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

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

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!
Maximize your rewards, points and cash back. Get a Personalized Recommendation Now