounges worldwide. This includes 5 dedicated Star Alliance Lounges in Buenos Aires (EZE), Los Angeles (LAX), Nagoya (NGO), Paris (CDG), and Sao Paulo (GRU).
You'll be able to enter any Star Alliance member lounge if you're one of these below:
- Traveling in First Class
- Traveling in Business Class
- Domestic USA First Class if you've earned status with a member airline other than United
- Star Alliance Gold Members in any class (except on domestic itineraries for United members)
- Exceptions include the Lufthansa HON/First Class Terminal in Munich and Frankfurt, Swiss lounges in Zurich and Geneva, Austrian Lounge in Vienna, and Thai Spa Lounge in Bangkok- you must be a premium member of their programs or flying first on their metal (aircraft) to gain access.
You may be confused by the United language above. Here's where I'll present one of the best hacks in this article. If you're a United Premier Gold/Platinum/1k member, you won't be able to use United Clubs while flying on a domestic itinerary, even though you have Star Alliance Gold Status. But, if you are flying Star Alliance often, you can credit your miles when you fly to a different airline in the alliance, get Star Alliance Gold status through them, and then whenever you fly United, even domestic itineraries, you'll have United Club access. Keep in mind that many airlines require a few segments to be flown on them to earn status, but often it's only four.
There are way easier ways to earn Star Alliance Gold than to fly with United, which requires 50,000 miles or 60 segments, plus $6,000 in spending with United (or $25,000 in spending on a co-branded card). Aegean Air, from Greece, allows you to earn it with 12,000 miles (with 6 Aegean/Olympic flights credited), or 72,000 miles flown total in Star Alliance (no revenue requirement). Asiana Airlines requires 40,000 miles within two years (plus, the status is valid for two years). Finally, Turkish Airlines will earn you Star Alliance Gold with 40,000 miles (status valid for 2 years).
oneworld offers its Sapphire and Emerald members access to over 600 lounges worldwide. Sapphire members are welcome in business class lounges and frequent flyer lounges. Emerald members are welcome in First, Business, and frequent flyer lounges. Like Star Alliance, American members can't use Admiral's Clubs domestically if they have oneworld Sapphire/Emerald, and Qantas doesn't allow its elites to use its domestic business lounges either. You must be flying in Qatar first or a member of its elite program to use its facilities in Doha and Heathrow, as stated earlier.
Like I stated in the above, earning status in an airline other than American or Qantas would get around these stipulations, so potentially think about crediting your miles to an airline like British Airways.
SkyTeam has dedicated lounges at Heathrow, Istanbul, Sydney, and Hong Kong, as well as 629 member lounges worldwide.
SkyTeam Plus membership grants you access to those lounges, and believe it or not, Delta gives its Diamond Medallion members free club access, even on domestic itineraries! Gold/Platinums excludes domestic only trips, but you could use a SkyClub in, say, Japan on a domestic Japan flight.
3. Get the right credit card.
This is my bread-and-butter for getting elite status. While I did have Star Alliance Gold for one year recently (and used it to access lounges in Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Seoul, and Shanghai), credit cards have been the easiest way for me to gain access to lounges, even when I wasn't flying an airline in a major alliance!
Let's go down the list of credit cards that offer you lounge access as part of their benefits package.
The Platinum Card from American Express (Personal and Business Versions)
The Platinum Card from American Express offers four distinct lounge benefits. First, and perhaps most notably, you'll gain free access for you and up to two guests (or immediate family) into American Express' Centurion Lounges, which are located at DFW, MIA, LGA, LAS, SEA, and SFO airports, and one on the way in 2016 to IAH in Houston. There's also a few scattered internationally, like Sydney (SYD), Buenos Aires (EZE), Sao Paulo (GRU), Mexico City (MEX) (two locations), Mumbai (BOM), and New Delhi (DEL).
Centurion Lounges are some of the very best lounges out there, and certainly top of the list when it comes to US lounges. They often feature showers, massage treatments, hot buffets, full cocktail bars, and more special features. When I flew through San Francisco, I was able to do a Napa Valley "wine tasting" with their automated wine dispensers! These can be used while flying any airline, in any class of travel.
