You don’t have to be a premium traveler to enjoy airport lounges

Cathay Pacific’s HKG lounge. Aka “The Wing”
Cathay Pacific’s HKG lounge. Aka “The Wing”
Image: Courtesy/LoungBuddy
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Most people, whether they realize it or not, have an airport routine. Perhaps they nervously arrive way too early and only relax once they get to their gate—a full 90 minutes before boarding starts. Or maybe they treat the I’m-running-late airport Uber ride as an adrenaline-filled prelude to a relaxing flight.

I myself am somewhere in between those two poles. However, one thing that has really changed the game for me is realizing that while I’m not a premium traveler, I am an airport lounge enthusiast.

Though I fly frequently, most of it takes place on Europe’s notorious short-haul carriers like Ryanair or easyJet, or in an economy seat (always on the aisle) on a transatlantic carrier like Virgin Atlantic or Norwegian Air. Perhaps it is because I am no stranger to the indignities of commercial air travel that I’ve come to believe airport lounges are a worthwhile upgrade to my pre-airplane ritual. There is nothing more dignified than a pre-flight prosecco and a little space to breathe as you clear your inbox and charge your phone in the 30 minutes before boarding.

Here, many readers will think: “Yeah, duh.” And it’s true for credit-card point junkies, frequent-flying status holders, and aviation geeks—a trip to the airport lounge is a no-brainer. But for many people, the airport lounge life—much like credit card point culture—remains a mystifying prospect, one many wrongly assume is out of reach. There are, after all, somewhere in the region of 3,000 airport lounges worldwide; London Heathrow alone has more than 40 lounges across its four terminals. And plus, they range massively in quality from a tepid beer and handful of pretzels in one to an elaborate separate terminal experience serving you caviar blinis and Veuve Clicquot.

Tyler Dikman is a man that knows a lot about airport lounges, as the CEO of LoungeBuddy, a booking platform, app, and website that also serves as the “the global leader in airport lounge content, rating, photos, reviews.” He estimates that just 6% of travelers are accessing airport lounges through airline status, premium credit-card benefit, paid access, or a premium-class ticket. The rest are left assuming they’re not welcome.

“How would you know how to start? What would you say? Most of these lounges have frosted glass doors out front and most of the doors are shut. It’s not a ‘Welcome in’ kind of experience and you [assume you] probably don’t belong there.”

But belong there you do. Here’s how to become an airport lounge lifer—even if you’re not a premium traveler.

Get it via your status or class of travel

This is what most people assume gets you into a lounge: being a premium traveler (first or business class) or being a frequent flier that grants you some elite level of status with a given airline. And it’s true that your class of travel or status with your given airline or one of the three big alliances (OneWorld, Sky Team, Star Alliance) can often grant you access to a lounge, commonly in the form of airline-branded lounges.

But even if you fall into this camp, it’s still worth doing a little detective work to see if you can further upgrade your already-upgraded experience. A constellation of factors including your class of travel, airline status, the airport you’re flying from, and the credit cards in your wallet (more on that later) can potentially make you eligible for a better lounge than the one you planned to check into. (It’s worth noting that LoungeBuddy’s app has a “lounge access wizard” for this purpose, which helps you figure out what your options are for any given trip based on the factors above.)

Buy access on the day

Perhaps it’s true you don’t need to visit a lounge every time you travel. But let’s say your flight is delayed, or you’re desperate for a shower on a long connection, or you’re leaving for a once-in-a-lifetime trip and you want to get the bubbles flowing early—that’s when buying one-off access is the perfect option.

Dikman estimates that anywhere from a third to a half of the world’s lounges offer walk-up access which, on average, costs somewhere in the range of $30-60 dollars per visit (there are, granted, some major outliers). If you consider that many lounges offer full catering, the cost isn’t bad if you manage to fit in a meal too. It can be advisable (though not essential) to book a couple days in advance at busy airports. As the quality of lounges can vary widely, it’s best to look up the amenities and reviews beforehand to ensure it fits what you’re looking for.

Get it via your credit card

Many lounge enthusiasts (including yours truly) access the lounge life via their credit card benefits. As Dikman says, “Virtually all credit cards that charge an annual fee of $300-400 or more or the equivalent [in other currencies] come with some form of lounge benefits.”

The lounges you gain access to can be airline-branded lounges, or independent lounge operators such as The Club in North America, Plaza Premium in the Asia and Middle East, and Aspire in Europe and UK (the latter is owned by ground logistics company Swissport, which also operates lounges). If you hold an American Express Platinum card, you also get access to their much-lauded Centurion lounges. (Amex is the only major card provider that has its own branded lounges.)

But keep in mind: Even if you don’t have a prestige travel card with a hefty annual fee, you might be entitled to perks you don’t know about. Cards with a more modest annual fee can come with a couple visits per year, so don’t assume you’re not entitled.

Join a lounge membership program

Arguably, this hack is connected to number three. Lounge membership programs like Priority Pass and Dragon Pass (the latter focused in Asia) are networks of thousands lounges in airports across the world, which members can access irrespective of airline or class of travel. While these memberships can be purchased at different tiers in their own right, they are far more commonly obtained as a free perk of a premium credit card.

The lounges that are parts of these membership programs may be airline lounges or independently operated ones. And thus it’s true that the quality of lounges in these schemes vary tremendously—even between terminals at the same airport—and your admittance can be subject to space requirements on the day. But if you book ahead, and do a little research, you will almost always be better off than tripping over bags to grab that last seat at Gate 142.