When American Airlines opened its first Admirals Club at LaGuardia Airport in 1939, membership at the trail-blazing club was invitation only for almost three decades. Now, lounges are seemingly everywhere—and much more accessible.
“Today there are roughly 3,000 airport lounges in the world,” estimates Patrick Le Quere, the CEO of LoungeReview.com, which indexes more than 2,600 lounges at more than 850 airports. “The most growth is happening in developing or emerging countries.”
Of course, not all lounges are created equal. There’s a broad variation in the quality of just about everything—décor, amenities, services, food and beverages—as well as the rules for entry.
At the top end are rarefied spaces reserved for airline elite. The only way to get into United Airlines’ Polaris Lounge at Chicago O’Hare airport, for example, is with a first- or business-class international ticket, says Benet Wilson, the travel and rewards editor at the personal finance site MagnifyMoney. “This lounge is just beautiful. There are sitting areas, napping areas, shower rooms, and staff who will press your clothes. There is a full restaurant and a beautiful bar, and stunning views of the airport,” Wilson says. “It is truly a premium experience.”
The vast majority of lounges are nowhere near as plush, but still manage to give travelers what they want. “Most people who use lounges understand the value proposition,” says Brian Sumers, aviation business editor at Skift: “It’s a comfortable, quiet place where you can plug in your electronic devices, maybe get a light snack, maybe get a free Miller Lite.”
Frequent fliers agree that even if lounges aren’t epic, they’re often worth seeking out. “Even if a lounge is very crowded, it’s still much better than in the terminal,” says Stephen Brewer, a New York–based travel writer whose 30 annual flights earn him Delta Gold Medallion status. “You can always eventually find a seat. You can always have a drink and something to eat. You’re free from the announcements, so it’s much quieter. It’s just an easier, gentler way to spend time in an airport.”
But how much is that worth? If you don’t already have access to a lounge, the trick is to figure out what kind of pass makes the most sense for your needs.
Best for: Infrequent leisure travelers, frequent flyers in a pinch.
You can buy your way into almost any lounge, and virtually every large airport has multiple lounges offering day passes. “Fifteen out of 16 travelers today don’t have access to airport lounges through elite airline status or a credit card benefit,” says Tyler Dikman, the CEO of LoungeBuddy, which sells day passes to over 400 airport lounges in 68 countries around the world. For the vast majority of lounges, a day pass from LoungeBuddy costs $40 or less.
You can also pay at the check-in counter for branded airline lounges such as Admirals Club, Alaska Lounge, Delta Sky Club, United Club. (Prices range from $45 to $59.) You can also buy day passes to the thousands of independent lounges around the world, including Airspace, The Club, No1, Plaza Premium, and Servisair lounges.
The downside, Dikman says, is that “some of these lounges have become a victim of their own success because everyone wants to be in there.” LoungeBuddy says it’s created a workaround for the rush: “We know when there is availability and when there’s not,” Dikman says. “When you make a booking with LoungeBuddy, you are guaranteed access.”
Best for: Travelers who visit a lounge at least once a month.
A Priority Pass membership opens the door to over 1,200 lounges worldwide, which you can access through an app on your phone. In the U.S., most participating lounges are independently operated and few airline lounges participate, with the exception of Alaska Airlines and Virgin Atlantic clubs.
There are three tiers of membership. At the entry level, Priority Pass Standard, you’ll pay a $99 annual membership and then $27 per lounge visit. But at those prices, casual travelers are better off with LoungeBuddy, where the median price of a day pass is $35 and there’s no one-time fee.
Will you visit 10 or more lounges per year? Then your sweet spot is Priority Pass Standard Plus, whose $249 annual membership fee includes 10 free lounge visits—which translates to $25 a pop. Beyond 10 visits, you pay $27 for each visit, which is still cheaper than LoungeBuddy.
The top tier is Priority Pass Prestige, whose $399 annual fee gets you unlimited lounge visits per year. This becomes a better deal than Standard Plus when you hit 17 lounge visits in a year.
One caveat: When lounges get very crowded, Priority Pass members can be turned away. “And when people show up with their Priority Pass and are told to come back later, they really hate that,” says Sumers.
All this said, there may be a better way to get Priority Pass besides paying out of pocket, which is using…
Premium Credit Cards
Best for: Frequent travelers of all stripes.
If you’re going to splurge on a premium credit card, you might as well get one that lays on the perks. The American Express Platinum card (which carries a $550 annual fee) comes with a raft of benefits and generous travel credits, including a $200 Uber credit and a $200 airline fee credit. You also get access to Delta Sky Club and thousands of other airport lounges through Priority Pass Select, which is on par with Priority Pass Prestige in offering unlimited access to the network.
Airport lounges were a low priority for Ryan Donahue of Bay Village, Ohio, when he signed up for his Amex Platinum card, but he now tries to visit one every time he flies. “I’ve been surprised how good this benefit is. You have a choice of lounges throughout the airport, no matter what airline you’re flying.” Donahue gives high marks to all the lounges he’s visited, but he’s been most impressed with the American Express Centurion Lounges, for which you need an Amex Platinum or Centurion “black card” (that comes with a $2,500 annual fee) to enter. “They are amazing, well above the other lounges,” says Donahue, “The food is on par with a really good restaurant.” So far there are only nine Centurion lounges—eight in U.S. airports and one in Hong Kong.
Several other premium credit cards, including the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Citi Prestige cards (both have a $450 annual fee), also come with a complimentary Priority Pass Select membership.
In addition, major airlines offer their own credit cards that allow you to earn your way to elite club status by spending on everyday purchases. “Since Delta made it easier to accrue miles through credit card shopping, the lounges are fuller because lots of people now have access,” Brewer says.
Annual Airline Lounge Passes
Best for: Airline loyalists who don’t yet have elite status
Let’s say you fly regularly on short-haul flights that don’t accrue a ton of miles. Or maybe you’ve racked up a lot of miles on Southwest or JetBlue, airlines that don’t have their own lounges. A branded airline pass provides access to the lounges of that carrier and its partners, regardless of which airline you’re flying on any given day. So you could, for instance, fly JetBlue but use American’s Admirals Club.
Airline lounge memberships generally cost between $350 and $500 and are available for Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Alaska Airlines, American, Delta, Hawaiian Airlines, Qantas, and United.
Whether or not this ends up being a deal depends on your personal circumstances; you’ll have to do the math. As an example, an annual pass with unlimited access to Delta Sky Club costs $495. Since a day pass costs $59, you break even when you visit a Delta lounge and SkyTeam partner lounges at least nine times per year.
Alas, some airline lounges will always be out of reach for the casual traveler. “American Airlines, United, and Air Canada have all rolled out higher tiered lounges exclusively for premium passengers, and Delta is allegedly planning a premium lounge product,” says Le Quere of LoungeReview.com. “So now you have the regular club, a better club, and then the best club–rather than one size fits all,” says Sumers, describing the Admirals Club, Flagship Lounge, and Flagship First Dining now offered by American Airlines. The more exclusive airline lounges are intended to reward elite flyers and typically offer much greater privacy, à la carte dining, and highly personalized service. Notably, they are off-limits to base-level club members and pass holders, and some don’t even allow guests.
It’s all about keeping lounges, well, invitation only. “Ultimately, when everybody’s a VIP, no one’s a VIP,” Le Quere says.
This article originally appeared on CNTraveler.com.