Travel Tuesday Top 10: Ways to Get Access to Airline Lounges

by on May 29, 2012 · 56 comments

in Air Canada, American, Club Lounges, Credit Cards, Delta, Elite Status, Top 10, United, US Airways

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Update: The offer mentioned below for the Platinum Card from American Express has expired. View the current offer here

Airline lounges are becoming more and more sophisticated by the day, and are one way the major airlines try to build brand loyalty in an increasingly competitive marketplace, so I thought I’d take a look at the ten best ways you can get access the next time you’re flying without having to pay the annual membership fee – which is closing in on the $500 mark for most airlines.

An annual membership to the American Airlines Admirals Club could cost you as much as $500!
1. Book an international premium ticket or award: Airlines generally don’t give lounge access for domestic first class itineraries (with the main exception being the transcontinental flights in #2 below), but they do for international premium class flyers – even those who used miles to book their tickets. The great thing is that you get lounge access for your entire itinerary – not just at the airport where your international flight departs. So if you travel Tampa-Charlotte and then Charlotte-London, you’ll get lounge access in Tampa, Charlotte and generally in London on arrival. If you are traveling in first class, they’ll often have separate first class lounges, but you can also access the business class lounges with your first class ticket, so if you have a long layover, lounge hopping is a great way to kill time.

An international ticket in a premium class usually grants you access to lounges at all stops on your itinerary, even on award tickets.
2. Book a first-class transcontinental flight: Several airlines grant lounge access when you book longer domestic flights, for example:
Air Canada
grants Maple Leaf Lounge access to all customers flying in Executive First or Executive Class.
American Airlines
grants access to those in paid business/first (F,Z,J, U fare classes) on the following routes:
  • Boston / Los Angeles
  • New York (JFK) / San Diego
  • Los Angeles / Miami
  • New York (JFK)/ San Francisco
  • Miami / San Francisco
  • New York (JFK)/ Seattle
  • Newark / Los Angeles
  • Washington Dulles / Los Angeles
  • New York (JFK) / Los Angeles
  • Washington Reagan / Los Angeles (effective June 14, 2012)

Delta gives SkyClub access to those flying in BusinessElite/First class (both paid and award tickets) and full Y fare (economy) between JFK and Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Portland, Phoenix, San Diego, Seattle, and San Francisco.

United offers First Class lounges and regular Club access for business class travelers between JFK and Los Angeles/San Francisco on both paid and award tickets.

Use a day pass to test out whether you like a lounge’s amenities, like this Delta SkyClub bar, before committing to an annual membership.
3. Buy a day pass: Want to test the waters before you jump in? You can buy a $50 one-day passes to the lounges of all four major US legacy carriers – American Admirals Club, Delta SkyClub, United Club and US Airways Club – and if you decide to join, that $50 goes towards your annual fee on American and United. $50 too much? You can get access for only $25 on Delta if you have a co-branded Delta American Express card and you can buy US Airways access in advance for $29. Additionally, if you are an American Express Platinum cardholder, these day passes count towards the yearly $200 in airline fee reimbursement benefit.
Update: Beginning March 22, 2014, American Express Card Members will no longer have access to American Airlines Admiral Club and US Airways Club airport lounges through Airport Club Access / Airport Lounge Program. This means that Card Members will no longer be able to gain complimentary access to the American Airlines airport lounges (known as Admirals Club lounges) or the US Airways Club airport lounges as a benefit of their Platinum Card Membership.
4. Get the Amex Platinum card: I talk about the benefits of this card a lot, and one of my favorite is the access it gives cardholders to hundreds of Delta, American and US Airways lounges, plus free Priority Pass Select membership, which includes hundreds of other lounges, including Alaska Airline Boardrooms. The $450 annual fee for the card may seem steep, but lounge access isn’t cheap, so this card can easily pay for itself every year if you value lounge access. Note: For Delta and American access you must be flying on their respective airlines, whereas US Airways grants access even if you are flying on another carrier. The Ink Bold also offers two free lounge visits in a program similar to Priority Pass Select, called Lounge Club.

Priority Pass membership gets you access to over 600 clubs for as low as a $99 annual fee.
5. Priority Pass membership: Priority Pass membership gets you access to over 600 lounges worldwide, including many Delta, United, US Airways and non-airline-branded clubs. Membership starts at $99 a year plus a $27 per visit fee, though you can also get the Prestige membership for $399 a year and get all visits free (guests still have to pay $27 per visit), but this membership comes free for cardholders of select American Express cards including the Platinum card, the Mercedes-Benz Platinum card and the Ritz-Carlton card.

