The democratization of airport VIP lounges

When she has time to get to the airport early, Anne Marie Mitchell, a communications professor at Chicago, treats herself to a few hours in the airport lounge, either using a free pass from her airline credit card or paying a day of use. rate.

“You have access to a bar, a nice clean bathroom, snacks, and it’s not crowded,” he said. “It makes traveling more fun.”

Airline lounges, bastions of civilization in airport terminals now often crammed with passengers irritated by flight delays and cancellations, have long been the haven of the frequent-flyer elite, the first class ticket holders and those with expensive credit cards.

Now, with leisure travelers leading the airline industry’s recovery as business traffic slows, some clubs have made it easier for relatively infrequent travelers to claim some pre-departure perks, while others, including Delta Sky Club, which adopted a new rule that no user can enter the club more than three hours before their scheduled flight: dealing with growing pains.

Historically, traditional airlines, including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines in the United States, have operated lounges for passengers flying first and business class, as well as frequent flyers who qualify for membership. Their offerings sometimes include standard clubs (such as the United Club at United) and more exclusive ones for first-class passengers on long-haul international flights (United Polaris).

Another class of clubs welcomes members who fly on any airline. These include Priority Pass, which offers access to more than 1,300 lounges in more than 600 cities (membership plans include 10 visits for $299 a year).

In this case, a lounge could be an actual airline club, like Hawaiian Airlines’ Plumeria Lounge that Priority Pass members have access to in Honolulu; public airport restaurants that offer food credit, such as Stephanie’s Restaurant at Boston Logan International Airport; other club brands, such as Minute Suites, which are private rooms, at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport; or airport services like Be Relax Spa at Los Angeles International Airport, where members get credit for a chair massage.

Increasingly, lounge users are not airline devotees, but holders of expensive credit cards.

“It has become popular to combine lounge access with a premium credit card,” said Gary Leff, who writes the airline blog View From The Wing. “It’s a way to sell cards and retain members.”

American Express Platinum cardholders have access to many airline lounges, as well as the company’s own Centurion Lounges, which are located in 13 US cities, with new ones coming to Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta and Reagan National in Washington. in 2023, for a total of more than 1,400 lounges worldwide. The card costs $695 a year, with credits of up to $400 a year in hotel and plane expenses, among benefits.

Now other banks are getting into the lounge game, including Capital One, which opened its first lounge — complete with a fixed room for cyclists, showers and craft cocktails — in November in Dallas-Fort Worth, with follow-ups planned for Denver and Washington. Dulles outside. in Washington, DC, later this year. Admission is restricted to owners of the bank’s Venture X card, which costs $395 a year, and their guests; card benefits include credits of up to $300 for travel purchases.

JPMorgan Chase has announced that it will open its own brand, Chase Sapphire Lounge by the Club, with six global locations, including Boston, Phoenix and New York’s LaGuardia Airport starting next year and available to holders of its Chase Sapphire Reserve card ( $550 a year with benefits, including $300 in travel purchase credits and Priority Pass membership).

In these times of airline chaos, many travelers are willing to buy their way out of airport hell by sitting on the floor to get closer to the only available power outlet on the concourse, a ransom offered by pay-as-you-go clubs.

Plaza Premium Group, which has restaurants, lounges and hotels in more than 70 global airports, recently introduced its PPL Pass Americas, which costs $59 for two visits within a year to most of its lounges in North, Central and South America. . The pass gets you into stand-alone Plaza Premium lounges and airline lounges operated for Virgin Atlantic, Avianca and Air France. There are six eligible salons in the United States, with a new location in Orlando, Fla., expected to open later this year.

“The first premium, high-end frequent flyer is well taken care of,” said Jonathan Song, the company’s director of global business development. “The remaining 85 per cent are economy class and are airline independent, which is where we see the rise of affordable luxury. People want to enjoy the VIP services that they would have in First and Business, but they may not want to spend that much on the ticket.”

Now affiliated with American Express, Escape Lounges, also called Centurion Studios, has 14 locations, including Minneapolis and Sacramento, California, offering pay-as-you-go plans at $40 per visit, if you book online 24 hours in advance, and $45 at the door (Platinum cardholders get free entry). Access offers standard benefits, including free Internet access, food and beverages, with new locations expected later this year at airports in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Columbus, Ohio.

Another option, the Club, has 16 locations in the United States, including New Orleans and Seattle, and two in London. It doesn’t sell memberships and runs strictly on a pay-as-you-go basis at $45 per visit (free for Priority Pass holders).

For one-stop shopping, the Lounge Buddy website and app sell airport lounge passes starting at $25. Among lounges with similar amenities at, say, London Heathrow, such as Wi-Fi and free food and drink, the site offers $39 passes for Plaza Premium Lounges and $74 for Lufthansa Business Lounge. In Barbados, a pass costs $27.

United offers day passes to their United Clubs for $59 on their app. Annual memberships are $650 or 85,000 miles for frequent flyer members. American Airlines also sells day passes to its Admirals Clubs for $59 or 5,900 miles. Delta does not offer paid access.

Considering the high prices of airport concessions (a LaGuardia vendor was recently censured for selling a $27 beer), hungry travelers may find the admission worth it.

“On a one-time basis, with a long connection, you can make the math work for you, depending on how much you’d spend otherwise,” Mr. Leff said. “You can eat and drink your money, and maybe it’s less crowded and has a power port to plug into.”

Beyond the complimentary gin and tonics, travelers in a reservation rush may find it helpful to pay the fee in an airline lounge to get immediate assistance from the airline.

“If your flight is canceled and there’s a two-hour wait to speak to someone, pay the $50 club fee and you’ll have access to agents who tend to be the most experienced and can do amazing things to get you where you need to be. be,” said Brian Kelly, the founder of the Points Guy website, which covers loyalty rewards.

Depending on when you fly, even buying your ticket may be out of the question these days, as pass holders have been turned away, thanks to the capacity of the crowds.

“The Centurion Lounges are like going to TGI Friday’s. You sign in and they call you when space is open,” said Mr. Kelly. “As we’ve seen with travel this summer, people are eager to travel and have been missing out on premium experiences in recent years, so when they travel, they’re splurging.”

The problem of overcrowding is not necessarily new, but some new factors, including airport staffing shortages, have exacerbated it.

“A lot of better salons were overcrowded before the pandemic,” Leff said. “Now people get there earlier because of the uncertainty of security lines and then realize they have more time to kill.”

“There are now even queues outside the lounge, something I have never seen in the pre-COVID age of travel,” Haris Stavridis, owner of a London PR agency, wrote in an email. “Salons are supposed to be your safe haven, but now they are becoming problematic.”

Some clubs are addressing the increase, including Delta Sky Clubs with their new three-hour rule. Although this year it will almost double the size of its Centurion Lounge in San Francisco and triple the footprint of its club in Seattle, American Express will begin charging cardholders for guests (adults, $50) starting next year, unless a user spends at least $75,000 a year on the card.

Clubs may be victims of their own success, but accessing them may still be the cheapest perk upgrade you can get flying today.

“Everyone has some kind of privilege now with Amex or miles or shopping,” said Patrick Rollo of Providence, Rhode Island, who travels frequently for his real estate job. “Then, everyone will go to the living room.”

Elaine Glusac writes the Frugal Traveler column. Follow her on Instagram @eglusac.

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