No one enjoys waiting in the boarding area before a flight: There are never enough seats, rarely enough plugs to charge your electronics; and if you’re hungry, you might want to take out a bank loan. So, what are your options?
Related: How to Never Fly Coach Again
Perhaps you’ve seen well-suited VIP types coast in and out of off-limits airport lounges and thought, “How do I get in there?”
The answer is, "You can." With a few pre-planning moves, first-class perks like a comfortable place to sit and free food and beverages can be yours every time you fly.
1. Get the right credit card.
Many credit cards offer a lounge membership as a free perk of holding the card. The American Express Platinum is a great example; it offers a slew of options, including access to any domestic Centurion Lounge -- a chic AmEx creation that includes massages, showers, a cocktail bar and hot buffet. Centurion Lounges may be accessed no matter which airline you’re flying. This card also gets you access to Delta lounges on same-day travel with the airline. The annual fee for the AmEx Platinum is $450.
Other cards that come with club access include the United MileagePlus Club Card ($395/year), which gets you into United Clubs, and the Citi Prestige Card ($450/year), which will grant you access to all American Airlines Admirals Clubs. While these cards will get you into hundreds of lounges, the high yearly fees aren’t for everyone; the cards are mainly geared toward frequent travelers who prefer luxury and place a high value on comfort and convenience when flying.
How about a lower-cost alternative?
The regular United MileagePlus Explorer card ($95/year) offers two club passes upon signup. To get the most out of these passes, use them internationally; United’s American lounges pale in comparison to the airline's international counterparts' lounges. If you have a layover in London, for example, cash in those passes at London Heathrow's sharply designed United lounge.
2. Buy a refundable first-class ticket -- then cancel it.
This method of lounge entry is simple, and as long as you read the fine print, it works. When booking your flight, buy two tickets -- one refundable first class seat and one coach seat. Use the first-class ticket to enter the lounge, then cancel the ticket upon entering.
Seriously. Walk straight to the check-in desk and cancel it. Sit back, plug in your laptop, order a complimentary top-shelf drink and wait until it’s time to board.
There are a few caveats with this method. You need to thoroughly read the terms and conditions before you purchase the ticket to make sure it’s refundable. The ticket is pricey, so you’ll need room on your credit card to front the cost, and the refund may take a few days to process. While this may be vastly outside the financial comfort zone of many, it is a tried-and-true method, and won’t cost you a single dollar in the long run if you’re willing to pull it off.
3. Attain elite status.
Elite status is starting to become harder to attain in the United States. In the past, you could gain elite status on an airline by flying, say, 25,000 miles in a calendar year. It didn’t matter what you spent on those flights, just that you hit the distance requirement.
Airlines have since shifted to revenue-based barriers, which require a minimum spend and a minimum distance to get mid-tier status. Delta and United are the biggest offenders here. However, there’s a way to game the system a bit. If you fly often enough on an airline within a global alliance like OneWorld, Star Alliance or SkyTeam, you can use the mileage you’ve accrued to attain status on one particular airline within the alliance.
For example, if you frequently fly United and Air Canada but would prefer to have elite status on Lufthansa, you can do that (as all three airlines are Star Alliance partners). This strategy is something to consider for frequent international travelers, because as I mentioned, lounges abroad are typically much nicer than the ones you find stateside.
Which lounges are worth it?
If you’re wondering what airline lounge to use, try LoungeGuide. It features reviews of many lounges worldwide and can help guide your itinerary. Generally speaking, international lounges are the swankiest, but some domestic lounges are catching up.