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Airport lounges: The changing scene

By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency

Airport lounges offer an oasis of calm in the typical big airport’s otherwise hostile environment. Lounges provide comfortable chairs, computer work desks with Wi-Fi, free booze and snacks, with full meals and showers at some locations. Once the limited domain of an individual airline’s top flyers, lounges are increasingly open to anyone on a pay-to-play basis. Regardless of how you get in, entry is generally limited to travelers with tickets or boarding passes for travel on the same day. Most lounges are airside — in departure areas after security screening — but a few operate landside in or near baggage claim areas to serve arriving travelers.

Airline Lounge Programs. Among airlines based in North America, Air Canada, Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian and United operate lounge programs, with one or more locations at each major airport they serve. Annual membership offering unlimited admissions costs range from $550 in American and United to $299 on Hawaiian, with discounts for high-level frequent flyers and various extra-cost spouse and visitor options. Memberships typically include admission to partner-line lounges, at least at some airports. Most airline programs also offer single-use day passes for $40 to $60. Base-level co-branded credit cards on Air Canada and United include two free day passes each year; base level Delta cards offer discounted day use entry.

Premium credit cards on American, Delta and United, with annual fees of $450, automatically include lounge membership, at less than the annual membership costs, plus lots of other benefits. They’re a great option unless your credit doesn’t qualify you.

Airport Lounges. Many large airports outside the U.S. operate business and first-class lounges available to ticketed travelers on any airline for no fee. As far as I know, most do not allow economy class travelers on a fee basis.

Independent Lounges. Independent pay-to-enter lounge chains are opening locations at airports around the world. The largest chain is Plaza Premium (plaza-network.com), with one or more locations at 31 big airports around the world, mostly in Asia, plus four in Canada, two in Europe, but none in the U.S. Most are in departure areas, but a few are also in arrival areas. Sample access costs in Canada start at $40 for two hours. Reserve in advance online.

Other lounge systems operate in the same way:

  • The Club (shop.theclubairportlounges.com/) operates lounges at 11 US airports plus London; day passes are $40; reserve in advance online.
  • American Express operates Centurion lounges at eight locations in the US plus Hong Kong, with more planned. Entry is free, but limited to AmEx Platinum and Centurion card holders.
  • Smaller chains and one-of lounges operate at a range of other airports.

Independent Lounge Programs. The biggest lounge development over the last few years has been the growth of Priority Pass, which provides entry to more than 1,200 lounges around the world. Available lounges include a mix of airline, airport and independent locations. The program is weaker in the U.S. than in other areas, with many locations limited to international departure areas. It offers three membership levels: Standard provides unlimited visits at $27 each, $99 per year; Standard Plus provides 10 free visits plus additional visits at $27 each, $249 per year; Prestige provides unlimited free visits, $399 per year. Full Priority Pass membership is included with AmEx Platinum and Chase Sapphire Reserve credit cards.

Priority Pass has recently added an entirely new option: In addition to — or in place of — entry to traditional lounges, members receive a one-time per-visit credit of $28 toward food and beverage bills at participating airport restaurants and bars.

Lounge club (loungeclub.com/en/) operates a similar program, with lounges at 350 airports worldwide. Membership is available through financial partners only.

Worth It? The question isn’t whether the lounge experience is pleasant; it’s whether the pleasant experience is worth the tab. Annual deals look pretty good if you travel often. Check out programs on the airlines you fly the most and premium credit cards. And if you aren’t sure, try a day pass somewhere.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed’s rail travel website at Rail-Guru.com.)

(c) 2018 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.– May 22, 2018

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