Is Paying for an Airport Lounge REALLY Worth It?

PHOTO: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

Find out when you should pay for the extra airline perks.

Just a decade ago, complimentary airline lounge access, a great perk that comes with being a frequent traveler or, in many cases, by holding an airline affiliated credit card, was relatively easy to come by—you didn’t have to accrue nearly as many miles, spend as much cash or pay as many credit card fees that you have to now. These benefits have taken more to earn in recent years, especially for those who are occasional travelers or are without extreme elite status or inclined to commit to credit cards with hefty annual fees. Qualifying for elite status has become more tricky, with steeper mileage requirements, and the required spend on credit cards (to qualify for airline status) can also be steep. So, does it make fiscal sense to pay to enter a lounge? Are the benefits of a departures lounge worth a portion of the funds you may have allocated for your journey? We think there are certainly times when paying for lounge access can be a good financial choice, as well as a good choice for your quality of life when on the road. We have considered a few options: When does it make sense to pay cash? When might you want to consider an affiliate credit card? And, when might you want to consider third-party lounges, which are not affiliated with an airline, though offer some similar amenities?

Should I Pay Cash for Lounge Access? Is It Worth the Money?

Access to many airlines and third-party lounges is available with the purchase of a day pass. Lounges vary in terms of their offerings and luxury, though at a minimum, an airport departures lounge will have complimentary food and drink (including modest liquor, wine and beer offerings), nice and comfortable furniture, a selection of reading materials including daily newspapers, printers, Wi-Fi, power, clean and nice bathrooms, (some even have showers!) and a general sense of peace from the stress of airport travel. Some premium and more rare lounges will also offer full complimentary meals, top-shelf liquor, massage and spa services. If you have a long layover or unanticipated flight delay, it is likely that you will visit the airport concessions for food and beverages. It is also likely that you will face some fatigue. For your, say, $59 entry fee to the lounge affiliated with your airline (and there are other airline lounges to consider, at other price points—more on that in a moment), you might be able to rebook your flight while avoiding long lines at the gate, and while offsetting what you might spend in the terminal. Agents at the lounge for your airline have the same rebooking powers and are available to help with, often, a much shorter wait.

Part of the calculation is how much you may value a more quiet and secluded space with comfortable furniture (rather than camping out at the gate.) For argument’s sake, let’s say you value this benefit at $15/hr. Adding in the price of a meal ($15-$20), two rounds of drinks ($15-$20), and two hours of time waiting for your flight, the total outlay would be $15-$40 and $30 of valued peace and quiet time in the lounge. That $50 entry fee is looking like the better deal!  For even longer waits, say three hours before an international flight, not paying for a lounge almost becomes a bad choice. These three hours in a lounge can be a good financial deal if you would otherwise have bought food, drinks, a massage, etc.

Consider Terminal 8 at JFK airport for some specifics. Sandwiches and small plates at Vino Volo range between $9 and $17, and similar at O’Neal’s Pub runs between $12 and $18. That is before beverages, and before stops at any other gifts shops or airport concessions. American Airlines, a major carrier through Terminal 8, does not require you to be a co-branded credit card holder, or to even have elite status to get through their frosted glass doors to chillax in the quiet of their lounges (neither does United). They will happily sell you a day pass, American for $50 and United for $59.

INSIDER TIPA day pass is only good for the lounge in which you purchase it, it is not a pass to access another lounge on the same day in a different city.

At Boston’s Logan Airport, United, American, Delta each have a lounge, in addition to several unaffiliated third party lounges. In Terminal B, a Kale, Spinach, and Quinoa salad from Berkshire Farms Grab and Go market runs $8.95, and an Artisanal Cheese and Charcuterie snack pack is $13.95. All that to say, if you have time on your hands and communication with agents in the lounge would be an asset, considering we might have spent more than $20 on food just at the Grab and Go, and that lounges also offer complimentary drinks, cheese and crackers, soup, sweets, snacks, small salad plates, and other benefits like discounted spa treatments, newspapers, and travel industry magazines, and general peace and quiet, we feel we come out ahead.

Should I Apply for an Airline-Affiliated Credit Card?

Sticking with JFK as an example, Terminal 4 is the Delta terminal, and you do need an affiliate credit card or membership to enter the Sky Club. In terms of terminal concessionaires, entrees at one popular T4 restaurant, Uptown Brasserie, cost between $20-$30. Drinks are variable and range from $7-$16. A more casual option, Pizza Vino, has entree-sized salads or a meatball dinner for around $15. If you happen to be an Amex Delta or Amex Platinum cardholder, those co-branded cards grant you access to the Delta Terminal 4 lounge at JFK, either for free (Amex Delta Reserve, Amex Platinum) or for the low price of $29 (Amex Delta Gold or Platinum.) In this case, you are already paying an annual fee (ranging from $195-$475) on these cards. Depending on how much you use the lounge, a portion of the fee is paying for your entry, and thus for meals and necessities, you may have spent otherwise in the terminal. In addition to free or highly discounted lounge access, airline-affiliated cards have other benefits as well, like opportunities for mileage accrual to apply toward elite status, and companion certificates, which allow you to buy two tickets for the price of one.

What Are Third-Party Lounges? How Do I Gain Access to These?

While they don’t offer the ability to rebook your flight, third party lounge networks that have no affiliation with any airline, such as Wingtips and The Club, can be a reasonable deal. Many credit cards issued by Amex and Chase offer complimentary lounge access via Priority Pass, a company with lounges across the globe. Check your credit card benefits page to see if this is offered. Generally, the credit cards that offer Priority Pass come with an annual fee, so while the entry may be complimentary, you have invested toward entry already. Even without Priority Pass, the Wingtips Lounge, a third party non-airline affiliated lounge at JFK, offers entry for $50, and The Club at Boston Logan charges $40. Again, you’ll need to consider how much you are already about to spend on meals and drinks, and what your travel day looks like, to make the best decision for you.

Lounge Buddy, now owned by American Express, hosts reviews of third-party lounges (including user comments) and sells discounted lounge access. Checking out the reviews before purchasing entry is always a good idea!