5 Alternatives to the High Price of an Airport Lounge Pass

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You've seen the signs in the terminal for airport lounges. Maybe you've wondered if they're worth the price. Answer: not usually.

Two people are at a major airport waiting for their flight to depart. One is enjoying a fine steak and premium micro-brewed beer, while the other is making due with cheese, crackers, and a Budweiser.

Guess who’s paying more?

In fact, the crackers are being eaten by a passenger who paid $50 for a day pass to United Airlines’ “Red Carpet Club,” while the steak costs less than that at the Chop House restaurant at Denver’s international airport. While I’d never turn down a free invitation to a business lounge, I’ve always found better uses for my time and money than buying an expensive lounge pass.

Here are five reasons not to pay for lounge access, and alternatives that offer a better experience…

1. Lounges offer terrible food

You might think it would be hard for airlines to offer worse alternatives than their in-flight meals. But many do just that in their lounges. For example, Delta’s SkyClub lounges are notorious for serving a special cheese that’s full of preservatives in order to survive unrefrigerated. Peanuts and crackers are pretty standard at most domestic lounges.

Alternative: Airport dining has come a long way in the last few years. In addition to Denver’s Chop House, travelers can enjoy fine cuisine at Atlanta’s One Flew South, Cuban specialties in Miami’s La Carreta, and New England crab dishes at Legal Seafood restaurants in Boston and Philadelphia airports. Visit the airport’s website to learn what’s available and then read reviews on sites like Yelp.

2. Lounges can be crowded

There was a time when only a privileged few – usually those traveling in first class – could use a lounge. Today, anyone can buy a lounge pass at the door, and many credit cards offer this benefit at no extra cost. Reports of travelers unable to find a seat in their lounge are not uncommon.

Alternative: An unused gate or a slow restaurant can often be more peaceful than a crowded lounge. Look for gates that offer international service, since they’re typically used only for flights departing late at night or arriving early in the morning.

3. Lounges are boring

Eventually, every traveler is forced to wait hours for their next flight. You could spend your day in the lounge watching cable news or actually do something worthwhile.

Alternatives: Most major airports have some nearby attraction. For example, Washington Dulles has an annex of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, and the Georgia Aquarium is a 15-minute train ride from the Atlanta airport. Other cities have observation lounges and museums inside the terminal. I once spent an afternoon sampling sausages in downtown Frankfurt and strolling along the Rhine – even though I had access to an airport lounge.

4. Lounges don’t make sense for nonstop flights

If you’re taking a nonstop flight, there’s really no reason to get to the airport so early that you’ll have time to visit a lounge.

Alternative: Arrive at your gate about 45 minutes prior to departure, just before boarding starts. You’d have to leave for the airport much earlier just to make time to visit a lounge that could be far from your gate.

5. Lounges are a risky place to spend a delay

You can arrive at your gate just before the scheduled boarding time, only to learn of a delay. This would seem like the ideal time to visit the lounge, but be careful. Airline staff is supposed to alert lounge visitors to flight changes, but I’ve known passengers who have missed their flight when the new departure time was only announced at the gate.

Alternative: Always check flight status before leaving for the airport. If a delay occurs within the hour or two before scheduled departure, it might make sense to remain at the gate, as the situation can change just as quickly.

So what are lounges good for? If you can get in free, many lounges offer a hot shower and a cold drink, and that can be perfect for long layovers or delays. But in most cases, you should question the value of an expensive airport business lounge.

Stacy Johnson

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