For anyone who has ever spent more than 20 minutes at a crowded airport gate fighting for a seat or outlet access (or their sanity), the idea of affordable private lounge access sounds too good to be true. The Priority Pass network of over 1,000 airport lounges in over 120 countries just might be your solution. Basically, it works like this: Individually-owned airport lounges agree to open their spaces and amenities to anyone with a Priority Pass card. Access to the network is available either via an annual membership fee or as a free perk with several prominent travel credit cards. But before you start daydreaming about unlimited free cocktails and massages in a members-only lounge, you should know there are some downsides and fine print to Priority Pass. To help you sort through the pros and cons of Priority Pass membership, we spoke with Oyster editor Stefanie Waldek and founder of Go! Girl Guides, Kelly Lewis.
Lewis has been a Priority Pass cardholder for over a year and estimates she's accessed an airport lounge using Priority Pass about 25 times in the past seven months. "I've used it everywhere, from Kathmandu to Vancouver to Manila. I'm pretty obsessed with it -- it's totally changed the way I travel, and has made me look forward to long layovers." There are definitely lots of things to love about having the card in your wallet. Lewis says, "If my free membership status changed for some reason, I would 100 percent pay to enroll again."
1. Membership is a free perk with many travel credit cards. Chase Sapphire Reserve, Citi Prestige, and American Express Platinum are just a few of the major travel credit cards that supply free Priority Pass membership. You'll have to activate the card and your membership before accessing a lounge.
2. Some of the lounges are incredible. Lewis reports lounges in Hong Kong with showers and full body massage chairs in Moscow -- especially nice during a long layover. The Corona Beach House lounge in Miami provides a $15 food credit to Priority Pass members.
3. Free snacks, beverages, and Wi-Fi. Not all of the lounges have the wow factor described above, but the vast majority of them at least provide free Wi-Fi, free non-alcoholic beverages, and an assortment of snacks and fruits. It's a lot better than what's offered at the gate, which is usually nothing. Plus, some do serve free alcoholic drinks.
4. Clean bathrooms. Since fewer people are using the bathrooms (and they're cleaned more often) in the lounges, the facilities are much cleaner than public restrooms in the airport terminal. There may actually be space and light for applying makeup and changing clothes.
5. More space and more quiet. Lounges can get crowded, but many limit the number of guests, so you shouldn't have trouble finding an open seat or outlet to charge your device. In general, lounges are quiet spaces where it's possible to read or work without tons of distractions (like the constant jarring flight announcements at the gates).
6. There's an app. Finding and navigating a Priority Pass lounge is easy with their well-thought out app. It allows users to look up lounge location, guest rules, and lists what the lounge offers for freebies.
Waldek is a more recent Priority Pass member and though she travels regularly, has found the card to be limiting. "Only certain terminals have lounges that are accessible with Priority Pass. For instance, at JFK, there are only three lounges: two in Terminal 1 and one in Terminal 4. And I fly out of LGA all the time, but I’ve never flown out of the terminal with the only Priority Pass lounge. That can be very frustrating." Priority Pass definitely isn't a solution to all of your airport lounge needs. Waldek says, "Long story short, I wouldn’t recommend paying for it on your own, but I’m happy that I got it for free. It’s a nice little bonus when the stars align!"
1. You don't get access to all of the lounges in an airport. Many of the largest and best lounges (especially in the United States) don't participate in Priority Pass. For instance, United Clubs and AmEx Centurion Lounges aren't available.
2. There might not be a lounge in your terminal. As Waldek stated above, sometimes the terminal your flight operates out of doesn't have a lounge and security might not allow you to leave your terminal in search of creature comforts.
3. Depending on both the lounge's rules and how you got the Priority Pass card, guests can cost extra. The American Express Platinum card currently charges $27 per guest.
4. Some lounges are ultra basic. The lounge in Honolulu is basically in a basement and we received little more than a can of Coke and a code for spotty Wi-Fi. It was more comfortable than the gate, but just barely.
5. Access can still be denied. To keep higher paying and airline status members happy, many lounges restrict Priority Pass access during busy times. Lewis says, "JFK's Air France lounge in Terminal 1 sets strict rules on timing that Priority Pass members can enter." If there's a major problem that's delaying lots of flights, like a blizzard, you can bet that Priority Pass members will be turned away from the lounge due to overcrowding.
At the end of the day, it's a personal preference as to whether or not you should enroll in Priority Pass. If you're a very frequent flyer, it could be worth the investment. But our ultimate recommendation? Sign up for a credit card that includes membership, since you'll likely be getting tons of other travel perks as well.
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