March 13, 2012 at 10:13 AM ET
When you're waiting out a long airport layover, nothing seems more enticing than the airport lounge. With amenities such as free Wi-Fi, drinks, snacks and glossy magazines that you've never seen before (and may never see again), the lounges feel like the answer to most of your air travel annoyances; at the very least, they can give you sanctuary from concourse noise and hubbub.
Entrance to most lounges comes gratis with a first- or business-class ticket. But for those stuck in the back of the plane, there are ways to gain access to these comfy inner sanctums without shelling out thousands of dollars for an upgrade. And when you're the one sinking into the cushy armchair instead of clamoring for a seat at the gate, you'll be glad to have a respite from the usual air travel annoyances.
Following are a few ways that savvy travelers can score lounge access, even if their tickets read coach.
1. Buy a day pass
Several airlines now sell day passes to their lounges, allowing you to relax in comfort without any long-term commitment. At Alaska, you can buy a one-day pass for the airline's Board Room lounges for $45. American, United, Delta and US Airways have similar programs for their clubs, with most day passes costing $50 (since the merger, Continental passengers should look to United for their lounge needs).
By planning ahead, you can save a few dollars. On United's Web site, you can save $11 if you buy a pass in advance. US Airways reduces its lounge price to $29 if you buy the pass when you book your ticket.
Keep in mind that most of these airline passes are limited to U.S. domestic lounges. If you're traveling internationally, you might want to check out LoungePass.com, which sells day passes to 150 lounges worldwide, including several at London's Heathrow and Gatwick airports. While passes start at $22, some of the lounges do restrict the amount of time you can spend there or only offer them to passengers flying within that country. Check before you buy.
Best for: Casual travelers.
2. Buy a lounge membership
It used to be that all business travelers worth their salt carried a lounge membership card with their preferred airline, often bought on the company dime. Those perks are mostly gone now, with road warriors finding more flexible ways to get access (see elite status and credit cards below).
If you fly one airline exclusively, however, an airline membership is still something to consider. Many airline club memberships will also give you access into alliance clubs, such as the Star Alliance or Oneworld, which will help if you're traveling internationally.
If you go this route, expect to pay $250 to $400 for an annual membership. Before you buy, you'll also want to check to make sure that the destinations you visit the most actually have lounges; as a rule, you only find clubs in the world's busier airports.
Best for: Frequent travelers who know they'll be relying on one airline or alliance.
3. Try a third-party vendor
If you have a hard time booking flights on only one airline, a lounge membership through a third party might make more sense. PriorityPass.com offers access to 600 lounges worldwide for an annual fee.
What's nice about Priority Pass is that you can choose from several membership levels. For $399, you get free unlimited access to all of the clubs in the network. If you don't travel that often, you can pay $249 for 10 free visits, with additional visits costing $27. Or you can simply buy a $99 membership and then pay $27 each time you go.
Another nice thing about the Priority Pass is that it includes many of the airlines' own lounges. At Boston Logan, for example, you can use your Priority Pass in the United Clubs at Terminal A and C, the US Airways Club in Terminal B, and the Air France Lounge in Terminal E. The Pass doesn't guarantee that you'll get into all of the airlines' lounges, however, so you'll have to check (Priority Pass does have a smartphone app which makes it a little easier to find your lounge when you're on the go).
Best for: Frequent air travelers who take different airlines.
4. Visit a public pay-in lounge
Who needs to worry about those airline-owned clubs? In some airports, public lounges -- where you pay a fee for comfortable chairs, snacks, Wi-Fi access, small meals and non-alcoholic beverages -- are giving the legacy lounges a run for their money.
At Baltimore/Washington International Airport, for example, you can enter the Airspace Lounge after security in Concourse D and pay just $17.50 per day. At Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, you can buy a 24-hour day pass to The Club for $35 (and the Web site, TheClubAirportLounges.com, has a coupon for $19.95). There are shower facilities, a kids' room and a smoking lounge. Best of all for those who have favorite vendors at the airport, you can bring in food purchased outside the lounge. One drawback: It closes at 6 p.m.
International travelers may want to check out Plaza Premium, which offers buffet meals, drinks and -- crucial for those making long-haul flights -- showers. Some even have massage and spa services for an extra fee. Current locations include Vancouver, Toronto, Hong Kong and Singapore. Rates vary by location, but in Toronto, it costs $30 CAD for two hours and $35 CAD for three (annual memberships are also available).
Best for: Travelers who want more flexibility than airline lounges provide.
5. Attain elite status
Loyalty does have its privileges. Most airlines offer lounge perks for customers who make elite status, with benefits that extend throughout the network.
Make Gold status on US Airways, Air Canada or United, for example, and you'll gain access to most of the Star Alliance lounges around the world (there are limitations, however, as some lounges restrict Gold access to passengers flying internationally). The SkyTeam alliance, made up of Delta, Air France, KLM and other airlines, has similar perks for Gold, Platinum and Diamond members, as does the Oneworld alliance spearheaded by American Airlines.
Best for: Frequent travelers who fly exclusively on one airline.
6. Use your credit card
Getting a credit card that offers airport lounge privileges is perhaps one of the easiest ways to ensure that you'll never be stuck on the concourse again, although some of these cards carry hefty annual fees.
Take the American Express Platinum Card. For a $450 annual fee, the card gives you free access to more than 600 lounges in 100 countries through Priority Pass Select (although you can't use it in United or Continental clubs). The card also reimburses membership to Global Entry, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection program that lets pre-approved travelers bypass the immigration line into the U.S. And the card waives foreign transaction charges and gives you $200 in credits toward airline fees, such as those imposed for checked bags.
Airline credit cards can come with lounge perks too. The Continental Presidential Plus card gives you access to Star Alliance lounges, along with other travel extras, for $395.
Caveat: Before you apply for any credit card, read the fine print and make sure that your spending and traveling habits make getting a card worth while.
Best for: Big spenders who don't mind paying annual fees for perks.
7. Be a guest (or buy your way in)
And finally, there's always the kindness of strangers. Some people on travel forums such as FlyerTalk.com say they've gained lounge access by simply standing outside the door and asking people going inside if they can bring them in as a guest. And FlyerTalk itself has a Coupon Connection section where frequent posters are able to swap or sell lounge passes (you need to have a certain number of posts on the site to join). Other places to check for guest passes are eBay.com and Craigslist.com.
Best for: People who don't mind asking strangers for favors.
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