Want to make your trip cushier? Airport lounges can be worth their weight in gold.

Photo (c) Taras Grebinets - Getty Images

Showers, massages, free food and drink – what’s not to like?

If you’re flying somewhere this summer and think you’ll be hungry or thirsty by the time you get on the plane, you’ll certainly wind up paying the prices airport food vendors are charging these days. 

Travelers have had enough of overpriced food and drink, like $27 for a Sam Adams beer and $18 for a small pepperoni pizza, but one travel expert says that if you play your cards right, you can get inside a major airline’s lounge for little to nothing and eat and drink to your heart’s content.

You also get to escape those noisy waiting areas and time scouring the hallways looking for a power outlet to charge your devices. Some lounges even have showers for travelers looking for a quick refresh.

“With so many ways to get lounge access today, from credit cards, lounge membership programs, and day passes, a comfortable space with amenities is never too far out of reach,” Katy Nastro of Going.com, told ConsumerAffairs.

“If you’re considering paying high markups on sour patch kids and pretzels, why not use those funds towards a relaxing space with unlimited snacks and fast wifi while you’re at it?”

Two 'free’ish' ways into an airport lounge

Nastro's primer on how a traveler can get access to lounge life is fairly 1-2-3’ish. On top of automatic lounge access for those flying in First or Business class or who have Elite status with an airline because of all the miles they’ve acquired, there are also ways to get in for free, too. 

There are two “frees” – one truly free and one sort of free. If you’re a member of the military, American Airlines Admirals Club and United Airlines United Club both offer complimentary lounge access to active military members who present their military ID and same-day ticket on that airline, in any class at the lounge door. American Airlines requires you to be in uniform, while United does not, Nastro said.

The other “free” is when a traveler has a certain credit card. You’ve probably seen all those airline-branded credit card offers land in your mailbox over the years and as competition has gotten fiercer, the deals have gotten sweeter. Many credit cards include complimentary lounge access as a cardholder benefit, as ConsumerAffairs Kathryn Parkman found, including Chase Sapphire Reserve and the American Express Platinum card.

However, when it comes to airline-branded credit cards, remember that it’s “pay to play” and most any credit card that provides lounge access charges an annual fee – and those can run anywhere from under $100 to more than $500. Nastro tosses in this reminder for those situations: in addition to being a cardholder, you may also need to enroll in a lounge’s membership program before you receive your lounge benefits.

“Check your credit card’s details for more info before you travel,” she said.

Day and annual passes

The two most intriguing lounge access suggestions Nastro shared are subscription-based – where a person buys access to an airport lounge for a day or a year.

Examples that Nastro gave for day passes are American Airlines Admirals Club and United Airlines United Club. Passes can be purchased for $59 by those flying either the parent airline or a partner airline. 

As for longer-term passes, he suggests a company called Priority Pass that allows travelers to pick and choose access to about 1,300 airport lounges in 650 airports across 148 countries. Memberships range from $99 to $429. 

For travelers who want a specific perk, the amenities at participating lounges range from comped refreshments and free wi-fi to spa treatments, massage rooms, and sleeping areas, Nastro said. Parkman noted that one credit card that includes free Priority Pass membership as a card benefit is Chase Sapphire Reserve.

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