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Top 11 Airport Lounges in the US and How You Can Get In

March 03, 2016
14 min read
Top 11 Airport Lounges in the US and How You Can Get In
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Being able to access an airport lounge can make all the difference when you're traveling, thanks to free drinks, snacks, Wi-Fi (and thus a little extra time for productivity) and a few moments away from the hectic main terminal. Unfortunately, most airport lounges in the US aren’t much more than dreary way stations little better than public waiting areas. A few, however, set the bar higher. Today, TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen takes a look at some of the best airport lounges around the US and shows you how to get access.

Drab, worn-out furniture, scarce power outlets, yellow lighting, days-old pretzels, cheap Chardonnay … the state of airport lounges in the US is pretty sorry, whether we’re comparing them to their international counterparts or not.

Luckily, the airport lounge scene is getting better and better these days, especially for flyers out of New York-JFK and LAX. Here’s our list of the top airport lounges in the US, starting with airline-specific ones and then rounded out by several of American Express’s growing cadre of Centurion Lounges.

1. Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, New York-JFK

Virgin Atlantic's Clubhouse makes the top of our list.

Maybe it’s unpatriotic to list a non-American lounge as the top one, but Virgin Atlantic’s JFK Clubhouse gets top billing because it’s probably the most design-forward and playful on the list — meaning, it’s a place you might actually want to spend time and relax. It’s also one of TPG’s favorites. That’s because the lounge has a hip cocktail bar and a pool table for shooting the breeze. Among the current food options are a full breakfast menu, a variety of tapas including pea-mozzarella arancini and veggie dim sum, as well as larger bites like the Clubhouse burger and chicken tikka masala. There is also a Bumble & Bumble salon and a spa with complimentary mini-treatments utilizing Dr. Hauschka products (you can pay for longer treatments).

Access: You can get into this lounge if you're flying Virgin Atlantic Upper Class, or if you’re a Delta Diamond, Platinum or Gold Medallion member on a same-day nonstop flight to the UK operated by either Virgin Atlantic or Delta. Virgin Atlantic Flying Club Gold members, Singapore Airlines First Class Suites passengers and first- or business-class passengers on TAM can also get in. If you’re an Elevate Gold member or Main Cabin Select or First passenger on Virgin America, you can also get in for $75 per adult and $40 per child (age 5-12).

2. Oneworld Lounge, LAX

The Oneworld lounge at LAX even has an indoor firepit.
The Oneworld lounge at LAX even has an indoor firepit.

This snazzy West Coast lounge serves business- and first-class flyers out of the new Tom Bradley International Terminal. We got a sneak peek back when it opened, but since then, Qantas has opened a lounge within the lounge for its first-class passengers as well. The main business-class area has 400 seats and is centered around a large atrium with natural lighting. It features a variety of seating areas as well as a huge kitchen/buffet area where the menu has been created by Australian celebrity chef Neil Perry. There is a separate black-tiled bar serving made-to-order cocktails and a selection of wines, and even an indoor firepit.

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Among the elite perks available for Qantas Platinum, Marco Polo Club Gold and Diamond and BA Executive Club Gold elites, as well as Oneworld Emeralds are shirt-pressing, shoe shines and priority access to the nine shower suites, which are stocked with Aurora Spa products. The more exclusive Qantas First Lounge has capacity for more than 200 people, including two private VIP rooms, presumably for traveling celebrities. It also has a restaurant area where guests can order a la carte from another menu created by Perry, and shower suites stocked with ASPAR products.

Access: The larger business-class lounge can be accessed by business-class passengers on a Oneworld airline departing from TBIT, including Air Berlin, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Iberia, JAL, LAN and Qantas), or Oneworld Emerald or Sapphire members flying in any class on a Oneworld carrier. The first-class lounge can be accessed by first-class passengers on Oneworld carriers and Oneworld Emerald members flying in any class.

3. Star Alliance Lounge, LAX

The Star Alliance lounge at LAX has an outdoor terrace and a balcony overlooking the concourse.
The Star Alliance lounge at LAX has an outdoor terrace and a balcony overlooking the concourse.

Another new addition to LAX in the Tom Bradley International Terminal, Star Alliance’s facilities are pretty fantastic in their own right. They contain both business- and first-class lounges. The business section can accommodate up to 375 guests, while the first-class section is limited to just 40. The standout feature here is an outdoor terrace with a waterfall where you can get a breath of fresh air before your international departure. The lounge also has a sort of seating balcony overlooking the main terminal concourse, so you can feel like you’re part of the action.