Alliance elite status, like Oneworld’s top-tier Emerald status, often grants lounge access regardless of the class of service you’re flying.
6. Alliance elite status: In addition to airline-specific elite status, most airlines that are part of an alliance will also grant elite status, which includes benefits like lounge access when traveling internationally (even in economy) and expedited check-in and baggage handling.
Sapphire (for example AA Platinum status): Access to Business Class and frequent flyer lounges (with one guest) when traveling internationally, regardless of the class of service flown that day
Emerald(AA Executive Platinum): Access to more than 550 airport lounges (with one guest) when traveling internationally, including premium First Class, Business Class and frequent flyer lounges, regardless of the class of service flown that day
Elite Plus (Delta Gold, Platinum and Diamond): Regardless of their travel class, are allowed access to a SkyTeam lounge at a particular airport if traveling on or connecting to/from a same-day international flight operated by a SkyTeam Member airline. Simply present your same-day ticket for an international SkyTeam airline flight and a valid Elite Plus membership card. Includes access for one guest.
Gold Status (United Premier Gold, Premier Platinum, 1K and US Airways Gold, Platinum and Chairman’s): Customers have access to any Star Alliance member carriers’ owned lounges with the Star Alliance Gold logo at the entrance. Customer must also present a boarding pass for travel on a Star Alliance flight departing from the local airport. Customer is entitled to one guest. United and US Airways Star Alliance Gold customers may only access the United Clubs and US Airways Clubs within the U.S. when travelling in conjunction with a Star Alliance international flight.

Some airline co-branded credit cards like the United Club Card offer club membership as one of their perks.
7. Cobranded credit cards: One of the most valuable perks airline co-branded credit cards can offer flyers–even frequent flyers who will get elite discounts on club memberships–is free access to airline clubs.
Delta Reserve American Express ($450 annual fee)
Chase United MileagePlus Club card  $395 annual fee, though they are giving out promotion codes in the United lounges that waive that first year annual fee. You can also get 2 free lounge passes each year with the United MileagePlus Explorer card ($95 annual fee waived for first year).
Citi AAdvantage World Elite Mastercard.$450 annual fee.
While these annual fees may be significant, if you were considering buying membership in one of these clubs anyway, you’re pretty much offsetting the cost of membership and getting other valuable perks like priority access, free checked bags for you and travel companions, modest sign-up miles bonuses and miles-earning potential for your everyday purchases (including Elite Miles with the Delta and American cards).
8. Travel with an existing member: This is the cheapest way to get into a club since…it’s free! If you’re traveling with another person who is a member of an airline club, they can usually bring guests into the club with them. American, Delta, United and US Airways all let members bring two guests with them per visit, or immediate family.

One of the best ways to get into a club is to go with an existing member…because it’s free!
9. Use elite status and miles for membership: Some airlines let you use miles to pay for annual club membership. Delta will charge general SkyMiles members 70,000 miles for an annual membership with elites requiring fewer miles–as few as 40,000 miles for a Diamond member. American charges between 80,000 miles for general members and 50,000 miles for Executive Platinums for membership. This is not a great use of points since even high-level elites are getting less than one cent per mile worth of value. That said, if you are an elite with an airline, you still get discount rates on the memberships–on American it’s anywhere between $50-150, on Delta it’s $50-150, on United it’s $25-100, and on US Airways it’s $75-125.

The legacy carriers give their elite flyers discounts on membership. For instance, United Premier 1K’s get $100 off the annual fee.
10. Sky Guide Executive Privilege Club: This is a fantastic but little talked-about program that’s part of Amex Publishing where you pay a $20 annual membership fee and are reimbursed for up to 12 airline lounge day passes. That’s basically like getting $600 worth of value for a $20 fee. You can sign up here, but make sure you don’t select the auto-renew option, or your membership will be renewed at a higher rate. Once your membership is activated, you just pay for lounge day passes using an Amex card and then send the receipts to SkyGuide Executive Privilege Club by certified mail, and the program will mail you a reimbursement check in return up to 12 times per year. Just a few things to keep in mind: you must send your receipts individually, all receipts must show that they are for day passes and not monthly or annual memberships, the receipts must be in the members name, and you must pay for them using an Amex. Still, it’s easy to keep track of all those, and if you don’t want to commit to any one club but want to try a few out a year, this is a great way to do so at what can be a significant discount. Plus, you can even count those charges toward minimum-spending requirements on a new credit card, so you’re basically meeting those requirements and racking up extra points for next to nothing!

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Gary Leff

    Truly funny we’ve both got posts on lounge access this morning — and a total coincidence!

  • thepointsguy

    Great mileage junkies think alike?

  • S

    Thanks for the information, however number 6 has one point mixed up. Oneworld Emerald is the highest (AA Execplat) status which affords access to FC lounges, and Sapphire is second tier (AA Platinum).

