Editorial Policy

Can My Card Get Me Into the Airport Lounge?

Eva Norlyk Smith Ph.D.

February 11, 2013

QHi Eva,

I was wondering you if you could tell me a bit about the lounge access that comes with airline cards. Do I get it just for signing up? Or do I have to earn it by using the card? — Ricardo

ADear Ricardo,

Good question! In these days of crowded airports and frequent travel delays, traveling can be stressful indeed. Who wouldn't want to beat the crowds and cozy up in a deep armchair in a lounge? Add the free drinks and snacks, plus the free wireless Internet access, and you're about as close to a traveler's paradise as you'll get when stuck in an airport.Ask Eva

Unfortunately, as the saying goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch. The Wi-Fi, snacks and drinks in airline lounges may be free, but add the cost of access, and in reality, they cost you a pretty penny, airline rewards card or not.

So what's the scoop with airline rewards cards offering free lounge access? Most cards in this category offer somewhat of a bait-and-switch deal. Yes, you get free airport lounge access, but you also pay a steep annual fee. The American Express Platinum card and the American Express Delta Reserve card both give you unlimited lounge access, but — ka-ching! — they both come with a $450 annual fee. This is about the same as you'd pay for a one-year membership to the Delta Sky Club anyway. The Visa Black card, which gives you unlimited VIP airport lounge visits, also comes with a $495 annual fee.

Sure, you get extra perks, such as a free annual companion ticket with the AmEx Platinum card or accelerated Medallion earnings with the Delta Reserve card. Still, for most people, a $450+ annual fee is a steep price to pay for more comfortable armchairs and free snacks.

If you travel fewer than nine times a year, the cheapest way to get airport lounge access is to simply pay as you go. Most airlines, including Delta and United, allow you to purchase a one-time lounge pass for $50. Do the math, and you'll see that you could purchase nine one-day lounge passes for the price of the annual fee on an airline rewards card offering free access. Buying a one-day pass can be well worth it, if you have a long layover during a flight; the one drawback is that you can't bring guests. For that, you need a yearly lounge pass.

Are there any airline rewards cards offering better deals? Well, the United MileagePlus Explorer card comes with two one-time access passes a year to the United Club. The card also comes with an annual fee of $95 (waived the first year), incidentally about the same as the cost of two one-day access passes. However, the card comes with other notable perks, such as 30,000 bonus miles if you spend $1,000 in the first three months, waived checked baggage fees (for the first checked bag) and priority boarding privileges.

The best deal? If you charge more than $15,000 to your credit card a year, the PenFed Premium Travel Rewards American Express card will give you free LOUNGE CLUB membership, which provides airport lounge access worldwide. Some airline rewards cards offer only domestic airport lounge access, so the ability to enjoy lounge access worldwide is a considerable extra perk. The PenFed card charges no annual fee, and new cardholders get 20,000 bonus points after spending $650 within three months of opening the card, a value of $200 toward a round-trip airline ticket.

You must be a PenFed member to apply, but it's easy to join. Even if you're not a member of the armed forces, you may be eligible through your employment or association membership. Or you can become a member of one of PenFed's partner organizations, such as the National Military Family Association, in exchange for a one-time nominal donation.

Of course, for consumers who wouldn't normally charge $15,000 a year to a credit card, this card won't be of much use. And that's an important thing to keep in mind for any credit card you get: The last thing you want to do is charge more to your credit card, just to save $50 on airport lounge access.

Got a question for Eva? Send her an email.