Airport lounges were once synonymous with luxury air travel. After all, the perk was reserved solely for those with either airline status or a first class ticket. They were viewed as a little oasis away from the masses, where one could relax ahead of a flight -- safe in the knowledge that the service would be impeccable and the complimentary food and beverages would be both delectable and free-flowing.
Over the years, airlines have continued to invest in their lounges: opening new locations, updating the décor, modernizing facilities and adding on perks like dedicated play areas for children, free Wi-Fi, shower facilities, and jetways that connect lounges directly to the plane for hassle-free boarding.
However, change is afoot. At a time when airlines seem to be pandering to the wealthy even more than before (just look at the new breed of frequent flier programs or the business-only services that have popped up recently), airport lounges are becoming (gasp) less exclusive.
Did you know that various domestic airlines, including American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, United Airlines, and Virgin America all offer their passengers the opportunity to use their lounges for a fee? The cost typically ranges from $500 to $750 for an annual membership (when applicable) and approximately $40 or $50 for a day pass. While frequent business travelers often take advantage of the annual memberships (which can also provide access to select partner lounges), day passes can prove beneficial for the average Joe -- especially as a quiet place to hole up during a long layover or in the wake of a flight cancellation.
But what if you don't have a preferred airline? There is a new breed of lounge infiltrating airports worldwide and it is completely independent of those offered by large airline carriers. Companies like Servisair (which was purchased by Swissport late last year), Premium Plaza Lounge (with its heavy presence in Asia and the Middle East) and Airspace Lounge (which has lounges at John F. Kennedy, Baltimore Washington, Cleveland Hopkins and San Diego International Airports) offer passes for as low as $20 a day. That seems like a bargain for complimentary showers, free appetizers, drinks, business facilities, personalized customer service and comfortable seating.
Alternatively you can buy a $99 annual membership to Priority Pass, which operates as a middle man and provides access to over 700 different airline and independent lounges worldwide. However, given that you also have to pay $27 each time you visit one of these lounges, it may not be cost effective for infrequent fliers.
These types of lounge services are not alone. Credit card companies are also jumping on the bandwagon. Only the other week I received a prospectus in the mail from American Express for its Platinum Card. With an annual fee of $450, you not only get American Express entertainment and concierge benefits, but also access to their Global Assist Hotline (which provides medical, legal, financial and other emergency services when you are traveling), a fee credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, and entrance to The Centurion Lounge -- a travel lounge exclusively for American Express Card Members. Centurion Lounges are already operational at Las Vegas McCarran, Dallas Fort Worth and LaGuardia International Airports and two more are planned for Miami and San Francisco International.
So what does all this mean? Next time you find yourself killing time at the airport or without a seat at the boarding gate, you may want to consider a different type of air travel upgrade -- one that buys you access to an airport lounge. After all, you are on vacation!
Michelle Erickson is the director of public relations at Fly.com and is based in California. A British native, Michelle has lived on three continents and is an avid traveler.