  • gomike

    It is the United Club now and they only offer a one time use pass, not a day pass

  • thepointsguy

    Fixed- thanks!

  • DS

    I’ll be traveling LHR-MIA on BA first-class with an overnight layover in MIA, then MIA-LAX on AA first-class; these are purchased tickets. I’ve been expecting that I get AA lounge in MIA. Brian: from your first point, this doesn’t seem as obvious to me as before (unlike your Tampa-Charlotte-London example, it’s my second sector that’s domestic). Do you know if I will get access to the AA first-class lounge in MIA? Thanks.

  • Flyer Fun

    Also, if you are Star Alliance Gold from an international carrier (ie, not UA or US), then you can access Star Alliance lounges in the United States as well.

  • msp2anywhere

    Clarification questions for #1 on *A itinerary (i.e. UA), they way I read the wording I’m only eligible at the airport from which I depart in the international premium cabin… i.e. if I’m MSP-ORD-FRA in C, I’m only eligible for United club access in ORD and FRA?

  • Benthelefty

    Although most probably wouldn’t want to do this, one can simply ask someone who is headed to a lounge if you can be their guest. It makes for good conversation afterwards, and generally if you ask nicely people say yes!

  • Jason

    “Delta will charge general SkyMiles members 70,000 miles for an annual membership with elites requiring fewer miles–as few as 40,000 miles for a Diamond member”

    Unless there has been a very recent change, Delta Diamond status provides free SkyClub membership.

  • CDiddy

    Helpful post. I think a couple of clarifying posts should be made, though.

    On #6, The Priority Pass that you get with the Amex platinum cards (Priority Pass Select) does not grant you access to United lounges. Given that many of the domestic lounges in their network are United lounges, this is a very important point not to be overlooked.

    On #7, the United Explorer card only gets you 2 one-time passes per year. The way your post is written makes it look like one could have a full annual membership for the $95 annual fee, which obviously isn’t the case. (Would be nice though!)

  • MM

    When traveling on an international sector in business but connecting to a domestic flight in coach, does one get lounge access before the domestic flight?

  • Matt C

    Sorry if this is a dumb ?, but I’ve seen policies state you have to have a ticketed reservation w/the airline in order to purchase the one day pass. But I’ve also seen reports that this isn’t heavily enforced — for ex. can one flying on a UA ticket purchase a DL lounge pass, or even a WN ticket since WN does not have a lounge?

    For #10: others have reported being able to charge 2 passes under one purchase in — so if you both have the Delta Amex (where a pass costs $25) you can purchase 2 for $50 and have it charged as one and therefore be able to get reimbursed for both.

  • Austin Watkins

    If you have Star Alliance Gold with United or US you can access other *A lounges (not UA or US) when on a domestic (United States) ticket. For example, at Washington Dulles, you can use the Lufthansa lounge for domestic travel. I find that the international carriers have much better lounges.

    Also, UA and US *A Gold can access lounges for domestic trips outside the US (i.e., domestic trip within Japan, Europe, Thailand, etc).

  • Asharamit

    Chase ink bold complimentary lounge access – seems you forgot this.

  • lmgp4333

    I don’t know about other airlines but not for United Club access. I had a business class flight from Auckland connecting in SFO to DFW, no access allowed to United Club in SFO based on international flight alone.

  • Lauren

    great post!

    could you please confirm if mexico is included in “international?” We are flying from Dallas to Cabo next week and I am AA platinum and wanted to see if I would get lounge access.

  • Jim

    EBay often has day lounge passes for sale. Certainly your risk to buy. Has worked for us.

  • inkabul

    does the amex platinum give companion access to the lounge free too?

  • Bill

    Yes, up to 2 companions. They don’t seem to ask for the companion’s info — those could be just anyone you’ve met in the airport — but your info WILL be checked.

  • Ryan

    Especially if you have the AMEX Platinum Card, where you can guest 2 companions in

  • arcticbull

    But not always :) you won’t get into the Singapore lounge at SFO anymore either.

  • EvilCommenter

    Good job, jerk. Way to put Mr. Sample’s AAdvantage number up on the internet for the world to see. This is just another example of how you and the other bloggers are ruining travel for everyone! Especially poor Jose and the rest of the Sample family.

  • thepointsguy

    LOL thanks for the afternoon belly laugh!

  • Sean

    Another great piece! Thank you TPG. Two small things though – Priority Pass has no Delta lounges starting 2009 and the Priority Pass Select obtained from Amex Plat does not cover United lounges. In fact, Chase has replaced Priority Pass Select with Lounge Club on its cards including Ritz-Carlton Visa – Lounge Club has even smaller coverage than PP Select it replaces (only 350+). I maintain a page on my site for lounge access – this thing is complicated and there are a couple of things I need to update.

