Updated on 01.26.17

Airport Lounge Access Is Sweet, Sweet Luxury – But Can It Save You Money, Too?

The fact that we can fly to the other side of the world never ceases to amaze me. After enduring an initial trip to the airport, you can check your bags, board your aircraft, and be on your way. And if you’re lucky, you might even sleep through the entire flight – falling asleep in one land and waking up in another world.

While this all sounds great, there’s more to flying than pure joy and adventure. For all its conveniences, air travel is also a huge pain.

Arrival at the airport usually leads to a flurry of queuing – first to check your bags and check in, then through security. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll get to your gate in a decent time. But then, it’s cramped seating, constant announcements over the intercom, and gross airport food until you queue (once again) to board your plane. And once you land in your destination, it’s usually more queuing and even more hassle.

Escaping the Stress of Travel with Airport Lounge Access

Enter the airport lounge: a type of travel oasis tucked away in the corners of airports across the world. While airport lounge access can’t save you from long lines or the hassle of flying, they do provide a welcome respite from the business and stress of airport travel.

Sounds amazing, huh? Unfortunately, airport lounge access isn’t free. One of the most popular lounge programs, Priority Pass, offers access to 1,000 airport lounges across the world and starts at $99 for an annual membership. On top of that, members pay $27 per visit for themselves and guests. A Standard Plus membership costs $249 per year, yet comes with 10 free lounge visits and $27 guest visits. A Prestige membership costs a staggering $399 per year, but includes unlimited visits. Also note that most airport lounges offer one-time day passes for $30 to $50 per person.

After spending hours, days, or even weeks stalking travel booking websites to save $100 on your flights, the notion of giving back all those savings probably doesn’t sound too appealing.

But while lounge membership certainly comes off as expensive, some travel credit cards offer airport lounge access as a cardholder perk – making your quiet airport escape close to free. Plus, lounge access comes a lot more than just a place to escape. On top of peace and quiet, lounge access also comes with:

  • Complimentary snacks and appetizers
  • Free drinks, including certain types of alcohol
  • Newspapers and magazines
  • Free Wi-Fi
  • Shower facilities

Some airport lounges are better than others. For example, Centurion Lounges, which you can access if you have The Platinum Card® from American Express or The Business Platinum® Card from American Express OPEN, are known for offering appetizers and full buffets of food, along with premium drinks and plenty of extra snacks. The Centurion Lounge in Miami even offers guests 15-minute massages and manicures as part of the experience, provided you have enough airport time to make, and wait for, an appointment.

Could Airport Lounge Access Actually Save You Money?

With so many benefits, you might be wondering if lounge access is a good or bad deal, or if (gasp) it might even save you money. As someone who makes use of airport lounges frequently, I would say it really depends. But for my family, lounge access has been a lifesaver – both when we’ve traveled as a couple and with our young kids.

Last year, for example, my husband and I got stuck at the Miami airport for nine hours starting at 9:00 a.m. Since we have American Express credit cards, we headed straight to the Centurion Lounge for the day. Once we arrived, we ate breakfast, completed some work with the free Wi-Fi, then stuck around for lunch. And since our plane wasn’t scheduled to leave until around 6:00 p.m., we also had dinner in the Centurion Lounge.

Not only did we save anywhere from $60 to $100 by not having to pay for airport food all day, but we saved our sanity, too. Sitting at the gate for nine hours would have easily made me crazy!

Another time, we endured a few long days of traveling with our kids. Since we got the Chicago airport early, we had a few hours to kill at the lounge there. That meant plenty of snacks and drinks for all of us before we boarded our plane. During a three-hour layover, we had lunch and snacks again. And when our plane was delayed a few hours, we wound up turning the airport lounge snacks into dinner. If you have purchased food at an airport before, you know buying lunch and dinner for four could have easily cost us $100.

But, it’s not just families who can benefit from airport lounge access. Frequent travelers who spend a lot of time in airports are more likely to benefit from airport lounge access based on visit frequency alone. If you travel at least a week every month and experience long layovers, for example, having a place to shower and eat a free meal with drinks can easily lead to savings over time.

Should You Ever Pay for Airport Lounge Access?

If you don’t travel very often and don’t have any rewards credit cards, it might be difficult to get much “bang for your buck” from airport lounge access. With the Standard Priority Pass membership, you’ll pay $99 per year and $27 per visit. Unless you’re going to spend hours in the lounge and drink your weight in alcohol, it’s doubtful you’ll come out ahead.

If you travel all the time, on the other hand, paying $399 for unlimited visits could absolutely be worth it. If you visit a lounge and eat a meal five times per month saving $20 every time, it would only take 20 airport visits over four months to come out ahead.

In my opinion though, the best way to get airport lounge access as a frequent traveler is to sign up for a travel credit card that offers it. The new Chase Sapphire Reserve card, for example, offers access to more than 900 airport lounges worldwide with complimentary Priority Pass™ Select membership. And obviously, the card itself offers plenty more travel benefits that can be immensely helpful, including trip cancellation/interruption insurance, primary auto rental coverage, and of course, Chase Ultimate Rewards points.

As mentioned above, the The Platinum Card® from American Express and The Business Platinum® Card from American Express OPEN both offer Centurion Lounge access and the Global Airport Lounge Access Program, which includes access to over 1,000 airports around the world.

Plenty of other cards come with their own airport lounge access program, including the Citi Prestige® (at least for now), Ritz Carlton Rewards Card, and Citi Executive® / AAdvantage® World Elite™ MasterCard®. Before you sign up for any of these cards, make sure you understand their benefits, how you might access them, and whether any annual fees are involved.

The Bottom Line

If you travel often enough to take advantage, airport lounge access can improve your travel experience and save your sanity. And, who knows – it might even save you some money in the process. As always, it makes sense to run the numbers before you purchase a membership or sign up for a rewards card that offers this perk. How often you can use this benefit will make a huge difference in how much value you’ll get out of a membership.

Airport lounge access may make air travel easier to stomach, but it only helps when it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.

Holly Johnson is an award-winning personal finance writer and the author of Zero Down Your Debt. Johnson shares her obsession with frugality, budgeting, and travel at ClubThrifty.com.

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Have you ever visited an airport lounge? Do you think lounge access saves you money?

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