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.

Key Takeaways

  • Frequent flyers know that airline lounges can make any airport visit more comfortable and less stressful.
  • In the U.S. there are currently just six major and regional airlines that offer member lounges at American airports.
  • When judging the value or overall quality of an airport lounge, look to the number and convenience of locations, amenities offered, and cost of membership.
  • Opening a travel rewards credit card could make sense if membership perks include airport lounge access.

Airline Lounges

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:

  •  Alaska Board Room, Alaska Airlines (ALK)
  •  Admirals Club, American Airlines (AAL)
  •  Delta Sky Club, Delta Air Lines (DAL)
  •  Premier Club, Hawaiian Airlines (HA)
  •  United Club/United Global First Lounge United Airlines (UAL)
  •  Virgin America Clubhouse and Loft, Virgin America (VA)

Unlocking the doors to these lounges can be done in several ways, but the two primary methods are traveling in business or first class and/or earning elite status in the carrier’s frequent flyer program. Earning elite status can be achieved by booking the requisite number of eligible fares and/or flying a specific number of miles each year.

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. 

Tip

Opening an airline rewards credit card to earn miles or points on flights could help you fast-track your way to elite status in that airline's frequent flyer program.

Locations, Locations, Locations

Airlines operate their own facilities, primarily in the United States, but they can 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. Here's how the top airlines compare for lounge access, in terms of locations and availability:

  • Alaska Airlines: Located in 6 major U.S. cities, with 95+ global partner lounges
  • American Airlines: Located in 32 global hubs, along with access to 60 partner lounges 
  • Delta Airlines: More than 50 SkyClub locations, with partners located worldwide
  • Hawaiian Airlines: Five Premier Club locations in Hawaii and one Plumeria lounge, with partners located worldwide
  • United Airlines: Located in 32 cities in the U.S. and abroad
  • Virgin America: 10 global locations, with 20+ partners worldwide

Verdict: In terms of which one has the broadest range of lounge options, Delta and American view for the title of best airport lounge in this category.

Important

Due to health and safety requirements many airlines have imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, access to airport lounges at all locations is not guaranteed. Some lounge locations may be temporarily closed or restrict the number of allowed guests.

Amenities

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) 

Verdict: As you can see, most of these airport lounge amenities are similar across the board. Though if we had to choose one lounge option that stands out, American has the broadest range of amenities.

Annual Costs

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: $650 individual; $1250 household
  • Delta: $545 for individual membership; $845 for executive membership
  • Hawaiian: $299*
  • United: $650
  • Virgin America: Open to all passengers flying with an Upper Class boarding pass and Flying Club Gold members

*Membership includes other benefits, including express check-in, two free checked bags, pre-boarding, etc.

Verdict: Hawaiian wins on price tag alone. However, given the number of venues and perks therein, Delta scores on value.

Note

Keep in mind that membership rates for airport lounge access may only cover you and a limited number of guests. Additional guest passes may be available for an extra fee.

Day Tripping

For those who don’t fly very frequently on a given carrier, a one-day pass may make a lot of sense. 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: $50
  • American: $59
  • Delta: Discontinued in 2018
  • Hawaiian: $40 for Plumeria Lounge
  • United: $59
  • Virgin America: Open to all passengers flying with an Upper Class boarding pass and Flying Club Gold members

Verdict: If you're a Virgin Flying Club member or you've paid extra for an Upper Class boarding pass you can access Clubhouse lounges free of charge.

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. There may also be limits on the number of guests you can bring as well as restrictions on underage travelers, so be sure to read through the details when booking flights.

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 more than 1,300 airport lounges worldwide. The annual fee for standard membership is $99 and $32 per visit; a $249 annual fee buys 10 visits (with no extra charge), then $32 for each additional visit; and a $429 annual fee allows you to enjoy unlimited visits. Take time to compare the best travel rewards credit cards, as some may offer Priority Pass access as a card benefit.