For the budget-conscious traveller, airport lounges may seem a frivolous spend. Often perceived as an exclusive perk to first class flyers, we ourselves overlooked airport lounges for years until we realized two things:
- Airport lounges can provide excellent value, especially when food, drinks, showers, and beds are provided.
- Airport lounges can be obtained cheaply, sometimes even free, without frequent flyer status or flying first class.
So, ready to ditch airport bench naps and overpriced foodcourt eats? Here's how to get access to airport lounges for cheap, even free!
How to Get Access to Airport Lounges: An Overview
|Top pick||Lounge selection||Access||Best for|
|Credit cards||American Express Platinum Card (read more)||Best||Unlimited||All-around travel benefits such as earning points on everyday purchases (with a huge welcome bonus for use on flights, hotels, etc), making purchases overseas (no foreign transaction fees), free car insurance, airline credits, and unlimited lounge access. (See Rates and Fees)|
|Third-party lounge pass||Priority Pass||Great||Pay-per-use or unlimited||Travellers needing at least 2-3 lounge accesses per year with a variety of options around the globe|
|Airline lounge/status membership||n/a||Limited||Pay-per-use or unlimited||Frequent flyers who have points/status with a single airline – otherwise, the above options are better|
|One-time access||Our $23 hack through Dragon Pass (read tip #3)||Great||Pay-per-use||One long layover, infrequent travellers|
Note: there are important criteria to check when considering lounge access. To avoid disappointment, always review the terms & conditions. Things to look for include:
- Number of lounge entries provided (unlimited or a set # of visits)
- Whether guest entries are provided (& how many)
- Duration of lounge visit permitted (usually 4-6 hours)
1. Use credit cards that give free lounge access
This is the easiest way to gain free, unlimited access to the largest possible number of airport lounges around the world, plus several other benefits that every traveler should have. Having the right credit card can be the difference between sitting in Starbucks on a 5-hour layover, or indulging in bottomless champagne before boarding for your next trip.
- 75,000 bonus Membership Rewards points after spending $5,000 on your card in the first 6 months
- Up to $200 in Uber rides and eats savings, and Uber VIP status
- 5x points on up to $500,000 per year spent on flights booked directly with airlines, or flights and prepaid hotels booked through American Express Travel
- Unlimited access to 1,200+ airport lounges worldwide through the American Express Global Lounge Collection (including Priority Pass Select lounges)
- No foreign transaction fees
- Annual fee: $550 (waived for active military personnel - read more). Terms apply.
- Learn how to apply – See Rates and Fees
The American Express Platinum is our #1 pick for airport lounge access (read more about this card). This card has the largest pool of unlimited lounge access, including American Express lounges, The Centurion Lounge, partner networks, Delta Sky Club, and Priority Pass Select lounges.
To put that in perspective, the regular price on a Priority Pass membership for unlimited access to their network of lounges is $429 USD per year. By spending a bit more on this card, this access is included, but with a ton of other lounges and benefits.
Even if you only used the lounge access once, you're also getting a huge welcome bonus of 75,000 points (which you can use towards flights, hotels, etc.), up to $200 in Uber credits annually, no foreign transaction fees (often 2.5% – 3% per transaction), and much more. In short, this is a great all-around credit card for travel, so if you frequently use the card and its benefits, you will more than make up for the annual fee. Click here to read more about this card.
If the annual fee is still too much, or for other options, consider these cards:
- 60,000 reward points (worth $900) after meeting the minimum spend of $4,000 in the first 3 months
- $300 annual travel credit
- Includes trip cancellation/interruption insurance, auto rental collision damage waiver, lost luggage insurance and more.
- 3x points when you spend on travel (after using the full travel credit) or dining worldwide
- Free access to 1300+ airport lounges worldwide through Priority Pass Select
- Can transfer your reward points to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
- No foreign transaction fees
- Annual fee: $550
- Learn More
While both the American Express Platinum card and the Chase Sapphire Reserve both offer Priority Pass lounge access, there is one important difference: restaurant access. Usually Priority Pass members get discounts off their bill at participating airport restaurants (around $28-$30 USD). This is included in the Chase Sapphire Reserve membership, but American Express cards no longer provide this restaurant discount.
2. Buy a third-party lounge pass
If you have several flights in your future, don't underestimate the value of an airport lounge pass. A pass grants entry to more than 1,110 lounges worldwide (much more than an airline's own lounge pass), offering free amenities like drinks, food, alcohol, showers, wifi, power, and more. Given that this eliminates your costs on dining, and sometimes even hotel costs (when bed amenities are available), a pass could pay for itself after just a couple of visits.
- The Priority Pass grants access to over 1,200+ airport lounges around the world
- Lounges include complimentary drinks (sometimes including alcohol), food, wifi, and sometimes shower and bedding facilities.
- Get discounts at participating airport restaurants (usually $28-$30 USD off of your bill)
- Access most lounges using your digital membership card in the app (physical card still needed at some locations)
- Prices start at $89/USD with this 10% discount (usually $99 USD).
