The Best Airport Lounges and How They Work

Are you tired of the hustle and bustle of crowded airport terminals, where finding a comfortable spot to relax is akin to winning the lottery? Imagine a serene sanctuary amidst the chaos, where the clinking of glasses and soft hum of conversation replace the incessant announcements and hurried footsteps. Welcome to the world of airport lounges, where luxury meets convenience, and every traveler's comfort is a top priority.

Picture this: you're on a layover, exhausted from a long journey, and craving a moment of respite. Instead of jostling for space in a cramped seating area, you stroll into an exclusive lounge where plush sofas beckon and gourmet snacks await. Sounds too good to be true? Think again.

In our quest to uncover the best airport lounges and understand how they work, we delve into a realm where opulence knows no bounds and comfort is king. From the hidden costs to the perks of elite status, we unravel the mysteries of airport lounges.

So sit back, relax, and let us be your guide to an elevated travel experience like no other.

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Lounges Cost

Most airport lounges are not free. They require you to buy a business-class-or-higher ticket or pay a fee to enter, or they bury the cost inside a travel credit card or frequent-flyer account.

Airport lounge passes often cost $40-$60 for the day and $300-$1,200 annually, though most people get annual access through a credit card or frequent-flyer program.

If that’s too rich for you, there’s the Priority Pass program, which is a little like MoviePass for certain airport lounges.

A standard membership costs $99, and $35 per lounge visit. A $329 annual fee buys 10 visits, but $469 gets you unlimited visits.*

Finally, there’s LoungeBuddy, an app that connects travelers with lounges. With LoungeBuddy you still have to pay your way in, but at a reduced rate.

Alternatively, LoungeBuddy can help you determine if you qualify for complimentary lounge access via airline elite status, credit cards or your fare class – because it’s not easy to figure out sometimes.

Of these options, credit-card access is the easy way to go. It may not be worth paying a credit card’s annual fee just to get lounge access. However, if you’ve already paid the fee, take the perk.

Also see: Top 10 Best Luxury Hotels and Resorts in the U.S.

Basic lounges share some basic tenets

Lounges are most often specific to an airline. There are exceptions, like American Express’ Centurion Lounges and the Capital One Lounge at DFW, but at many U.S. airports your choices are going to be:

These lounges offer the things travelers need most: Wi-Fi, snacks, coffee, and drinks. Some add amenities like showers (American), enhanced work areas (Delta, Alaska, United), enhanced play areas (American), and even spas (Virgin).

Not much differentiates these lounges except perhaps a better view or easier access to your flights. They also can get crowded, especially at peak travel times. If you’re looking to stand out, you need to kick it up a notch.

Tips for Luxury Travel on a Budget: A Guide to Affordable Elegance

There is a luxury level

Generally, the more you pay and/or the further up the frequent-flyer chain you are, the better the lounge you can access.

For instance, if you splurge on a first-class transcontinental flight on Air France you get access to its La Première lounges. If you’re not flying first-class, access to these can cost thousands of dollars, so it’s a perk.

United’s Polaris Lounges are reserved for passengers flying in premium cabins on long-haul routes. They feature bistro-style meals, upgraded seating areas, stylish bars and more – a lot of the things you used to get when you flew first-class, but might not anymore.

United is part of the Star Alliance, whose members can get into higher-end lounges run by other alliance members, as long as they’re a Gold, Platinum, or 1K award member and have a same-day Star Alliance boarding pass.

The counterpart to the Star Alliance is the OneWorld Alliance. Having Emerald status with OneWorld can get you into some pretty nice joints, including the Qantas First Lounge at LAX, which is considered by many to be the best in the U.S.

Speaking of which …

The best airport lounges are pretty nice

If you have elite status with an airline, or you’ve purchased an expensive ticket, you’re likely to have access to a very comfortable lounge and will be treated well.

Among the crème-de-la-crème of U.S. airport lounges are the aforementioned Polaris Lounges, the Chelsea Lounge at JFK (American and British Airways), and the lounge-within-a-lounge Flagship Lounge for American Airlines passengers.

If you have a high-end travel credit card, American Express’ Centurion lounges and the Capital One Lounge at DFW are nice places to hang out.

If you don’t qualify for these, you can still enjoy some nice perks at lounges like the Virgin Clubhouses or Alaska Airlines’ renowned lounge at the Seattle-Tacoma airport.

And finally, if you have none of the above and you’re at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta,  book access at the Club at ATL, a non-affiliated lounge that offers all the amenities with none of the branding.

Naturally, many international lounges double down on luxury for their best passengers. Standouts include:

You get what you pay for with all these airline lounges – and one way or another, you always pay.

If you’re taking a trip that merits admission to a top airline lounge, you probably should help protect that trip with travel insurance and assistance services, like the Premium Plan offered by Generali Global Assistance.

Plans can cover deluxe travel plans, and getting a quote is easy.

*Prices accurate as of March 2024.

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