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Hidden card benefit: Save money and sanity in airport lounges

Stephanie Zito

Airports are full of crowds, lines, delays, poor and expensive food choices, pushy passengers, and often grumpy airline agents, but your credit cards often can help you escape much of that.

Airports, you see, are secretly one of my happy places. In fact, there are a whole lot of people who sometimes even go to the airport extra early just to hang out before a flight. We are the people who have discovered the hidden world of airport lounges.

Airline clubs or elite lounges exist in nearly every airport, and behind their closed doors is a world where you feel like you’re waiting for your plane to board from your living room rather than the gate-side grandstand of a three-ring circus.

Lounges are stocked with free food and drinks, comfy chairs and enough outlets for everyone to charge their devices. Some nice lounges even have complimentary spa services, showers and sleeping areas.

Pay for lounge pass, or just flash your credit card
Historically lounge entrance was only for the most elite and premium-class flyers, but as the airline business transitioned to a pay-to-play model of cash for upgrades, cash for bags, cash for snacks, and, well, cash for everything, airlines also began to sell their lounge access in the form of cash for airport comfort.

Some lounges, particularly lounges operated by international airlines, are still an invitation-only sanctuary for the elite, but now you can buy your way into most U.S. domestic airport lounges. A day pass to an airline club lounge runs about $50 a day, and an annual membership costs $400-$550 a year.

Some airlines will still let you into the lounge based on your ticket class, but most U.S.-based airlines don’t automatically include lounge access as part of a domestic first-class itinerary. But if you’re not a high-flyer and you don’t want to pay for lounge access, you might already have a secret, free key for lounge entrance – your credit card!

How airline and travel cards open lounge access doors
Here are three types of airport lounge access that may be part of your credit card benefits:

Airline Club lounges
Each of the three main legacy carriers in the U.S. (American, Delta and United) operates a chain of club lounges.  While they’re not always the fanciest of lounges, they’re certainly the most ubiquitous and consistent.

Club lounges offer free beer, wine and well drinks at the bar, snacks all day, and desk agents that can help you with flight re-booking on their respective airline if there’s a flight delay or cancellation. If you spend a lot of time in U.S. domestic airports, this is the type of lounge access that would best suit you.

As a Club Lounge member, it doesn’t matter which airline or class you’re flying, your entrance is your membership card – or more likely in your case, your credit card.  The United MileagePlus Club consumer and business cards come with an annual membership to the United Club, the Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard gets you into any Admirals Club, and the American Express Delta Reserve Card grants you access to the Delta Sky Club.

All of these credit cards have an annual fee of $400 or more, but remember that the cost of a stand-alone lounge club membership is often even more. Lower-annual fee American, Delta and United cards also offer airport lounges (for example, United MileagePlus Explorer cards include two United Club one-time passes per year).

Priority Pass lounges
Priority Pass is a global lounge membership network with a zillion lounge partners all over the world (technically 1,000+ lounges and growing). There are some great lounges and some lounges that are just slightly better than being in the airport – but even the worst of lounges I’ve ventured through in Africa have a place to sit and free water!

If your travels take you far and wide, the Priority Pass is a good option as it works in lounges in the U.S. and all over the globe.

The Citi Prestige, the U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve, the American Express Platinum, the Business Platinum from American Express, and the Chase Sapphire Reserve are a few of the cards that will grant you Priority Pass lounge access.

Centurion Lounge
While not a category of lounge per se, Centurion lounges are a growing chain of airline clubs operated by American Express with some nicer domestic lounge amenities. The Dallas and Miami locations, for example, both offer mini-spa treatments (free manicure on my layover, yes, please), and the San Francisco lounge has a California wine tasting experience.

To access the Centurion lounge you’ll need either an American Express Platinum card (both the business or personal version work) or an American Express Centurion card.

If you frequent any of the airports with a Centurion lounge, it’s worth checking in at the lounge solely for the cash you’ll save on meals and drinks alone. Oh, and be sure to try their signature white mimosa.

Can you get friends and family into the lounge?
Like most things with your credit cards, remember to read the fine print of your cardholder agreement. Lounge benefits vary from card to card. Some cards will allow you to bring a guest or even your whole family into the lounge with you, while other lounges will only let in the primary cardholder.

You’ll also want to make sure that you’re going to visit the lounge frequently enough so that the benefit you’re gaining outweighs the annual fee.

In the end, if you play your cards right – your credit cards, that is – you can be relaxing during your layover with a free drink instead of waiting in that long line in the airport food court.

See related: How does Priority Pass airline lounge access work, 13 luxe lounges you can access with a credit card, Spend some of your points and treat yourself

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