- NOTE: The unlimited version of this pass is included in several credit cards, such as the American Express Platinum (read more about this card) and the Chase Sapphire Reserve
- The Dragon Pass grants access to over 1,100+ airports globally
- Most lounges available in Asia, followed by Europe
- Lounges may include food, drinks (sometimes including alcohol), wifi, and even shower or bedding facilities
- Get additional discounts on restaurants, limousines, and meet & greets
- Plans start at $99 USD/year, with even the cheapest plan including 1 free lounge access
- If you have a Visa card issued out of Asia Pacific, you're also eligible for a 50% discount.
3. Buy one-time access to a lounge for as low as $23
Most airport lounges now offer pay-per-use entry to anyone, even if you aren't flying with that airline. Pay-per-use access generally costs between $25-$75 USD per visit. Be sure to check the duration allowed, which is often 4-6 hours (though truthfully this is not always monitored). One-time passes can be pre-purchased online from Plaza Premium Lounge, Dragon Pass, and LoungeBuddy. However, you can also just walk up to any lounge and ask at the front desk. Most of them will be more than happy to sell you one-time access.
But here's a little known trick: by creating a free account with Regus (an office space booking service), you are eligible for a free DragonPass membership, waiving the yearly fee and reducing each lounge booking to a flat rate of £19 ($23 USD). The initial setup only takes about 10 minutes. After that, simply use the free app to browse for the lounge you want, then go to the front desk and show your digital ID within the app. The payment will be processed automatically with the card on your file. Here's how to do it!
1. Create a free account on the MyRegus website.
Fill in each step of the form as prompted. When you're finished, the page heading will read “Thank you for creating an account”.
2. Go to the “Services and Benefits” section, then click “Airport Lounges”
A new window will open letting you register for a DragonPass account.
3. Complete the form to register your free DragonPass account
Once completed, you will receive a confirmation e-mail with your membership ID and password.
5. Log into the app using the membership number and password that was sent in your confirmation e-mail
6. Choose a lounge!
After selecting an airport, you can browse available lounges for purchase. Each lounge has photos, amenities, hours, location, and even user reviews. Once you've chosen the lounge you want, just tap the “Member Access” button at the bottom, followed by the “Add Visits” button to pay for access. After paying, simply show your digital membership card with the QR code to the front desk and they will process your visit. Too easy!
Also be sure to check out the restaurants section. Your membership automatically gives you discounts at a number of restaurants in the airport, as much as 25% off!
4. Find free access with the LoungeBuddy app
LoungeBuddy is an all-in-one app (iOS only) and website for all things lounge access. They have a comprehensive database of airports and lounges all around the world. Each lounge is displayed with photos, amenities, reviews, and details on how to access the lounge, be it with a travel credit card, frequent flyer status, or paid access.
The coolest feature of the app is that you can fill in your profile and check off the travel credit cards, lounge memberships, and elite statuses that you have, as well as whether you are an active US military member. The app will then automatically highlight the lounges that you have free access to based on your profile.
It's also possible to purchase one-day lounge passes directly within the app, but you can only pay with an American Express card. Unfortunately, the app is iPhone only right now, but you can still research and purchase access to lounges on the website. For $10 USD free credit towards a lounge pass, download the app, go to Settings > Credit, and enter the code guYu66zaHY
5. Get free access as an active military member
If you're an active military member, a number of airport lounges are available to you for free. But first, it's worth noting that the previously mentioned American Express Platinum card (our #1 card choice, read more about this card here) and the Chase Sapphire Reserve both waive their annual fees for active military personnel. So if you're a military member, there's no reason not to get these cards, as you will have access to the largest possible selection of lounges worldwide for no fee whatsoever. Instructions on how to get the annual fee waived can be found here.
Other methods of military airport lounge access include:
- United Club: Free access to active duty military members and their families taking a United operated flight on the same day. Present your military ID (or be in uniform), boarding pass, and sponsoring documentation.
- American Airlines Admirals Club: Free access
- USO (United Service Organizations): This non-profit organization operates many airport lounges that are free to military personnel around the U.S. Use the location finder to see if your airport has one.
Members of military have access to a wide range of other travel discounts too. Be sure to check out our ultimate guide to military travel discounts to see even more.
6. Get an airline or alliance lounge membership
Certain airlines offer paid memberships which provide entry to affiliated lounges. Anyone can join these programs, but the fees are still quite high, and you're restricted to a much smaller selection of lounges. For those reasons, most people will find better value using one of the previously mentioned credit cards to get points and discounts beyond lounges, or by signing up directly with Priority Pass.
On the other hand, most of these passes can be purchased with points from the airline, or obtained at a discount for frequent flyers who have attained a high status. If you have the points or status to discount these passes, then an airline lounge membership may be the best value for you.
Airlines and alliance programs that allow paid lounge membership include:
- Admirals Club: from $450 USD/year gain access to 60+ lounges worldwide including American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Qantas.
- Air Canada Maple Leaf Club Membership: from $375 CAD/year (or minimum 25k Altitude Qualifying Miles) for 17+ lounges within Canada. North American options available for 60+ lounges in N.A. Global membership options also on offer for over 230 lounges worldwide.
