Delta Sky Club lounge sign
By Mitch Lipka

When you fly several times a month, as Gabriella Ribeiro Truman does, finding a comfortable place to wait for a flight and grab a snack can make traveling a lot more enjoyable.

She used to have free access to co-owned American Airlines and US Airways lounges through her American Express (AXP) card, but with that program over, she now pays $500 a year to be a member of American Airlines' Admirals Club, which gets her access to private airport lounges around the world through the oneworld alliance. "It was worth it for me to pay for it," says Truman, 39, a New Jersey-based travel marketing executive.

Travelers have a wide range of options when it comes to airport clubs, whose lounges can offer some peace from often chaotic, warehouse-like airport terminals. Snacks and drinks are available for the taking, seating tends to be more comfortable and there's free Wi-Fi and lots of power outlets.

But whether it's worth it for the cost depends on how you are getting access and whether you are paying extra for it. Airport lounges are run by either airlines or a handful of private operators. While some are restricted to top-tier flyers, most allow travelers a variety of ways to get in.
  • Membership through airlines or airline alliances: For instance, if you achieve gold status in the Star Alliance, (which includes United Airlines (UAL), Air Canada and Lufthansa) you are permitted access to more than 1,000 lounges worldwide as long as you fly on a member airline. Otherwise, you will pay about $300 to $700 a year, plus initiation fees (air miles can be used).
  • A day pass: Prices are typically about $50, but advance-purchase deals for some can cut that in half.
  • Route-specific: Some travelers are given entry to an airline's lounges along the route they are flying if they fly internationally on a first-class or business-class airline ticket or on certain transcontinental flights.
  • Membership through cards: Fewer credit cards offer the perk now. Among those that still do: the American Express Platinum Card, through which you receive a complimentary membership to Delta's (DAL) Sky Club network when flying on that airline, and you can apply for a free membership in the independent Priority Pass lounge network (worth $399) as part of the card's $450 annual fee. Also, Citi Executive/AAdvantage card holders get a membership worth $500 in American's Admirals Club included as part of their $450 annual fee.
What You Get

At the estimated 2,000 lounges worldwide at more than 500 airports, services and amenities vary. One way to keep track is with a free app like LoungeBuddy, available for iPhone and Android, with data on nearly 1,800 lounges. Users can input their travel information and get ratings, lists of amenities and photos for the lounges they can access.

For food, U.S. clubs will typically offer basic snacks like carrots, pretzels and apples, with a bit more in the mornings like pastries and yogurt, according to Tyler Dikman, founder of LoungeBuddy, who says he has personally visited 600 to 800 lounges. Beer and wine will be free, but travelers usually have to pay extra for top-shelf liquor domestically. Nearly half of lounges will have showers, he adds.

In smaller airports, marketing executive Ribeiro Truman says she finds that many lounges resemble hotel bars -- not much more than a separate seating area with some snacks.

But in larger airports, expect to find more, especially overseas.

At Cathay Pacific Airlines' The Bridge Lounge in Hong Kong, for example, there is an enormous, elegantly decorated space divided into two wings, and spacious shower suites. Food includes fresh-baked bread, pizza, soups and sandwiches on one side and a range of high-end hot and cold food for self-service on the other.

Access to that lounge is available to Emerald- and Sapphire-level members of the oneworld alliance, which includes American Airlines (AAL).

Private shower rooms, in particular, win wide praise from those who have used them.

"It's something you'll find in a nice hotel," Dikman says, who has enjoyed plush towels and fancy toiletries.

For the infrequent traveler or someone stuck waiting a long time for a connection, buying a day pass to a lounge could be a big benefit, particularly if you have work to do. Road warriors report that paying about $500 a year is money well spent to regroup when it is inconvenient to check into a hotel.

Sonita Lontoh, a Silicon Valley technology executive who flies regularly to Asia and Australia, prizes her lounge access. She says after being on a plane for 15 hours, having a place to decompress and take a shower is a real benefit.

On the other hand, Becky Pokora, 28, the Richmond, Virginia-based writer of The Girl and Globe blog, says her credit card just discontinued free access to lounges and her 15 round trips a year don't warrant paying extra.

"The value proposition was different when there were lounges in nearly every U.S. airport participating in their program," she says. "But now I doubt I'll be renewing the card when next year's annual fee comes due."

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They were nice when only first class passengers were allowed in now they look like IHOP. People snoring taking up more than one space and a lot of them look like they are going to the beach with their very loud children all because they have a credit card. The silver lining is it will revert back to the way it was because the airlines really don't owe you anything

July 15 2014 at 1:21 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Airpot clubs are places to relax, get on the internet, read Wall Street Journal.
Lufthansa has the best lounges, with 2 levels of service.
American Express is the best in US.

July 15 2014 at 12:37 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

The rules of eligibility are constantly changing to the determent of the customer. Miles no longer count for some but rather total price of the ticket. Admiral Club used to have free full service meals which are now snacks. Unless your ticket is paid by your employer it is not worth it.

July 14 2014 at 7:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My husband has the Priority Pass. The lounge was AMAZING and you could curl up on a couch and read, be on your electronic device, or watch tv. One woman was sleeping. The staff come to wake you up or let you know your flight is coming up. The unlimited snack, food items, soups - it was amazing. I am so glad we have this. Hope to use it as much as possible. I never knew how wonderful having to wait the hour or 2 hour time could be. It is definitely worth it if you have it through a card, etc. If we traveled more often, I would believe it to be worth a yearly cost, too.

July 14 2014 at 3:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to dmasah's comment

People like you are exactly what the first class lounges has lost its prestige.

July 15 2014 at 1:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I've been an American Airlines customer for years. I have a Gold card and an Executive platinum card. I have Gold Elite status and am a vested million mile club member. I have gone to the Admirals Club (a benefit of my Executive Card) on many occasions mostly because of my international travel. But Gold Elite Status just took a major hit since U.S. Airways bought out American Airlines. Gold Elite Status just about doesn't mean jack anymore. What I earned through loyalty is gone. They've cut benefits to the bone. They've forgotten who their customer base was. The newer business generation has no respect for real loyalty. Just the bottom line and lip service. Short term profits are the key! No longer the long term business plan. They're forcing me to look at other airlines. And I will.

July 14 2014 at 3:14 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I've been a member of the United Club (former Red Carpet Club) for 15 years. Best travel money/miles I've ever spent.

July 14 2014 at 2:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Interesting that SW does not pop up there; their CC deal for points is among the best

July 14 2014 at 2:05 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

They are indispensible when making connections on overseas flights and an oasis on domestic flights. International layovers on the way to Africa, the Middle East and Indonesia can be long. Showers, comfortable seats and food/drinks help pass the time. Of course, as a Delta Diamond Medallion member, I don't pay for membership. If I didn't fly as much (I fly ~ 250K miles/year), I might not find it worth the money.

July 14 2014 at 11:30 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Depends .... long international flight with a long layover? Then yes, you'll pay the club fee so that you and your family are not wandering around the airport aimlessly for four hours (or eight, or more).

July 14 2014 at 10:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Not worth the money. They are so overcrowded you can't find a place to sit, get to the bathroom or find a drink. Just as soon sit outside and get my own drink and reading material.

July 14 2014 at 10:52 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply