The Definitive Guide to Free or Very Cheap Access to Airport Lounges

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Cathay Pacific LoungeCathay Pacific Lounge in Honk Kong

Are you still paying ridiculous amounts of money for access to airport lounges? Please stop. Unless you fly with your family over a dozen times a year, or are a frequent business traveler who must fly/meet/entertain clients at airports, your $400-700 is better spent elsewhere. As in almost anywhere else!

In fact, if you are a business traveler who must entertain clients at airports, your lounge access will be taken care of by your expense account, which is fine, as long as no money is being drained out of your own pocket.

Paying hundreds of dollars a year to feel special and privileged and be pampered on occasion is ridiculous! Yeah, I know, everyone’s doing it for Wi-Fi, showers, and the view of the tarmac. Right!

Does it mean lounges can’t be a good value? Of course it doesn’t! It only means there are so many ways to get this access for free or at least 10 times cheaper that I shake my head in disbelief when people pay through their nose for that “special” access. I will gladly save my money and spend time at the terminal when I can’t get it free or at least 10 times cheaper than what they want me to pay.

Not even mentioning that there are some airports in the world that are so interesting to explore, it’s almost criminal to waste your time at a lounge anyway. That is, however, a topic for another post.

Here are the best current sources for your free or very cheap airport access.

American Express Mercedes Benz Platinum Card 

Even post-March when it loses American/US Air lounges and limits Delta visitation rights to the cardholder only, it will still remain the number one source for cheap airport lounge access despite its humongous $475 annual fee. There is no reason to sneeze at Priority Club, as it adds new lounges to their collection all the time! Here are the tangible benefits you get for your $475 fee aside from some lesser perks.

  1. 50,000 MR (equal at least $500 in gift cards).
  2. $200 refund of incidental airline fees every calendar year, which is very easy to convert into cash.
  3. SPG Gold Status.
  4. Global Entry $100 credit.

Another words, you will have profited from this card even before you take the 50,000-point bonus into account!

If you are planning a few family trips during the year and want the lounge access for your family too, you can add up to three authorized users for another $175. They won’t get any other benefits except the lounge access and Global Entry refund, but even if two of your authorized users take advantage of the Global Entry, that’s a $30 profit. And unlike lounge access, I do consider Global Entry a necessity. If you make even a couple of international trips a year, it’s worth every penny.

Having said that, getting an Amex Platinum card is only a good idea if you haven’t had it in the last twelve months. Otherwise, please read on.

Free Credit Card Lounge Passes via credit cards

There are several worthy credit cards on the market that give you lounge passes as a sign up or yearly bonus as long as you have the card. Below, I only list credit cards that would be worth getting even without the passes. Getting a credit card solely for a couple of lounge passes is never a good idea, IMHO.

The Chase United Card gives you two United lounge passes as a sign up bonus, and every year you keep the card.

The Barclays US Air Card gives you one pass to their lounge as a sign up bonus, and every year you keep holding the card.

Chase Fairmont, Chase Ink Bold, and Chase Ink Cash give you two Lounge Club visits that come with the Lounge Club membership (the membership is useless in my book as you have to pay $29 per visit). You need to request this membership from Chase after getting the credit card.

Here is an interesting tidbit about the Fairmont and Ink cards per this thread. Apparently, you can sign up your authorized users and receive separate memberships with two free passes for each of them. I haven’t tried this method because I haven’t needed more access than what I already have, but since I’m closing my Amex card in a couple of weeks, I will test if it’s possible and report my findings.

I have to mention, though, that Lounge Club is a smaller program than Priority Pass, and there are considerably more lounges overseas than in the US.

Free United and Club Membership via Chase Mileage Plus Club Card

This method will not work for everyone. It does, however, work for me so I’ll describe here what you would need to do in order to trigger this offer. It’s really very easy.

  1. Sign up for your United.com Account and click on your credit card offer.
  2. Go to Mileage Plus Club Card.
  3. You might just get this offer for $395 annual fee waived for the first year..
  4. If not, and all you get is $395 with $100 statement credit, click on the upper link: “Are You a Business Owner?”
  5. You might get this offer for $395 annual fee waived for the first year.
  6. Note that you probably need to have some miles in your United account. If you don’t, just transfer a few miles from Ultimate Rewards program. The transfer is usually instantaneous.

I had tested this method with three accounts: my own, my wife, and my cousin, and this offer was triggered in all three cases one way or another, but as always YMMV.

Note, if you have too many Chase cards already, I would not take this offer in lieu of a 50,000-mile offer. Again, I don’t value lounge access all that much, although this card gives you and your family access not only to United lounges, but Star Alliance’ too.

Visit Any Lounge in the World at $2.50 Each—Up to 12 Visits a Year

American Express SkyGuide program allows you to be reimbursed for up to twelve lounge visits a year (plus 12 visits to the gym, which can come handy if your hotel doesn’t have one). The only problem is it costs $199 a year, and that’s a sucker bet. SkyGuide, however, does have a “secret” $29.90 membership offer, and since I love telling other people’s secrets, here it is: SkyGuide Promotional $29.99 Membership

The most serious limitation is that you can use only one visit a month and that you must send each rebate in a separate envelope. As to the second rule, people have reported that they haven’t followed that guideline at all and still gotten reimbursed. As to the first rule, well, have your spartner (anyone who has read my books know who that is) get another membership and make you an authorized user. At this price you can afford two.

Amex will refund you up to $50 a visit, but that would cover the majority of the lounges that sell their day passes.

Per this thread, Flyertalk folks have also noted you can get your membership for $19.99 with code CYACCB by calling 1-800-365-4357.

The bottom-line is: I have nothing against VIP benefits, but I’m very much against spending a fortune to get them. 🙂

Photo Credit: Luke Lai / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

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6 Responses to The Definitive Guide to Free or Very Cheap Access to Airport Lounges

  1. KennyB says:

    Good post. Unfortunately these methods don’t really work for families unless I’m missing something. Just one question? What is your favorite flavor of Global Entrée? 😀
    Honestly we like to travel at off-peak times when it is cheaper and you can look at stuff instead of looking at tourists looking at stuff, and have never waited long enough at customs and immigration to wish for Global Entry.

  2. KennyB says:

    I take that back – the United Club card would work for families if they have clubs where you travel.

  3. Andy Shuman says:

    Hi Kenny, touche about entree, thanks, LOL.

    Global Entry saved my ass on more than one occasion, during short layovers, so I swear by it. And yes, United lounges allows families, although Star does not. Thanks for your comments.

  4. mintcilantro says:

    while I’ve enjoyed lounges in asia, majority of lounges around the world are nothing special and nowadays I don’t think making an effort to gain lounge access is worth the time.. unless you have long layovers.. in that case I’d visit an interesting part of the city anyway

    • Andy Shuman says:

      I’d have to disagree. But then again, I’m not looking for something spectacular in a lounge. Just a nice place to take a shower, a bite, a drink and work on the internet. Although I agree on visiting a city on a long layover.

  5. […] wrote my first Definitive Guide to Free or Very Cheap Access to Airport Lounges over a year ago. Things have changed. In fact, some things have changed for the better. Who cares […]

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