- Hawaiian Airlines Club Membership: from $299 USD/year (or 40k HawaiianMiles), allowing lounge access in Honolulu, Hilo, Kahului, Kona, and Lihue.
- United Club Membership: from $600 USD/year (or 67k+ miles depending on status), grants access to over 45 airport lounges as well as partner airline lounges worldwide.
- Delta SkyMiles Membership: from $545 USD/year (or 54.5k miles), access to 50+ lounges worldwide.
- Qantas Club Membership: from $540 AUD (or 70k Qantas points), allows access to Qantas and American Airline lounges worldwide.
- Alaska Airlines: $450 USD (discounted to $295USD for those who are MVP Gold/75k), provides access to 90+ airport lounges.
Always review the terms and conditions of entry before buying a membership. There are usually specific stipulations around aspects like duration of stay, # of guests allowed if any, as well as which airports and regions are included in the membership.
7. Gain entry with elite points status
If you earn enough points or miles through a credit card or airline program, you can gain free or discounted entry to airport lounges once you've reached a certain status. Keep in mind that often there are requirements to maintaining said status, such as earning a certain number of miles per year or reaching minimum spends. To learn how to quickly accumulate such points, check our other guide here.
Programs that offer lounge access for points status include:
- Amtrak Guest Rewards Program: must earn Plus or Executive points status with Amtrak for access to select United Lounges. Amtrak program details here, for info around lounge access stipulations, read under “Other” here.
- Air Canada Altitude Status: Lounge entry granted to Maple Leaf and select Star Alliance lounges for business and first class passengers, as well as Altitude Elite 50k, 75k and Super Elite 100k members. Prestige status members (25k points) get two one-time lounge guest passes.
- Hawaiian Airlines Club Membership: Those with Puluani Gold (20k HawaiianMiles) or Puluani Platinum (40k HawaiianMiles) gain “club” (lounge) access. Tips for increasing your points here.
- United Club Membership: Lounge entry granted to first and business class flyers, active U.S. military personnel in uniform, Premier 1k status (60k miles), Premier Platinum status (65k miles), SilverPlus Mileage status (70k miles).
- Delta SkyMiles Membership: Lounge access is available for those with Gold 50k MQM, 60 MQS), Platinum (75k MQM, 100 MQS), and Diamond status (125k MQM, 140 MQS).
- Qantas Club Membership: Lounge entry available for those with Silver Status (300 status credits), Gold status (700 status credits), Platinum 1,400 (status credits) and Platinum One (3,600 status credits).
- Alaska Airlines: Lounge access granted to first class ticket holders, MVP Gold (40k miles), and MVP Gold 75k (75k miles).
8. Gain access with your ticket
This one isn't exactly a secret, and it's not very thrifty, but buying a first-class ticket is the tried and true way of getting into an airport lounge. However, in an attempt to boost sales, lounge access is now appearing in other classes such as Premium Economy depending on the airline. If you have any kind of ticket greater than economy, definitely take a look and see if it includes lounge access!
9. When in doubt, ask!
Not sure if you have lounge access? It never hurts to ask! A few things that could happen…
- You may find out that your ticket grants you lounge access. What a pleasant surprise! (We've had this happen in Thailand).
- You may have a credit card that grants you access. Once in Canada we showed one of our Aeroplan credit as a shot in the dark to see if it got us anything. To our surprise, that actually granted us lounge access!
- Lounge access might be available as an affordable add-on to your ticket, or the check-in attendant may know of cheap or free lounges in the airport
- If you're really nice, the lounge receptionist could give you a freebie. Once we had free access to an airport lounge, but it didn't allow a guest in. After looking sad and disappointed, the kind attendee took pity on us and allowed both of us in for free!
- While not very common, some airlines actually offer free lounge access. For example, Bangkok Airways has a lounge free to all passengers of any class, full of snacks and refreshments. Porter Airlines in Canada has snacks, refreshments, comfy chairs, and free wi-fi available to all passengers at the Billy Bishop airport.
There's a multitude of lounges and ways to access them, so who better to ask than the staff? Try your luck and ask both the check-in and lounge attendees! There's no shame in playing the dumb tourist card.
The Thrifty Gist
- Using the right credit card is the best way to gain access to a huge number of airport lounges for free. Though annual fees can be high, the huge points welcome bonus, annual credits, lack of foreign transaction fees, and lounge access more than make up for it if used properly. The American Express Platinum Card is our #1 choice. Read more about this card here.
- The Priority Pass or Dragon Pass are great value if you travel at least several times a year.
- If a long layover is coming your way, a one-time pass can definitely be worth it for the food, drink, and sometimes shower or bedding facilities. Buy it at the lounge front desk, or use our hack in tip #3 to get $23 access to 1,100+ lounges around the world.
- The LoungeBuddy app and website has complete guides to airport lounges around the world. Fill in your profile with your credit cards and memberships, and you'll see exactly what you have access to automatically.
Thrifty Nomads has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Thrifty Nomads and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author's alone. Responses are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.
To see the rates and fees for the American Express cards featured, please visit the following links: The Platinum Card® from American Express: See Rates and Fees