Photo (cc) by TravelingOtter
Travel can be amazing, life-changing even, but airports … well, many airports are not exactly the most relaxing places on earth to hang out. In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported that in 2013 more than 826 million passengers were served by domestic and foreign airlines in the United States.
Airline lounges, an oasis from chaos
That’s almost a billion passengers in one year. No wonder airports can be loud and crowded, with minimal seating, marginal Wi-Fi, and limited power outlets. Having to sit on the floor in the corner of the chaotic gate area in order to guard one of the few working electrical outlets isn’t exactly the best way to kick off a relaxing vacation or productive business trip.
The good news is that within loud and crowded airports there are oases of relative calm available in the form of airline lounges. You have probably walked by their fancy closed doors without even realizing it.
Once upon a time, I assumed that you needed to have a personal assistant and an impressive expense account to be able to afford to wait for your flight in a lounge. But the reality is there are lots of ways to get in, one of which is having the right credit card.
Relax in posh AmEx Centurion lounges
There are lots of different types of airport and airline lounges out there, and while no one card gets you into all of them, you can align your credit cards with the lounges that you think you would use most often based on your travel patterns.
Perhaps the credit cards that give you the widest variety of airport lounge access around the world are the American Express Platinum cards, including the personal and business cards. These cards give you access to the new and truly upscale AmEx Centurion lounges located in airports such as Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, Las Vegas’ McCarran and New York’s LaGuardia, and coming soon to San Francisco, Miami and more.
These lounges have hand-crafted drinks, gourmet food designed by celebrity chefs such as Cedric Vongerichten and Dean Fearing, and even family rooms. The DFW location has a complimentary spa so you can sneak in a facial, manicure or massage between flights.
The American Express Platinum cards, which come with an annual fee of $450 or $475, also get you admission to hundreds of other lounges around the world, including participating Delta Sky Club lounges, via the Priority Pass Select membership that comes with the card.
If your needs are more aligned with getting admission to an airline-specific lounge, then cards such as the United MileagePlus Club Card or Citi Executive AAdvantage World Elite MasterCard might be more helpful. Both provide many airline-specific perks, one of which is access to United and American Airlines lounges, respectively, around the world.
These lounges don’t tend to be as well-appointed as the AmEx Centurion lounges. But they are the place to be in the event of flight delays and cancellations, because the airline agents in these lounges can often lend aid faster, and sometimes more effectively, than the overwhelmed agents out in the terminal.
What is interesting about those airline-specific cards is that the annual fees for the cards, while not inexpensive, are often less than buying a lounge membership yourself. For example, annual membership in the United Club is $500 for a general member, but the annual fee for the United Club credit card that gets you the same lounge membership, plus other perks such as priority security screening and boarding, is $395 a year.
Better yet, I have seen offers for the first year free or at least a $100 statement credit the first year you have the card. Airlines want you to have their co-branded credit cards, and leveraging that reality to get lounge access a bit cheaper can work to your advantage.
Occasional lounge access
If you want occasional airline lounge access without the large annual fees that come with some of these cards, then know that a few rewards credit cards give you a couple of lounge passes each year you hold the card. For example, the United MileagePlus Explorer card has a $95 annual fee and gives two free United Club passes annually, and the US Airways MasterCard provides one complimentary club pass each year.
The Chase Ink Plus and Chase Ink Bold cards provide membership in Lounge Club, which gives you access to more than 350 airport lounges around the world, including Alaska Airlines Board Room lounges, the No.1 Gatwick at London Gatwick, and The Club at DFW. With those Chase Ink cards, you can get two free visits to the Lounge Club partner lounges and then pay just $27 for visits after the first two each year.
Whether you just want occasional airport lounge access on a special trip, or you need a quiet place to relax or work within the airport on a regular basis, certain credit cards designed for travelers can be your entry beyond the closed doors for less money than if you were to buy a membership or pay per visit out of pocket.
Just be sure to do the math based on how often you and your traveling companions expect to use the lounges, and make sure you aren’t overpaying for access by virtue of the annual fee on your credit cards.