  • thepointsguy

    Looks like Oneworld status will only get you in if you are traveling to Mexico City
    “oneworld customers departing on a oneworld operated and marketed international flight in First or Business Class. International is defined as Europe, Asia, South America, Central America and Mexico City for the purpose of lounge access. Must produce government-issued photo identification and an Emerald or Sapphire oneworld frequent flyer membership card or, a First or Business Class boarding pass for the journey’s oneworld international segment on the same day or before 6:00 a.m. the following day. Stopovers are not permitted.”

  • Matt C
  • RJ

    Hi Bri,

    Isn’t United MileagePlus Explorer card just good for 2 passes a year??

    Also, do I need to buy the flight on that credit card in order to get admitted to their lounges, or do I just show the card?


  • Morning Calm

    There are also inroads to lounge access available to expats which are not well known except among those overseas who are tuned into their local banks’ credit card perks. For instance, in South Korea the expat-friendly bank KEB or Korea Exchange Bank offers a platinum Expat Card or Signature Card that, for about~ US$100~$150 membership fee, includes, among others, free Priority Pass membership (i.e., access to over 600 lounges worldwide) for the cardholder with no extra access fees. That’s a very good value if you’re based in Korea and want lounge access.

  • AKold

    Or just get Star Gold on a non-US/United *A airline ;)

  • Mark

    Boy, am I glad I bought lifetime membership to the Admirals Club in 1979 for $300!

  • Lauren

    Thanks so much!

  • Ackrach

    That is the deal of the century, even back then!

  • RDMWorldTravel

    I have a US Airways Club Card and was denied access to the United Club in BOS (BOS-LAX) at Terminal C, I was told that I club was reserved for international travel only. Never ever heard of that. :(

  • GS

    United is my preferred carrier, but I never seem to make to to 50k miles to grant Lounge access. I have Amex Platinum, that doesn’t work. Is the Chase United MileagePlus Club card the cheapest way to get an annual pass?

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  • Marlenna

    I booked and paid for in advance an AA one day pass to their lounges. I am travelling from Canada to Australia and because it is an overnight pass, can utilise the lounge in Brisbane while waiting for my connecting flight to Perth. I am not a business traveller, but do travel twice or three times a year. I do not use the same airline as I go for the best prices and flidght times I can get on the internet. I am now booked on a US Airways flight to Dublin from Buffalo via Boston and Philadelphia. I was looking to get a day pass for their lounges and I fleetingly saw that I could get one if paid in advance for $29 on the internet, but dashed if I can find it again.
    What passes would you recommend for a traveller like myself. My children live on 4 continents and each of them get a visit every 18 months so I am looking for a pass that might suite or do I pay the day passes wherever I can.

  • Heffeh

    The Easiest way to get Lounge access is to fly with Porter Airlines. All tickets levels gets you access to there lounges. The quality of the lounge is average, free starbucks,juice,pop,cookies and wifi. But the whole value of the experiences from take off to landing is worth the price.

  • Michael

    Thr AMEX Platinum Card no longer gives access to United clubs effective November 2011.

  • Prashant Maniktala


  • Danray

    We will traveling on Singapore airlines first class into SFO where we will make a domestic connection to PDX on the way home. Would I be able to access the United Club because of this?

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  • cheap flights Trip

    Amazing video.
    Very impressive article.

  • aa empl

    You are allowed in the Admirals Club the day of international travel only.

  • aa empl

    Admirals club is very particular about two guests with AmEx You are to be travelling together and the check in desk does check out that you are not allowing more than the two guests. I have noticed the actual members if they ask for a 3rd guest, the checkin desk will allow

  • Mega Million Miler

    +1 on the eBay day pass deal.
    I will likely get an annual pass for United next year, but $50.00 day passes can be had for about $10.00 on eBay.
    This way I can try out a few locations, and not worry about how to cover it on the expenses.

  • Marc Urselli

    just read this article 2 years after it was posted… I liked the #10 reason (Sky Guide Executive Priviledge Club) but after looking into it it seems that now only the first 2 months are free and then it’s $199. Unless I missed some promotion or other way to sign up (the original link is no longer active).

  • A

    Question: Does canceling, e.g., the US Airways Premier World MasterCard, invalidate the companion pass and club pass benefits? Those benefits are through Barclaycard (or MasterCard?), not the airline, so I’m wondering if I’ll still be able to use them if I cancel the card?

  • J

    Canceling the card will not allow a flight, the rules of the voucher say it must be used with the actual card to book the flight, so although us may not catch on since all you gave to do us book the flight with thr voucher number it make not work if it is not used with the actual card to book the flight, us this helpful

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