There's also an extensive buffet serving complimentary snacks and drinks, a library with loaner iPads, a media room for catching up on sports and news and the usual bells and whistles like free high-speed Wi-Fi and power ports galore. The eight shower suites come in handy for a pre-flight refresh, and last time we passed through, they were stocked with Soaptopia products.

Access: Star Alliance first- and business-class passengers and Star Alliance Gold members flying in any class on a Star Alliance flight can get in.

4. Lufthansa First Class Wining & Dining Lounge, New York-JFK

The Lufthansa First Class Wining & Dining Lounge at JFK is a lounge within a lounge.
The Lufthansa First Class Wining & Dining Lounge at JFK is a lounge within a lounge.

TPG Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig recently spent a few hours in this exclusive little enclave on the third floor of the larger Lufthansa lounge at JFK. It's fairly compact, with a seating area up front of armchairs and a self-serve bar (be sure to try the Ruinart Champagne). The main portion of the lounge, however, is the dining room, where there's an extensive buffet, including an entire dessert section, and table service with a la carte menu options (if you want to eat there and maximize your sleep time on the flight). Among the recent options? Maine lobster bisque and 72-hour short rib with red-wine reduction. Guests here can also drop down one floor to the main lounge to use one of two shower suites.

Access: The lounge is available to first-class ticket holders on Lufthansa, as well as HON Circle elite members.

5. Delta SkyClub, New York-JFK

Delta's flagship SkyClub at JFK T4 is home to its famous SkyDeck overlooking the tarmac.
Delta's flagship SkyClub at JFK T4 is home to its famous SkyDeck overlooking the tarmac.

Since it opened at JFK’s revamped T4 a few years ago, Delta’s flagship SkyClub is the nicest (and largest) in the airline’s network and features a few unique amenities. The biggest draw here (and one of TPG’s favorite airport hangouts) is the SkyDeck, a large outdoor area overlooking the tarmac where you can order drinks and food and even enjoy the free Wi-Fi as you watch the planes. The interior of the lounge has seating for about 400 fliers as well as 50 workstations plus a bar with free drinks and snacks as well as premium spirits, wine and beer for sale. The lounge also has six shower suites.

Access: Delta SkyClub members, international or transcontinental BusinessElite passengers (either paid or award tickets) on Delta or SkyTeam partners, and SkyTeam Elite Plus (Gold, Platinum or Diamond) flying on a SkyTeam carrier in any class have access. Alaska Board Room members also have access. You can also get in as a cardholder of the Platinum Card® from American Express or the Business Platinum® Card from American Express, as well as the Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express. You could also purchase a day pass for $59 ($29 for non-Reserve Delta Amex credit cardholders).

6. Virgin America Loft, LAX

You can simply pay for access to Virgin America's LAX Loft.
You can simply pay for access to Virgin America's LAX Loft.

Virgin America opened this little gem in 2012 in Terminal 3, and it has to be one of the chicest of the bunch. It has a mood-lit bar serving “Lofty Libations,” including a cheekily named Mile High Margarita, as well as a full menu of snacks and small plates for sale. Of course there’s also free Wi-Fi throughout and plenty of power ports. Perhaps the biggest selling point for non-family travelers? No children under 12 allowed.

Access: It's free for those in first class on Virgin America, as well as Elevate Gold members traveling on Virgin America and Priority Pass and Lounge Club members. Access costs $15 for Elevate Silver members traveling same day, while $30 day passes are available to everyone else traveling on Virgin America, its partners or other airlines departing out of Terminal 3.

7. Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, LAX

Though small, Virgin Atlantic's LAX Clubhouse is still worth a visit.

This relative newcomer just opened last April to coincide with the airline launching 787-9 service from London to Los Angeles in May. It’s probably the smallest one on this list, at just 4,000 square feet, though it packs a lot in. This one has an installation art piece by Diana Reichenbach, a bar serving apothecary-inspired signature cocktails (think lots of herbs) and a full food menu created by the folks from LA restaurant Hinoki & the Bird. No spa or beauty amenities, unfortunately, due to size constraints.

Access: To get in, you either need to be flying Virgin Atlantic Upper Class, a Flying Club Gold member or Delta SkyMiles Diamond, Platinum or Gold Medallion elite flying Virgin Atlantic in any class.

8. Cathay Pacific Lounge, San Francisco SFO

The Cathay Pacific Lounge at SFO recently underwent a dramatic expansion. Image courtesy of Cathay Pacific.
The Cathay Pacific Lounge at SFO recently underwent a dramatic expansion. Image courtesy of Cathay Pacific.

