Airport lounges are one of the best perks available to make air travel less grueling. I actually enjoy being on a plane 36,000 feet above the worries of the world below, but hate almost everything between arriving at the airport and seeing the seat belt sign go off. I say almost because airport lounges can actually be pretty great!
Airports can be a traveler’s hell. After waiting through long queues to collect a boarding pass or check baggage (often waiting for people who clearly did not read the baggage or security rules in advance to repack their luggage in front of me), I get to line-up again for the gloved hands and x-rays of security to confirm whether I’m wearing boxers or briefs, before pushing my way through thousands of people with no spacial awareness, only to sit on an uncomfortable chair or floor until such time as I get to queue for a third and hopefully final time to board the plane (unless gate security requires I be prodded for a second time). At this point I’m usually tired, grumpy, sweaty, angry, and beginning to despise my fellow species. Thankfully, to help travelers find respite from this grueling hell, the airport lounge was born.
Airport lounges can be amazing and not only reduce the stresses of travel but even make being in airports an enjoyable experience. If you have not accessed an airport lounge before, I highly recommend doing so. Even for backpackers on a budget, they can be extremely worthwhile, especially if you are able to get in for free. In this post, I answer two key questions: (i) What to know about airport lounges before planning your flights; and (ii) How to get into airport lounges.
The quality and access to airport lounges varies greatly between airports, terminals, and concourses. Larger airports often have multiple lounges and thus it is worth knowing in advance if you will be able to gain access and what the quality of the lounge will be.
Usually, my first stop for research is the airport website which will often list the lounges they have available as well as a map of where they are located. If there are public access lounges (rather than airline branded lounges) this is where you will most often find details about them. If I am unable to find the information I need on the airport website I will next try the website of the airline I plan to fly or the airline alliance website (Star Alliance or OneWorld for example). The key things to research are:
Determining the lounge operating hours should be very straight forward. Many lounges only open a couple of hours before the flights they commonly service depart and therefore you will not want to plan a long layover in the airport or spend money on access if your lounge time will be very limited.
Knowing the lounge access rules is important since the lounge will not be of any benefit to you if you cannot get in! Each lounge will have different rules so do your research in advance to find out how or if you will be able to get in. Sometimes lounges have unusual rules during peak periods to reduce the number of people who qualify to enter so the exact “rules” can sometimes be difficult to determine.
Mapping out the location of airport lounges can also be important. In some airports, the quality of lounges can vary greatly depending on which part of the airport you fly into or out of. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to know for certain exactly where your flights will arrive and depart, but usually you can get a pretty good idea from understanding the airport layout. For example, most airports will have its domestic (or Shengen Area in Europe) flights arriving and departing in one area with international flights being serviced in another. To determine which lounges you will be able to access it is helpful to understand where the passport control and security screening areas will be as that may greatly your ability to get in. As an added perk, some airports and airlines also offer Arrivals Lounges. Arrivals Lounges can be a great place for a shower, drink, meal, or organizing your onward travels once you have arrived at your stop-over or destination.
Finally, it is worth determining if there are particular lounges that have better amenities than others (especially if you need to pay to get in) and if the lounge is worth visiting at all. Most lounges provide wonderful respite from the crowds of the main terminal while other airport lounges are not even worth the time or energy to visit given the airport’s standard public amenities. I have written some airport lounge reviews on this site and there are many more excellent lounge reviews online and a few minutes of reading will give you a good idea of the amenities you can expect to see during your visit. Just remember, even if you have done your homework, the service, busyness, and comfort levels will vary in a lounge based on the time of day and flight schedules so there is always some aspect of luck and chance involved!
Below I have listed six great ways to get into airport lounges. As explained above, each lounge may have different hours, locations, and rules so access may vary, but these are the usual ways to get in.
This is usually the most surefire way to gain access to lounges as it is the business and first class flyers that Airport Lounges are primarily designed to cater to. Best part is, usually everything (except for spa treatments and other exceptional services) are free! If you plan to redeem or upgrade points for the trip of a lifetime it is definitely worth researching the lounge quality prior to spending your points as certain lounges will offer a far better experience for the same number of points. It is worth noting that in some airports the first class lounges are far superior to their business class counterparts whereas in other airports both classes of travel are served by the same lounge.
This is my usual method of gaining lounge access. By achieving Emirates Gold and Star Alliance Gold I now have access to all of the Emirates and Star Alliance Lounges (provided I am traveling on a ticket with an Emirates or Star Alliance partner). If you travel enough to achieve status, through mileage runs or otherwise, this can be the most “budget” way for backpackers to gain access to airport lounges.
There are a number of specialty credit cards and membership cards that will provide access to Airport Lounges. Of course, these cards often require a large annual fee and in my experience many of the public lounges they provide access to are of a lower quality than the airline lounges. Depending on your travel patters and preferred airlines and airports, they may still be a great option, but a little research must be done in advance.
Some airports have lounges that are open to the public provided you pay for entrance (usually $20-$70, depending on the amount of time you spend). These are often the same lounges that the credit cards and lounge membership cards provide access to and in my experience they are often less exotic and comfortable than the airline lounges, but if you plan to buy food, drinks, and WiFi in the airport, they can still be of great value as usually everything is free (showers often incur an additional surcharge) after paying the entrance fee. If you look online ahead of time, there are often more reasonable rates if you pre-purchase your admission.
Many status fliers receive free lounge passes as an annual benefit. Since most status holders already have access to the lounges the passes are really a benefit for family or friends. In the past many frequent flyers were selling their lounge passes online but subsequently many airlines have put controls on this so it is less common nowadays. If you have an upcoming flight it does not hurt to ask around, especially to the people you know who fly regularly, as usually just give my lounge passes to friends or family who can use them. On a few occasions, when I have realized my lounge passes are due to expire, I have just given away to the lucky person in the flight’s check-in line who looked like they were having a bad day!
This may sound funny at first but many status or other card holders are able to bring a guest into the lounge for free. Business travelers often hold status cards and are traveling alone so it does not hurt to ask if they would be willing to guest you in with them. To succeed at this you should generally be well-dressed, confident, discretely waiting outside the lounge, and able to quickly and politely form your request. I have brought several guests into lounges with me before – usually after noticing their boarding cards in the security line and then offering them an invitation myself.
You will need to be able to assess the personality of the person you are requesting lounge access of to determine whether to socialize with them once inside or quietly get lost in the crowd. Some business travelers will want to focus on their work in the lounge while others will appreciate having someone to have a drink and chat with during their otherwise lonely journey. If you try this approach and succeed, please comment on your results below!