I have a few close friends who do a lot of international travel for work and business. One of the perks is travel to far-flung corners of the globe and they do so in the comfort of business class.
They have all kinds of crazy statuses. They're Executive Club Gold on British Airways or Diamond Medallion on Delta or AAdvantage Executive Platinum – you know, the top of the top in status.
One of perks of those top tiers is waiting in luxury. You don't sit with the rest of the commoners in the waiting area. You sit in lounges. You sip champagne, eat bon bons, and live the good life.
See those fancy looking plaques that say “Admirals Club” or the “Concorde Room” as you walk through the airport concourse? That's where my friends are.
I don't travel enough, nor do I spend enough, but what if I want to enjoy the good life too?
It's possible. Let's learn how.
Ask a First Class Flyer
There is only one “free” way to get in – ask someone flying first class to take you in as their guest.
When someone flies first class, they get access to the lounge. They can also bring in a guest or two for free. You know where I'm going with this.
While I don't recommend it, because it involves standing around the lounge's entrance, but it's the only free way. If you want access and don't want to pay (or can't), ask someone politely if they'd be willing to add you as their guest.
To up your chances, make sure you look professional and you give a reason for needing it. Studies have shown that people are more likely to help you out (like letting you cut in line) if you give a reason.
If you don't want to ask, here is a primer on how lounges work followed by other ways you can get in.
The Airport Lounge Ecosystem
There are three “types” of airport lounges:
- Privately-Operated Lounges – you can get access by paying an annual fee to the operator
- Airline-Operated Lounges – you can get access if you have a ticket (typically on fare classes above economy/coach)
- USO Lounges – you can get access if you are active military or reservist
With airline and private lounges, sometimes you can get access as a credit card perk and flying with them that day. More on that in the airline lounge section.
There are private airline lounge companies that let you pay for an annual membership or a Day Pass.
The Centurion Lounge
One of the most well-regarded networks is The Centurion Lounge by American Express.
They have lounges in:
- Dallas/Fort Worth International (DFW)
- Hong Kong International (HKG)
- IAH/Intercontinental Houston (IAH)
- Las Vegas McCarran International (LAS)
- Miami International (MIA)
- New York's LaGuardia (LGA)
- Philadelphia International (PHL)
- San Francisco International (SFO)
- Seattle-Tacoma International (SEA)
If you have an American Express Platinum card – it can be the business, corporate, or personal card – you get access.
Founded in 1992, Priority Pass started an annual subscription service that gives you access to their network of airport lounges. They do not operate all the airports in their 1200+ lounge network spanning 500 cities, but membership gives you the ability to enter those lounges.
They have a huge network both inside and outside the United States. Inside the US, the network is limited but you get access to a lot of private lounges and even discounts at restaurants. For example, in Miami, you can get $30 off your bill at the Corona Beach House at Miami Airport (it counts as a visit).
They offer three tiers of membership:
- Standard: $99/year, you pay $32 per visit ($32 for guests)
- Standard Plus: $299/year, 10 visits free then $32 thereafter ($32 for guests)
- Prestige: $429/year, unlimited visits ($32 for guests)
One of the nice things is that Priority Pass is being offered as a perk of some credit cards. Here's a list of all the lounges.
Lastly, there are even smaller private companies that operate their own small network for lounges. One such company is The Club, with lounges in Atlanta (ATL), Boston (BOS), Baltimore (BWI), Cincinnati (CVG), Dallas (DFW), Las Vegas (LAS), Orlando (MCO), Phoenix (PHX), Pittsburgh (PIT), Seattle (SEA) and San José (SJC). Some of these companies operate a single lounge while others operate several. The Club is a member of Priority Pass so if you have a Priority Pass, you get access to The Club lounges.
Airline lounges run the gamut.
At a minimum, you get a relaxing environment where you can eat and drink to your heart's content. Some may have showers, nap areas, massages, and more. If you need to catch up on work, there's going to be wi-fi and work areas. Some even have conference rooms.
It's a decadent experience that you should try if you can. The airline lounges are nicer and better run than private ones (especially if first and business class travelers get free access, the airlines step up their game).
