5 Ways to Infiltrate Luxury Airport Lounges

What does heaven look like? My personal take is sprawling velvet sofas, golden capped ceilings, illuminated bars that serve every cocktail you could possibly desire, piles of “Hello" magazine at my fingertips, and pummeling massages on request. Basically, it’s the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at JFK airport.

I entered this celestial space once when I was en route to London. Just getting to the airport had been the ultimate strugglefest: wrestling two weeks of clothes into my dinky carry-on, bumping my heaving luggage through the subway and the AirTrain, and running the gauntlet that is airport security. By the time I reached the Virgin's Clubhouse, I was ready to weep with relief. Here I could rest my weary head in the lap of luxury. Did I want an artisanal cheese plate? White wine poached plums? Scones and clotted cream? How bout all three? What about a hot shower? A facial? Or maybe a game of pool? All things were possible.

Since that day, I’ve been plotting my return. Turns out, there are a few ways to score entry into airport lounges. Here's a rundown on all the ways to get into your own airport Shangri-La.

1. Fly First or Business Class

The most obvious way to enter the airport lounge is with an elite-class ticket, either first or business class. But it should be noted that often it’s not just the class of your ticket, it’s also your destination that will (or won't) get you in. Certain major carriers (United Airlines, US Airways) exclude domestic flights for entry into the lounge. And certain airlines consider Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean short enough flights that they exclude them from lounge use, too. If you care about getting access to the airline’s lounge, confirm with your airline when booking that your ticket will grant you entry.

2. Pay a Day Rate

First class and business class tickets aren’t in your budget? No worries. You can always buy a day pass. The rates, which start around $50, are really quite economic when you compare it to the fee of upgrading your ticket. Keep in mind that not every lounge sells day passes, so it pays to check and book in advance. Another good reason to scope this out early? Some lounges like United offer a discounted price for buying a pass in advance. Another way to bump the fee down, according to travel expert Gary Leff, is to join SkyGuide Executive Privilege Club. The club offers their members a mail-in reimbursement for up to 12 airport lounge day passes. Membership costs $24.95 per month.

3. Join the Airline's Club

If you’re living a jetsetting life and popping on international flights frequently, it might be worth considering a membership to an airport lounge. Thirty-day memberships or yearly memberships can be purchased granting you unlimited access during that window. Certain programs (such as American Airlines’ Admirals Club) allows you to purchase membership using miles. But you can also pay the old fashioned way -- with money. A yearly membership is usually in the $400 to $500 price range, depending on the airline. If you find yourself shelling out for multiple day passes, this could be a more economic way to gain entry.  

4. Flash Your Credit Cards

Gotta love those credit card perks! And turns out, credit cards aren't just good for racking up miles. Certain fantastic plastic can act as a key to enter airport lounges. The American Express Platinum card offers access to 600 lounges for a reduced fee. Other airline credit cards such as United MileagePlus Explorer also offers lounge access. One caveat to consider: These cards come with yearly fees (AmEx Platinum membership is a steep $450 per year; United MileagePlus Explorer is $95). As with other credit card offers, make sure you'll use the perks enough to justify the yearly fees.

5. Be Someone’s Plus-One

Not only can those first or business class tickets grant entry to the airport lounge, some also give entry to a guest. (Again, this can vary depending on the ticket's class and destination. Domestic business class tickets, for example, might not get a plus-one.) For airport-lounge hopefuls, this is when it pays to be warm and chatty in the security line. A few lucky travelers have reported that making fast friends with their neighbor at the airport resulted in a guest invite to the first class lounge. Of course that approach is more of a happy accident and hardly reliable. But some entrepreneurial elite travelers have posted their plus-one entries for sale on Craigslist or Ebay. 

Bonus tip: If the above is making your head spin, consider downloading the LoungeBuddy app. After uploading your itinerary, status, and credit cards, it will find airport lounges available for entry and you can do in-app purchases for day passes. 

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