Finally, a non-New York or LA club! Hong Kong’s flagship carrier had a sleek little lounge at SFO that nearly doubled in size last year thanks to a huge refurbishment and expansion. It now accommodates up to 175 guests at a time and is more than 9,000 square feet. The lounge is outfitted with sophisticated touches, such as white Carrara marble tables and bars, Chinese black-granite walls and floors, bamboo stools and tables, a wall installation of Venetian glass and those cool circular Cathay Solus Poltrona Frau leather chairs that are a Cathay lounge signature.

The lounge also offers six shower suites, seven workstations, free Wi-Fi throughout and a signature Cathay Pacific noodle bar (order the spicy dan dan noodles). Since the expansion, there's now an additional dining area with a self-serve buffet and espresso bar

Access: The lounge is normally open only to passengers flying business or first class on Cathay Pacific or Oneworld partners that day, or Oneworld Sapphire or Emerald elite members flying a Oneworld carrier that day in any class.

9. British Airways Concorde Room, New York-JFK

It's nothing but cocktails and crystal chandeliers in BA's JFK Concorde Room. Image courtesy of British Airways.

There are just two British Airways Concorde Rooms in the world, one at the airline’s hub at London Heathrow and one at New York JFK’s Terminal 7, and you can only get in if you’re flying BA first class. What makes this one so special? It’s sort of like a lounge within a lounge within a lounge, with its own luxurious aesthetic, and it's usually much quieter than the airline’s business- and first-class lounges.

For folks looking for a pre-flight meal, there's full restaurant service as well as a main lounge with overstuffed furniture for hanging out, and a private terrace with views of the tarmac and airport. Guests can also head over to BA’s Galleries Lounge for a complimentary 15-minute Elemis Spa treatment.

Access: Guests must be flying British Airways first class.

10. Amex Centurion Lounges

Amex's Centurion Lounges have changed the whole domestic airport lounge scene.
Amex's Centurion Lounges have changed the whole domestic airport lounge scene.

You’ve probably been wondering when I would mention Amex’s expanding network of Centurion Lounges, but I’ve saved the best for (second-to) last and compiled them as one entry. That’s mainly because if I named them individually, they’d take up half this list. The first Amex Centurion Lounge opened in Las Vegas in 2013. Since then, lounges have opened in Dallas, Miami, San Francisco, Seattle (this one is a mini-lounge dubbed a “Studio”) and at New York LaGuardia, with another scheduled to open in Houston in 2016, and one possibly slated for Los Angeles later in the year.

The Dallas lounge is a great option for folks without access to the Admirals Clubs at the airport, but it’s also special in that it has an Exhale Spa and guests can schedule complimentary 15-minute treatments. The Southwestern-inspired food menu there, meanwhile, comes courtesy of chef Dean Fearing. Though if we’re talking food, TPG seems to prefer chef Cedric Vongerichten’s lemongrass fried chicken at the LaGuardia lounge. However, perhaps more impressive, the food menu at the SFO lounge was created by three-Michelin-starred chef Christopher Kostow from The Restaurant at Meadowood, with cocktails by Jim Meehan and a list of Napa wines compiled by Anthony Giglio. The Miami lounge’s food menu was created by Delta’s executive chef, Michelle Bernstein, and it also has an Exhale Spa offering complimentary treatments.

Why can't all airport lounge's look like Amex's Centurion Lounges?
Why can't all airport lounge's look like Amex's Centurion Lounges?

Access: Here's the best part: You don’t have to be flying first or business class to enter these lounges. Access is free for Platinum, Business Platinum and Centurion cardholders, and admission includes up to two guests or your immediate family. Other Amex cardholders can also get in with a $50 one-day pass purchased at a club on the day of travel. The day pass includes children under 18.

11: United Polaris Lounges

After we originally published this round-up, United opened its first Polaris Lounge at Chicago O'Hare's Terminal 1 — and it's outstanding. Think speciality cocktails, private seating areas, posh showers, relaxation rooms, improved food, unheard of Wi-Fi speeds and so much more. United is planning to open a total of nine Polaris Lounges around the world. Chicago’s lounge opened on December 1, and Houston, Newark and San Francisco’s lounges should be open by the middle of 2017. Dulles and Los Angeles will follow later in 2017, and Hong Kong, London and Tokyo should open by the end of 2017, but may not be available until early 2018.

United Polaris Lounge Review
United's first Polaris Lounge, at Chicago O'Hare.

Access: The lounge is open from 7:15am until 9:00pm seven days a week. Polaris Lounges are only accessible to business and first-class passengers flying United Polaris or business or first class on Star Alliance partners. United Club members, Star Alliance Gold Members, Global Services members, etc., can only get in if they’re flying business or first class.

Those are the lounges Team TPG likes to hit when we’re on the road. What are some of your favorites?

Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.