How Airport Lounge Access Works
For example, with Delta Sky Club, not everyone who has a Delta flight gets access. If you have a First class or Business class ticket, you're in.
If you have Diamond Medallion status (the highest tier in the Skymiles program), you can get access for free.
Otherwise, you need to buy an annual pass that costs $495 a year. This lets you bring up to two guests for $29 each OR you can get the Executive pass ($745/year) and that lets you bring in two for free. Finally, you can pay $59 for a single visit pass.
Finally, you can get in if you have a regular ticket and the right credit card. With Delta, if you have a Delta Reserve credit card, an American Express Platinum or Centurion card, and a flight that day, you can get in.
The tricky part is that all the airlines run it slightly differently with different partnerships. The key, it seems, is to find a credit card with a wide range of perks if you want to get into an airport lounge without paying an annual membership (or fly first/business class).
Top 30 Airports & Their Lounges
Most airports in the United States act as hubs for a major airline.
This means most of the lounges in any airport will be from one airline, with a few independent operators and a USO Lounge. I aim to list the airlines covered in alphabetical order followed by the private lounges in italics.
- Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL): Delta, Minute Suites, The Club at ATL
- Los Angeles International Airport (LAX): American Airlines, Star Alliance, Etihad Airways, Korean Air, Qantas, Air New Zealand, oneworld, Emirates Lounge, LAX International Lounge (free)
- O'Hare International Airport (ORD): Air France/KLM, United Airlines, Delta, American Airlines, British Airways
- Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW): American Airlines, Delta, Etihad, Lufthansa, British Airways, Emirates, Korean Air, Qantas, Qatar, United Airlines, The Centurion Lounge, Minute Suites, The Club at DFW
- Denver International Airport (DEN): American Airlines, Delta, United Airlines
- John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK): Aer Lingus, Air France/KLM, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, British Airways, Delta, Emirates, Korean Air, Lufthansa
- San Francisco International Airport (SFO): Air France/KLM, American Airlines, British Airways, Delta, Emirates, Virgin Atlantic, United Airlines, The Centurion Lounge
- McCarran International Airport (LAS): United Airlines, The Centurion Club, The Club at LAS
- Seattle–Tacoma International Airport (SEA): Alaska Airlines, British Airways, Delta, United Airlines, The Centurion Club, The Club at LAS
- Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT): American Airlines, United Airlines, Minute Suites
- Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR): Air Canada, American Airlines, British Airways, Delta, Lufthansa, United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic
- Orlando International Airport (MCO): American Airlines, Delta, United Airlines, The Club at MCO
- Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX): American Airlines, United Airlines, The Club at PHX
- Miami International Airport (MIA): American Airlines, Delta, The Centurion Club
- George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH): Air France, American Airlines, British Airways, United Airlines, The Centurion Club
- Logan International Airport (BOS): Air France, American Airlines, British Airways, Delta, Emirates, Lufthansa, United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, The Club at BOS
- Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport (MSP): Delta, United Airlines
- Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW): Delta, Lufthansa
- Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport (FLL): Delta, United Airlines
- Philadelphia International Airport (PHL): American Airlines, British Airways, United Airlines, The Centurion Lounge, Minute Suites
- LaGuardia Airport (LGA): Air Canada, American Airlines, Delta, United Airlines, The Centurion Lounge
- Baltimore–Washington International Airport (BWI): The Club at BWI
- Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC): Delta
- Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA): American Airlines, Delta, United Airlines
- Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD): Air France/KLM, British Airways, Etihad, Lufthansa, United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic
- San Diego International Airport (SAN): Delta, United Airlines
- Midway International Airport (MDW): None (there's just a USO Lounge)
- Tampa International Airport (TPA): American Airlines, Delta
- Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL): China Airlines, Delta, Hawaiian Airlines, Korean Air, Japan Airlines, Qantas, United Airlines
- Portland International Airport (POR): None
USO stands for United Service Organizations and for over 77 years, they have been one of the country's leading organizations to support active military and their families. They operate a series of USO airport centers that are accessible (and free) only to active duty personnel, National Guard, reservists, and their dependents.
It is a private organization that is congressionally chartered. Created just before World War II, the USO consists of several private service organizations that came together to form the USO. If you want to support the USO, you can donate to the cause.
