All the Ways to Get Airport-Lounge Access, Explained

One is free ... if slightly unethical

August 5, 2019 5:48 am
Centurion lounge miami
The grand opening of the American Express Centurion Lounge in Miami
John Parra / Getty

When Jake Szufnarowski, a concert promoter in New York, was flying home from Richmond recently, he hit a snag: he couldn’t access his usual airport lounge.

“Tried to go into the Amex lounge so I could [use] a clean toilet,” he wrote in a Facebook post (the contents of which he gave permission to share). “The woman at the desk told me it’s only for departing flights. So I said, ‘OK I’m just gonna book a new flight, then.’ I’m pretty sure nobody ever pulled that one on her before, based on how surprised she looked.”

It worked. Szufnarowski booked a new flight for later that day to Miami within seconds, showed the attendant his boarding card and walked in. He got his bathroom break and a complimentary beverage, and then immediately canceled his Miami flight for a full refund.

His “workaround,” as he called it, technically played by the rules. But it’s also one of the reason airlines and independent operators are tightening those rules. As the New York Times pointed out recently, airport lounges are the victims of their own success: formerly the province of business and first-class ticket holders, you can now find travelers gaining access through credit card companies, day passes and third-party apps.

“We’ve seen some new rules from U.S. airlines in the past couple of years,” says Brian Sumers, Senior Aviation Business Editor of the travel site Skift. “Starting later this year, you’ll need to be flying Delta, American or United, or one of its partners, to use that airline’s lounge.” As well, lounges are also increasing membership fees (while, as Sumers notes, making room improvements and enhancing food options).

Some lounges — particularly those not airline-affiliated, like the American Express Centurion lounges — are also limiting guests in order to curb crowding. So in the face of increasingly draconian restrictions, we asked a few travel experts what they’d suggest for access in a more, shall we say, ethical way than Szufnarowski.

Priority Pass

Get this membership

“I’m a big fan of Priority Pass,” says Samantha Rosen, Travel & Content Editor for the travel site The Points Guy. “It’s a network of 1,200+ airport lounges that passengers can access if they have premium credit cards (Chase Sapphire Reserve, Amex Platinum, etc.).” Priority Pass is accepted at 40 airports across the country, although some lounges may restrict access if there’s crowding, allowing dedicated club members or other high-priority ticket holders first.

Plans for Priority Pass start at $99 and go up to $429, depending on usage. As well, the company recently started offering Priority Lane “fast lanes” at some airport security and passport control checkpoints, for an additional fee.

Use the right credit card

“Most of the high-end cards at least come with Priority Pass lounge access,” says Sumers. “American Express does a little better, because with its premium cards, you can access Centurion lounges, as well as Delta lounges if you’re flying Delta.”

Still, American Express might be one to watch, says Rosen. “They had some big acquisitions this year, including Lounge Buddy [which offers day passes] and Resy. While Amex hasn’t shared any big details yet, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect free or discounted access to lounges in the months ahead.”

Buy a day pass

A one-time use of a lounge is about $50. However, “I’m not sure it’s worth it for most people,” says Somers. “Folks who haven’t been in lounges often think they’re opulent and luxurious. They’re usually just a slightly nicer place to wait than the terminal.” And some airlines like Delta no longer offer a one-day entry. That said, those high fees might be good if you’re coming off a red-eye and need access to a shower. Note: Lounge Pass is an option for international flights.

The Club MCO
Priority Pass commended The Club MCO at Orlando’s airport during its annual awards

Use a public airport lounge

Agnostic airport lounges like The Club and Minute Suites offer beds, showers, wifi and snacks on a daily (or even hourly) basis. If you have a membership somewhere,  it could help; for example, Priority Pass members get an hour free at the Dallas Minute Suites lounge.

Make new friends

“Most of these lounge programs allow you to bring in a guest or two,” Sumers explains. “If I’m traveling with a co-worker or an acquaintance, I’ll bring them in, even if we’re not close. It’s not like you have to sit with them once in the lounge. It’s also not unheard of for a member to bring in a guest the person just met on an earlier flight.”

Apply at the last minute

To get instant Centurion Lounge access, you can apply for the American Express Platinum card get access on the spot. Says Rosen: “They’ll give your account number, if you get approved, of course. And lounge access alone more than offsets the $550 annual fee.”

Bite the bullet and buy a membership

They aren’t cheap and you’re somewhat restricted by airline, but a $350-$650 annual membership can also get you access to tons of allied lounges (like Star Alliance or Oneworld).


Join America's Fastest Growing Spirits Newsletter THE SPILL. Unlock all the reviews, recipes and revelry — and get 15% off award-winning La Tierra de Acre Mezcal.