Rewards while you wait: Don’t “fly by” the perks of airport lounge access

Business women meeting in airport

In a world of hectic terminals, heavy carry-on bags, overpriced restaurants and swarms of travelers crowding the gates, airport lounges give travelers an asylum from the chaos.

Some airport lounges offer the basic quiet place to make a call away from the turmoil of the concourse. Other lounges offer a little more with dining on white tablecloths and spa treatments. But you don’t have to be a first-class traveler to take advantage of airport lounges. It all comes down to knowing how to unlock the perks.  

Almost all major credit card carriers have a co-branded card that includes membership benefits to airport lounges. But what is the price of admission? What’s new? Why would you want in?  Let’s take a look.

Perk spotlight: airport lounges

Airport lounges are “exclusive clubs” that offer a getaway while on the go. Most lounges cater to frequent flyers and business travelers, offering amenities like complimentary beverages, magazines, showers, fax services and printers to print business documents. While waiting areas in the concourses offer a place to sit down, plug-in mobile devices, or regroup, lounges provide peace and quiet and a little more flexibility.

Priority Pass says there are 1,200 airport lounges worldwide, accessed through travel rewards cards. Most lounges belong to individual airlines, like United Airlines United Club or Admirals Club from American Airlines. Some cards have high annual fees for the privilege of gaining access to the lounges. American Express Platinum Card, for example, provides lounge access across many brands, including Airspace, Delta Sky Club, Escape, Plaza Premium, Priority Pass Select and others.  But, it comes with a hefty annual fee of $550 per year.

Lounge admission is also gained through co-branded credit cards, like the Delta Rewards credit card by American Express. These cards are often used by hotels and airlines to gain customers and give users special perks not often found in other travel credit cards.

17 keys to the club

There are more than a dozen credit cards that grant airport lounge access. Here are 17 of the best.

Credit Card Lounge Access Policy Credit Score Annual Fee
Chase Sapphire Reserve®Priority PassTM Select with access to over 900 VIP lounges in over 400 cities worldwide720 – 850$450
Marriott Bonvoy BrilliantPriority PassTM Select with access to over 900 VIP lounges in over 400 cities worldwide740 – 850$450
Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American ExpressDelta Sky Club® with access to 247 Delta Sky Clubs and Partner lounges worldwide700- 850$450
United Mileage Plus® Club CardUnited ClubSM with access to more than 45 United Club lounges worldwide, and at participating Star Alliance® affiliated airport clubs690 – 850$450
Citi Prestige® CardPriority PassSelect with access to over 900 VIP airport lounges in more than 400 cities worldwide670 – 739$495
The Platinum Card® from American ExpressDelta Sky Clubs when traveling same-day on a Delta-owned or Delta-operated flight, Plaza Premium lounges in over 70 locations, Airspace lounges, the Centurion® Lounge in cities across the U.S., Lufthansa Business, Senator and First Class lounges and Priority PassTM Select with access to over 900 VIP airport lounges in more than 400 cities worldwide
690 – 850$550
Delta Reserve® for Business Credit CardDelta Sky Club® with access to more than 247 Delta Sky Clubs and partner lounges worldwide740 – 799$450
Citi® AAdvantage® Executive World EliteM  MasterCard®Admirals Club® with access to over 50 Admirals Club® locations worldwide and 60+ partner lounges700- 850$450
The Business Platinum® Card from American ExpressDelta Sky Clubs when traveling same-day on a Delta-owned or Delta-operated flight, Plaza Premium lounges in over 70 locations, Airspace lounges, the Centurion® Lounge in cities across the U.S., Lufthansa Business, Senator and First Class lounges and Priority PassTM Select with access to over 900 VIP airport lounges in more than 400 cities worldwide
670 – 739$595
Hilton Honors American Express Aspire CardPriority PassTM Select with access to over 900 VIP airport lounges in more than 400 cities worldwide
740 – 799$450
Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® CardTen free Priority Pass visits670 – 739$95
Hilton Honors American Express Business CardTen free Priority Pass visits670 – 739$95
U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve Visa Infinite CardPriority Pass Select membership allows four free visits per year740 – 799$400
United MileagePlus Club Card Complimentary United Club membership offers access to all United Club locations and participating Star Alliance affiliated lounges740 – 799$450
Mastercard Gold Card Complimentary access to lounges in the Priority Pass Select network 700- 850$995
Mastercard Black Card Complimentary access to lounges in the Priority Pass Select network740 – 799$495

The cards that get you through the door

Some credit cards only offer limited access to airport lounges. That means that you can sometimes get in for free when you purchase a first-class or business-class ticket. Otherwise, you’ll have to pay for a membership, which varies depending on the airline and your frequent flyer status.

Day passes are also available to travelers by paying at the door. Many lounges sell day passes, ranging in cost from $29 to more than $75 per entry. Some credit card companies, like the United MileagePlus Explorer Visa card, offer two lounge passes per year for every year you renew your card.

The cards that get you a little more swag

Several cards, like Chase Sapphire Reserve and the Business Platinum Card from American Express, offer memberships that give you access to 1,200+ lounges around the world.  Both cards give you a good chance of gaining access to a lounge, no matter which airport you’re in.

Other lounges are even more exclusive. For example, the American Express Global Lounge Collection is only available to cardholders of the American Express Platinum Card or Centurion members. Delta’s Sky Clubs, Plaza Premium, Priority Pass Select and Airspace lounges offer limited access to more than 1,200 lounges in 130 countries.

Chane Steiner with Crediful offered a bit of insight into lounge privileges, “Some cards with airport lounge access are quite exclusive with requirements such as invite-only or having a six-figure account. However, there are some cards for travelers who don’t meet the criteria. The American Airlines AAdvantage card is a potential option. The pros include lounge access for you and your immediate family and 25% savings on in-flight food and beverages. You get to check a bag for free as well. The cons are you’ll need a credit score of over 600 to be approved for the card, and there’s a $450 annual fee. It sounds like a lot, but if you travel often that may be worth the cost for lounge access.”

Sleep on the flight, but don’t sleep on the perk

Not all travel cards are the same, and cardholders should look out for hidden restrictions on what you can and can’t use your points for. With most cards, you can earn points or miles with each purchase, which you can redeem for travel expenses. Most travel cards have flexible rewards that you can use without blackout dates or restrictions, but some don’t – making it more difficult to travel at will.

Most cards have annual fees, some of which are pretty hefty. For instance, the MasterCard Gold card has a $995 sticker price that you pay annually. However, some travel cards that also offer lounge access have no annual fees, like the Bank of America Travel Rewards credit card. The only drawback with this card is that you must have associated bank accounts to take advantage of all the card offers.

If you’re loyal to a specific hotel chain or airline, you may want to take a look at cards like the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire, or Delta Sky card from American Express. No matter which you choose, it’s worth your time to determine just what you want and then research credit cards that meet your needs. Otherwise, you may end up without all the perks you wanted and a seat in the concourse rather than your favorite airport lounge.