To gain access to their lounges, you must show your military ID. If you are not a member of the armed forces and are not a dependent of one, you will not gain entry.
- Albert J. Ellis (OAJ)
- Atlanta (ATL)
- Baltimore (BWI)
- Boston Logan (BOS)
- Charlotte (CHL)
- Chicago Midway (MDW)
- Chicago O’Hare (OHR)
- Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky (CVG)
- Cleveland (CLE)
- Columbia (CAE)
- Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW)
- Dayton (DAY)
- Denver (DEN)
- El Paso (ELP)
- Fayetteville (FAY)
- Gulfport/Biloxi (GPT)
- Honolulu (HNL)
- Houston Hobby (HOU)
- Houston Intercontinental (IAH)
- Indianapolis (IND)
- Jacksonville (JAX)
- John Glenn Columbus International (CMH)
- Las Vegas (LAS)
- Los Angeles (LAX)
- Milwaukee (MKE)
- Nashville (BNA)
- Newark (EWR)
- New York City JFK (JFK)
- Newport News (PHF)
- Northwest Florida Airport (ECP)
- Norfolk (ORF)
- Ontario (ONT)
- Orange County (SNA)
- Orlando (MCO)
- Palm Springs (PSP)
- Pensacola (PNS)
- Philadelphia (PHL)
- Phoenix (PHX)
- Portland (PDX)
- Raleigh-Durham (RDU)
- Richmond (RIC)
- San Antonio (SAT)
- San Diego (SAN)
- San Francisco (SFO)
- Savannahv (SAV)
- Seattle-Tacoma (SEA)
- St. Louis-Lambert (STL)
- Tampa (TPA)
- Washington Dulles (IAD)
Best Credit Cards for Lounge Access
OK, now that you know how lounges work and the different types, you realize the best way to get access without paying through the nose is by piggybacking off a credit card perk.
The Platinum Card from American Express
The Platinum Card from American Express is our top pick because you get access to 1,000+ lounges in 120 countries including:
- The Centurion Lounges (and International American Express Lounges),
- Delta Sky Club when flying Delta,
- Priority Pass Select (which includes two guests),
- Plaza Premium,
- Air Space, and
This card also gives you 60,000 Membership Rewards after you make $5,000 in purchases in the first three months.
There is a $550 annual fee but you get $200 airline fee credit, Uber VIP status with $15 in credit each month ($20 in December), as well as complimentary benefits with Fine Hotel & Resorts. This is a sample of the perks of this card, so review them carefully to see what other benefits you can take advantage of.
Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express
The Delta Reserve Credit Card is our second choice given the sheer number of Delta Sky Club lounges and because access is a perk of this card.
You can also earn 40,000 bonus miles plus 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases in the first three months. You earn an additional 15,000 MQMs and 15,000 bonus miles after you reach $30,000 in spend within the first year. If you get all the bonuses, you'll jump right into Silver status.
This is on top of some Delta related perks including Priority Boarding and 20% savings on in-flight purchases as a statement credit. This card has a $450 annual fee.
United MileagePlus Club Card
The United MileagePlus Club Card gives you United Club Membership, which usually costs $550 a year. Once you get the card, you will then get a separate United Club membership and that's the card you show to access the club benefits. Those benfits include access to all United Club lounges as well as those participating lounges from airlines in the Star Alliance. There is one caveat, you have to have a same day boarding pass with United or an affiliated Star Alliance airline.
This card also gives 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months.
Another option is the United Explorer Card. It's a $95 per year (first year is free) and it gives you 2 United Club one-time passes each anniversary.
The Chase Sapphire Reserve rounds out our list as a card with a huge list of travel benefits but also offers Priority Pass Select membership. This gets you access to the lounges in the Priority Pass network. Another great perk of this card is complimentary Global Entry or TSA PreCheck fee credit.
The new account bonus is a juicy 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $4,000 in purchases in the first three months.
The annual fee is $450 but it's mitigated by a $300 annual travel credit (read our full Chase Sapphire Reserve review for full details). The credit is applied to all travel purchases, so you don't even need to request anything. Hotel, airfare, car rentals, etc – they all count. No games here.
Go enjoy those lounges!