From small mechanical issues to ill-timed blizzards, few of us have traveled in the past few years without running into some sort of mishap at the airport. Granted, running an airline is no easy chore, but the frustration felt when flights don’t take off as planned can seem all too real. During such moments, a sleek airport lounge can provide an oasis of luxury and calm in which to bide your time. But what about when things don't go awry? How often do you need to visit an airport lounge to justify the cost of membership? And what tricks are there – if any – to gaining access without paying?
What’s in a lounge? Your typical airline lounge is hidden in a remote section of the airport, inviting only a select few to experience its free Wi-Fi, bounty of drinks (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic), finger foods, comfortable seating, private restrooms, and plenty of power outlets. Lounges are typically operated by airlines themselves (Delta SkyClub, United Club, Alaska Board Room, etc.), but can also be ran by third-party entities.
Earlier this year, American Express' Centurion Lounge opened up inside Las Vegas’ international airport, offering over-the-top lighting, amazing views of the surrounding dessert, and honest-to-goodness cooked food (another branch of Centurion Lounge has also opened in Dallas/Fort Worth). In May, Delta opened up SkyDeck, a 2,000 square foot rooftop lounge at its rebuilt Terminal 4 at JFK; meanwhile, Terminal F in Atlanta hosts an outdoor seating area for international travelers.
What’s it cost? Every lounge sets its own daily entry fee, but you can count on spending at least $35 per person for access. For the one-off business trip, that may be fine to swallow, but if you travel with any regularity at all, that's going to add up quickly. Many lounge families (such as Delta’s global SkyClub brand) offer annual passes for between $400 and $500, which may be a solid option if you typically fly with a single carrier.
Tips for getting in: One of the benefits of earning status on a carrier is gratis lounge access: essentially every major airline will allow their top-tier elite members free access to their clubs. For example, Delta Diamond members receive free access to SkyClub lounges around the world whenever they’re flying on Delta or a SkyTeam partner, regardless of what class of fare they purchased. Beyond earning your way there, I’d strongly recommend a look at Priority Pass, whose rapidly expanding network of 600+ airline lounges worldwide grants you unlimited lounge access for yourself and a guest for $399 annually. (If you’re planning to make over 10 lounge visits per year, this basically pays for itself.)
Is it worth it? Finally, it’s important to remember that lounge access is truly only worthwhile if you have the time to use it. Those who routinely book tight connections won’t even have time to divert to the lounge. In general, you need at least 1 hour between flights in order to spend even 20 minutes in a lounge. The biggest benefit is with early arrivals; for example, if you’re booked on a red-eye out of San Francisco, but have to check-out of your hotel at noon, lounge access allows you to have a comfortable place to work for hours until your flight departs. Plus, if you’re making an international connection with an unusually long layover, being able to get a shower between 8+ hour flights won't go un-appreciated.