Anyone who flies is familiar with the hassles of spending time in a domestic airport. The hard chairs, the greasy fast food, the lack of personal space (and plugs for your phone and tablet chargers!) – these factors all make it fairly grim, and that’s assuming there's no delay with your flight. Gaining access to an airline lounge can offer a calm cocoon that makes the wait to begin boarding bearable.
Consolidation has considerably shrunk the U.S. airline industry in recent years, so there are far fewer branded lounges in domestic airports than there were even a decade ago. Now there are three majors offering these oases, along with three smaller carriers:
Unlocking the doors to these lounges can be done in several ways, but the two primary methods are by traveling premium in business or first class and/or by earning elite status in the carrier’s frequent flyer program. Certain branded credit cards provide access to these lounges (for recommendations, see Airport Lounges Are for Everyone With the Right Credit Card and The Best Credit Cards For Airport Lounges). And in some cases active-duty military members receive complimentary entry as well.
If you don't fit any of these categories, you can always buy a membership. Which ones are worth it? We’ve examined the locations, amenities, pricing policies and day passes for the six. Here's how they compare, with our take on which lounges have the edge in each category.
Locations, Locations, Locations
Airlines operate their own facilities, primarily in the United States, but they also offer access to clubs operated by partner airlines in countries around the world. In this way, the Big Three (American, Delta and United) have a clear advantage over the smaller carriers. However, access can be restricted in many cases and for many reasons: For example, United Global First Lounges are accessible only to United Global First (the first-class international) passengers.
- Alaska: 4; 50 partners worldwide
- American: 50; 40 partners worldwide
- Delta: 33; 203 partners worldwide
- Hawaiian: 6; 7 partners worldwide
- United: 46; 44 partners worldwide
- Virgin America: 4
EDGE: American (for number of domestic lounges); Delta (for its global partner network)
These days complimentary television, Wi-Fi and periodicals are standard in nearly all U.S. airline lounges. And while there’s always something to nibble on. In domestic facilities (unlike those operated by many foreign carriers) the fare usually runs to complimentary snacks and cookies, with meals sometimes available for purchase. Alcohol is free in most lounges, but top-shelf drinks and foreign beers often cost extra.
- Alaska: Wi-Fi; office work stations; snacks; alcoholic beverages
- American: Wi-Fi; office work stations; snacks; cash menu for meals (some locations); some alcoholic beverages; cash bar; showers (some locations); children’s play areas (some locations)
- Delta: Wi-Fi; office work stations; snacks/soups/salads; some alcoholic beverages; cash bar; showers (some locations)
- Hawaiian: Wi-Fi; snacks; alcoholic beverages
- United: Wi-Fi; office work stations; snacks; most alcoholic beverages; cash bar for premium alcoholic beverages
- Virgin America: Wi-Fi; cash menu for snacks/meals; free beer/wine; cash bar for cocktails; spa treatments (New York location only)
EDGE: It’s a slight one, but it goes to American, which is revamping its lounges in the wake of its merger with US Airways.
Discounts may apply when an annual membership is purchased with certain charge cards. Some airlines allow you to pay with frequent-flyer miles rather than cash.
Note that prices given here are for the first year of membership; in some cases, renewal rates may be lower. For example, Alaska charges $450 the first year and $350 the second year.
- Alaska: $450
- American: $500
- Delta: $450
- Hawaiian: $299*
- United: $550**
- Virgin America: N/A; day passes only
*membership includes other benefits, including express check-in, two free checked bags, pre-boarding, etc.
**United charges $50 initiation fee.
EDGE: Hawaiian wins on price tag alone. However, given the number of venues and perks therein, Delta scores on value.
For those who don’t fly very frequently on a given carrier, a one-day pass may make a lot of sense. In some cases, the fee can be applied toward a longer membership; American, for example, offers a 30-day pass for $99, just twice the price of the one-day variety.
As with annual memberships, free access and/or discounts may apply for elite frequent flyer program members and/or those traveling in premium cabins. And, yes, there are caveats. Delta notes its pass does not grant access to partner lounges, for example (which would make it useless if you were flying overseas). Be sure a pass is good for the venues you're traveling from.
- Alaska: $45
- American: $50
- Delta: $59
- Hawaiian: $40, Hawaii; $20-$40, international lounges
- United: $50
- Virgin America: $30, Los Angeles/LAX; $40, San Francisco/SFO; $45, Washington, D.C./IAD; $75, New York/JFK
EDGE: Virgin America, for the price-to-value ratio (excluding New York)
The Fine Print
There are exclusions that may prohibit access to certain lounges, particularly among the international partner airlines. In fact, Delta states: “Delta Sky Club cannot guarantee entry at partner lounge locations.” And American even offers this caveat: “Some lounges may restrict access due to capacity at busy times.”
What’s more, as with most clubs, there are rules. For example, Delta makes mention of “dignified” attire and “disruptive” behavior. American allows up to three children in with a member. United states that children under 18 must be accompanied by an adult.
The Bottom Line
The value of spending time in an airport lounge – especially while waiting out a lengthy flight delay – becomes apparent to anyone who has experienced it. But not everyone has the cash to fly in premium classes or has racked up enough miles to gain access. Depending on your travel plans, buying a membership can be well worth the expense, as long as you bear in mind the various caveats and regulations.
There’s one other option to consider: Priority Pass. This independent company is not an airline, but it does provide access to about 850 airport lounges in about 400 cities worldwide. The annual fee is $99 and $27 per visit; a $249 annual fee buys 10 visits (with no extra charge) and a $399 annual fee buys unlimited visits.