How To Get Free or Discounted Airline Lounge Access

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

There has been a lot of news on the airport lounge front lately, what with Amex Platinum cardholders soon to lose access American and US Airways lounges and having their Delta SkyClub guest access restricted (as will Delta Reserve cardholders) and Delta jacking up membership fees for everyone else, so a lot of people have been writing in wondering whether lounge access is even worth it anymore and how to get it cheaply when they need it, or when they are entitled to it as part of their travel plans.

Starting off with JFK-Taipei on Eva Air Royal Laurel Class.
International premium class tickets come with lounge access.

Book A Premium International Ticket – Paid or Award

Airlines generally don’t give lounge access for domestic first class itineraries (with the main exception being transcontinental flights I’ll get to below), but they do for international premium class flyers – even those flying on award 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 book a business class ticket and travel Orlando-Atlanta and then Atlanta-Paris, you’ll get lounge access in Orlando, Atlanta and generally in Paris on arrival. If you are traveling in first class, airlines will often have separate first class lounge sections, but you can also access the business class lounge with your first class ticket (in case you want to lounge hop).

Book First or Business Class Transcontinental Flights

Several domestic airlines grant lounge access when you book premium tickets on their transcontinental routes.

Air Canada: Customers holding a Business Class ticket are entitled to Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge access.
American Airlines: Customers traveling in First or Business class on U.S. transcontinental flights between JFK-LAX, JFK-SFO and MIA-LAX (and vice-versa) are eligible for lounge access.

Passengers eligible for access must provide their government-issued ID and a ticket or boarding pass valid for departure on the same-day.

  • First Class traveling on nonstop, three-class transcontinental flight
  • First Class traveling nonstop on two-class transcontinental flight
  • Business Class traveling on nonstop, three-class transcontinental flight
Certain transcontinental flyers get access to American's Admirals Clubs.
Certain transcontinental flyers get access to American’s Admirals Clubs.

Delta: SkyClub access is granted to those traveling on a nonstop Delta First Class, BusinessElite, or full Y-class ticket between JFK and Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Portland, Phoenix, San Diego, Seattle, and San Francisco.

United: United grants access to BusinessFirst travelers between JFK and Los Angeles/San Francisco on both paid and award tickets.

Buy a Day Pass

Just an occasional lounge visitor, or want to test the waters before committing to an expensive annual membership? Most airlines 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.

Test out lounge access with a day pass.
Test out lounge access with a day pass.

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.

Get the Amex Platinum Card

As I mentioned, this card suffered a major blow recently when it announced that its partnerships with American and US Airways were ending in March, but the card will still get one cardholder into Delta’s SkyClubs (additional guests pay $29) and also still grants Priority Pass Select membership, which includes hundreds of other lounges, including Alaska Airlines Boardrooms. Amex has also opened two Centurion lounges that Platinum cardholders have access to at DFW and Las Vegas with two more planned at San Francisco and New York La Guardia for now. The Ink Bold and Ink Plus also offer two free lounge visits in a program similar to Priority Pass Select, called Lounge Club.

Platinum cardmembership confers automatic Priority Pass Select membership.
Priority Pass Select membership can get you into over 600 lounges worldwide.

Priority Pass Membership

Priority Pass membership gets you access to over 600 lounges worldwide, including many airline 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). Select Membership (no access to United clubs) comes free for cardholders of select American Express cards including the Platinum card and the Ritz-Carlton card.

Some airline co-branded credit cards include lounge access as a benefit.
Some airline co-branded credit cards include lounge access as a benefit.

Airline 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) – though cardholders will only automatically get Individual membership and no guests per Delta’s recent announcement.

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 and also waiving the annual fee in Chase branches. 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 are 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).

Preferred members with Gold status or higher get Star Alliance gold status.
Star Alliance Gold members get lounge access.

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 tier (AA Platinum) frequent flyers are welcome in Business Class* or frequent flyer lounges. (*does not include Qantas Domestic Business Lounges)
Emerald tier (AA Executive Platinum) frequent flyers can use First Class, Business Class or frequent flyer lounges.

Emerald and Sapphire members may invite one guest to join them in the lounge. The guest must also be travelling on a flight operated and marketed by a oneworld carrier.

SkyTeam Elite Plus
members, 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.

Star Alliance
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 present proof of Star Alliance Gold level status via a valid frequent flyer program Star Alliance Gold level card or other valid indication of Star Alliance Gold level status
  • 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 traveling in conjunction with a Star Alliance international flight.

Use Elite Status and Miles for Membership

Some airlines let you use miles to pay for annual club membership with discounts for elites. I wouldn’t usually suggest doing this unless you have tons of extra miles to burn since this is not a very good value redemption.

Some airlines let you use miles to pay for club membership.
Some airlines let you use miles to pay for club membership.

American: Membership mileage redemptions range from 55,000-80,000 miles for individual memberships depending on your elite status level.

Delta: Between 80,000-110,000 miles depending on status level.

United: United let’s flyers pay for membership using between 50,000-65,000 miles depending on elite status.

US Airways: Though US Airways makes you pay for membership, now that their clubs have reciprocal access with American’s club network, you should be able to access them with your Admirals Club membership.

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