Next, you'll also have access to Airspace lounges in JFK Terminal 5, Cleveland (CLE), Baltimore (BWI), and San Diego (SAN). These aren't exclusive to Amex members, but offer showers, premium drinks and food, and more. These can be used while flying any airline.
Also, the American Express Platinum Card offers cardholders access to Delta SkyClubs, when the member is flying on Delta that day in any class of travel. I used this benefit often flying 5 round trips from Chicago to Phoenix, which connected me through hubs like Atlanta, Detroit, and Minneapolis. Detroit has three SkyClubs in one terminal, which you can visit all three on a long layover to pass the time (it also happens to be a beautiful terminal, believe it or not).
Finally, the Platinum Card also gives you free Priority Pass Select membership, which grants you access to over 850 lounges worldwide. If you have someone traveling with you, that's another $27. I love my free Priority Pass membership, because it allows me to access new lounges when I'm connecting- there is lots more coverage internationally, but most international airports in the US have at least one to choose from. You can use these lounges while flying any airline. This card has an annual fee of $450.
I've loved every minute that the Citi Prestige card has been in my wallet, but unfortunately they cut AAdmiral's Club access in 2017. Though, you'll still receive Priority Pass membership, like above, but you'll have free access for up to two guests or for immediate family.
Ritz-Carlton Rewards Visa Card, Ink Bold, and Ink Plus Cards
I lump these three together because they all give you free Lounge Club membership, which is similar to Priority Pass but with fewer lounges (many overlap). The Ritz-Carlton Rewards card has a hefty annual fee of $395, but with that, you'll get into Lounge Clubs for free with up to two guests. Ink Bold and Ink Plus come with two free entries, but after that you'll pay $29 per entry.
Citi Executive/AAdvantage World Elite Mastercard
This card, which costs $450 per year, offers full Admiral's Club membership, so you'll get into all the American lounges, plus partner lounges (like Alaska), with up to two guests or immediate family.
Chase MileagePlus United Club Visa
For $375, you'll receive full United Club membership with this card, for up to two guests or for immediate family.
American Express Delta Reserve Card
For $450, you'll receive free Delta SkyClub access with this card.
4. Buy a lounge membership.
Of course, you can always buy your way in! Membership is sold by United (starts at $550 or 70,000 miles plus $50 initiation fee or 7,000 miles), American (starts at $500 without elite status), Alaska (starts at $450), Delta (starts at $450), Priority Pass (Basic starts at $99), and Lounge Club (Basic starts at $99) separately, so you can always have lounge access when you fly.
United Club has 45 lounges, and a few dozen partner lounges in which you can use whenever you fly, even if you don't fly United.
American Airlines Admirals Club grants you access to all Admirals Clubs. You'll be able to access Admirals Clubs domestically when you're flying any airline, and international clubs when you're holding a same-day ticket. Plus, select Qantas clubs are eligible as well, as are the Alaska Airlines Board Room lounges in Anchorage, LAX, Seattle, or Portland, as long as you're departing on an American or Alaska flight, can be used. Some partner lounges are included as well.
Alaska allows access whenever you're flying, regardless of airline.
Delta allows access too, whenever you're flying, at 51 locations worldwide, including partner lounges.
5. Get a day pass.
If you can't gain access using any of the above option, you can purchase a day pass. While domestic lounges cost anywhere from $50-$60 for the airlines, "third party" lounges often cost much less, in the $20-$40 range. These usually include free alcohol, food, and entertainment. However, my favorite hack is to go on eBay and buy one-day use passes. I recently purchased one-day passes to United Clubs for less than $15 shipped, a $40 savings over current pricing.
6. Power hacks for getting into airport lounges.
I wouldn't recommend this strategy for everyone, but one way to check out these lounges is by buying a one-way refundable ticket. While you'll have to put a big expenditure on a credit card, by buying a refundable ticket, you'll be able to access the lounge, and once you do, simply cancel the ticket. That's all you have to do. This means that you could buy a one-way refundable ticket on Qantas and access their incredible lounge with premium dining at LAX. Is this unethical? It's really up to you to decide. There's certainly a harsh debate online about this very subject.