Hanging at the airport can be an incredibly nonglamorous experience — making us mighty jealous of people with airport lounge access. But is it worth the investment? We do the math!
You get what you pay for
Generally, most major U.S.-based airlines (that'd be American, United, Delta, etc.) charge around $400 for a year of lounge access, but you can often score a day pass for around $50. If that sounds like a big expense, consider the cash you will blow throughout the day on WiFi, food and drinks at the airport bar during a long layover — it may be well worth the investment. And airlines are making constant improvements to make their lounges more attractive. Delta has recently added rooftop skydecks to its international terminal sky clubs in both Atlanta and NYC, allowing sunbathing while you wait out that flight delay.
Keep in mind a crucial distinction: U.S. airlines are all about profit vs. loss, and that's why they, much like the gym we never attend, go by annual membership fees. For foreign airlines, they are for the benefit of elite members and paid premium cabin (business and first class) ticket holders.
The caste system is alive and well
They don't call it the elite lounge for nothing. If you are traveling international first or business class, you probably already have access to the lounge even if you aren't a lounge member. If you want that upgrade (to better seats and better access), consider breaking into your frequent flyer miles. You've earned them and they can make a long-haul flight way more enjoyable. A first class award is usually only 2x the miles of an economy award, and a business class award is less. Always ask about upgrade availability, you may be surprised!
Often, it's well worth that upgrade. I flew Cathay Pacific Airways JFK to Hong Kong a few years ago, and was blown away by the luxury in its lounge — I'm talking private cabana suites and noodle bars, people. NOODLE BARS.
Another example of an airport lounge worth aspiring to is EL AL's King David Lounges. Israel-side, the King David Lounge in Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport includes treatments by Spa Shizen Herzelia, free of charge. Also of note, free and plentiful hummus. Let's never forget about hummus. Similarly in Bangkok, Thai Airways' first class lounge offers private rooms with free hour-long massages in its on-site spa — also fabulous, but no hummus.
Do you have an airline credit card?
My United Club Card offers free access to United and US Airways lounges. The Delta Reserve Card offers free access to Delta lounges. American Express Platinum will grant the holder access to American Airlines, Delta or US Airways lounges with a valid economy ticket for travel on the corresponding airline. Furthermore, this card grants Priority Pass Access to lounges (they waive the fee for Priority Pass Select level of service). If you are going to get a credit card, look into rewards that can make it more useful for you — those charges you make throughout the year will feel downright noble! Many cards also offer quantitative mileage rewards as well as a sign up bonus. Also, look into options like Priority Pass, which offers access to mostly-unaffiliated lounges worldwide for one annual fee. Lower priced credit cards such as the United Mileage Plus Explorer card come with two one-time passes to its lounges and they reissue these annually when you renew the card.
It's all about who you know
And by that, we mean STATUS. Mean Girls is alive and well in airport land, and if you are cool enough (i.e. have high enough status), you'll get to sit with the popular kids. Everything has caveats though. For instance, United requires you to fly 50,000 paid miles in a year to get Star Alliance Gold, then it doesn't give you lounge access domestically. 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.
But sometimes it's about a whole other form of status. For instance, the owners of Tortuga Bay at Puntacana Resort & Club also own and operate the Punta Cana International Airport. Because of this ownership, guests of Tortuga Bay receive VIP airport service, including a personal greeter immediately upon their exit of the plane who then escorts guests through a highly expedited customs and immigration process to private transport that allows guests to arrive to their suite or villa in as little as ten minutes after the plane has touched down on the runway. Not too shabby.
Be my guest, be my guest!
Most of the airline lounges allow a member to bring guests — but many of these people are business travelers and traveling alone. Make a friend! There's no shame at all in, say, hanging outside a lounge and asking a kindly human to bring you in. You have nothing to lose, and you will probably succeed. And, who knows, this "date" may be the beginning of a beautiful relationship!