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Independent Airport Lounges: Worth the Splurge?

Answering these five questions can help you decide how to spend your next flight delay.
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Those who travel for business know the value of the airport lounge. Escaping concourse crowds for a comfy chair, a bite to eat, a glass of wine, maybe even a shower, can transform an entire trip. 

More importantly, unlimited Wi-Fi, workstations and a little peace of mind allow you to squeeze in a few extra emails or print a presentation before boarding time. Until recently, these simple pleasures were reserved for premium class and frequent fliers, but a new crop of independent airport lounges are open to anyone willing to pay a flat fee. Airline mergers have left open an inventory of lounges, opening the VIP experience to a wider audience, according to Lisa Smit, marketing manager for Airport Lounge Development, a lounge solution provider. At last official count, there were 35 independent airport lounges across the U.S., according to the Airports Council International-North America, with many offering the same amenities as upscale airline clubs without tying travelers to a certain carrier, credit card or long-term commitment.

But how do you know when and if these travel lounges are worth your while? Here are five basic questions to ask before you slide your credit card across the counter:

1. Is my gate nearby? One of the newest independent lounges, the Airspace Lounge, will open this June at JFK airport in New York City offering free food, a full-service bar and modern workstations with a plug at every plush seat for just $20 a day. But if you’re not near Terminal 5, this comfy club might not do you much good. Greeley Koch, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, suggests checking your destination airport’s website to see which lounges it offers and where they’re located to make sure it’s convenient to your itinerary before counting on any of their amenities. Says Koch, “It’s all about location, location, location.”

2. Am I getting a better deal than in the terminal? Access charges for independent lounges vary widely, depending on the city and the amenities, and daily rates range from approximately $15 to $50 per visit. But depending on what you spend at the terminal in snacks and Wi-Fi, you actually might save money in an independent lounge. At Los Angeles International Airport, for example, you’ll pay $9.99 for 24-hour unlimited Wi-Fi. Add to that a hot dog from Pink’s, and you might as well splurge for a stop in the swanky reLAX Lounge instead. There, $15 an hour or $50 for a full day will get you gourmet coffee, fresh fruit, and workstations with complementary printing (assuming you keep it to 10 pages or less). In some cases, you might not need to pay anything at all. American Express Platinum cardholders, for instance, get free access to participating airport lounges and clubs, including some independent lounges. 

3. Do I need to prep for a big presentation? Even if internet access is free and you pack your own snacks, being more productive on a business trip is truly priceless. A rowdy concourse makes follow-up phone calls difficult and your lap is no place to spread out the materials for your next client meeting. Some lounges even offer full-service meeting rooms so you and your team have the space and quiet to focus. “Oftentimes we don’t take into account the value of our time,” says Deborah McElroy, executive vice president of policy and external affairs for ACI-NA. “But having those facilities allows us to be more productive and that’s difficult to calculate.”

4. Should I consider a membership? Many independent lounges offer annual membership options at prices comparable to airline clubs. Fees vary but can start around $350 a year, McElroy says. Committing to a club likely makes the most sense at your home airport where you spend the most time. That way, you’ll have a home base you can report to after arriving early for security clearance, and a place to wait out unexpected departure delays.

If you find yourself hopping states and countries, you may consider a service like Priority Pass. These networks offer access to airline lounges as well as independents across the globe and some have directory apps to download so you always know when a member lounge is near. Priority Pass’s service provides access to 600 VIP airport lounges around the world for $399 a year. Just make sure to read the fine print. With some, you’ll still need to pay a fee at specific lounges even after buying a yearly membership.

5. Do I have time for foosball? Beyond the basics, many indie airport lounges abroad are packed with surprising perks. The No. 1 Traveller’s lounge at Gatwick Airport in London offers pool tables and video games while the Hong Kong lounges run by Plaza Premium Lounge will serve you night-time Spanish tapas. These amenities can be a lifesaver for a long layover or unending delays. But it may not be worth the price if you're looking to hustle quickly for an on-time departure.