When you hear the word “layover,” what do you picture?
If you’re like most people, you probably imagine expensive food and drinks, spotty (or costly) wifi, and cramped quarters — with little or no chance to relax or be productive.
But for certain flyers, a layover means something altogether different: it means time spent in a luxury airport lounge.
You may have walked past these lounges’ shiny desks or glass doors a hundred times, but never really known what lay beyond.
A fanciful world awaits: complimentary snacks and drinks (including booze!), clean bathrooms and showers, ample (and comfortable) seating, an abundance of electrical outlets, speedy wifi, and quiet spaces to work.
And that’s just the basics. At select lounges across the world, you’ll find stylists, jacuzzis, saunas, champagne and wine bars, facials, massages, pool tables, outdoor spaces, and gardens. If you’re feeling musical, Virgin Atlantic’s Clubhouse at Heathrow even has a DJ mixing studio!
As if the amenities weren’t enough, luxury airport lounges have the added bonus of retaining the most experienced agents at their reservation desks. In the case of delays or cancellations, it’s infinitely better to be within the lounge than fighting with the rest of the passengers in the main terminal.
So, needless to say, you want in.
But without purchasing an expensive business- or first-class international ticket, how is that possible? Well, you could buy an annual membership to an airline’s lounges — for several hundred dollars. You could buy a $50+ day pass to your lounge of choice.
Or, you could read this post and discover how to access them at no cost to you.
Intrigued? Here are three secret ways to get into luxury airport lounges for free:
1. Ask a friendly stranger to add you as their guest
Most airport lounges allow first-class flyers to bring one person with them as their guest. This doesn’t cost the member anything, so it’s a great way for you to get into a lounge without any prior preparation or expense. All you have to do is ask.
After all, people love to feel helpful and needed, and if you approach the situation correctly, you’ll be offering someone a chance to feel both — at no cost to them! Appear professional and friendly, and you’ve got a good shot.
Though this may be tough if you’re shy, it’ll get easier the more you do it. After a few successes, you’ll be wondering why you haven’t been doing this all along.
How to put this into action:
- Dress professionally any time you fly. This will help you look the part, and will encourage other business travelers to trust you.
- Stand near the lounge you want to access — not in direct view of the desk, but close enough so you can tell who’s entering.
- When someone who looks friendly (and not in a hurry) heads toward the lounge, approach them with a smile, and say, “Excuse me. May I ask you a favor?”
- If they look alarmed or bothered, just ask them the time and be done with it. If they smile back, say: “Hi, my name is _________. I’m flying economy class today, but I have a long layover and a lot of work to get done. Is there any way you’d be willing to add me as your guest? You’d be helping me out so much.”
- If they say yes, be sure to thank them — but leave them alone after entering the club. (They probably need some peace and quiet, too.)
- On the off chance they decline, rinse and repeat; you’re bound to get a bite eventually.
2. Use your travel rewards credit card
If you have excellent credit and are responsible with credit cards, then getting a travel rewards credit card might be your best bet. Though the majority of people sign up for these cards for their amazing miles and points bonuses, there are several cards that offer lounge access as a perk of membership.
The United MileagePlus Explorer card, for example, includes two one-day passes to any United Club airport lounge in the world. It also offers a 30,000 mile sign-up bonus after spending $1,000 in the first three months, a free checked bag, priority boarding, and no foreign-transaction fees. The $95 fee is waived for the first year.
The Chase Ink Bold business card is another great option. It offers two complimentary lounge visits each year for you and a guest, with additional visits costing only $27 each. Other benefits include 50,000 points after $5,000 worth of purchases in the first three months and no foreign-transaction fees. Its $95 annual fee is waived the first year.
The most comprehensive option is the American Express Platinum card, which offers access into more than 600 lounges worldwide. This access comes at a cost, however: $450 annually. Though this may sound prohibitively expensive, it’s worth noting there are several benefits frequent travelers can take advantage of.
In addition to the excellent lounge access, the card will reimburse you for $200 worth of airline fees each year, including those for checked baggage, in-flight refreshment and entertainment, and flight changes. Some people have also reported being reimbursed for airline gift card purchases. These reimbursements essentially bring the fee down to $250. On top of this, you’ll also receive a one-time reimbursement for the $100 Global Entry application fee.
There are several cards with comparable annual fees to the American Express Platinum, but none with the same level of benefits for the average user. If you’d like to learn about all of them, Dr. Credit Card has compiled a comprehensive list here.
How to put this into action:
- Credit card bonuses change often, so read frequent flyer blogs and sign up for newsletters like The Credit Card Fly to stay in the know.
- Apply for a card that offers airport lounge access as one of its perks — but only if you can use it responsibly.
- Once you’ve received your card, decide when and where you want to use your free passes. Cash them in, and enjoy!
3. Purchase a refundable first-class ticket
There’s only one guaranteed way to get into almost any luxury airport lounge: have an international first- or business-class ticket leaving that same day.
But even if you’re flying coach or domestic, that doesn’t mean you can’t also have a first-class ticket — which you can cancel after successfully entering the airport lounge.
They key here is to purchase a fully-refundable first-class ticket. The cost of a refundable ticket is exponentially more expensive, but that’s irrelevant if you know you’re going to cancel it for a refund. (And if you’re going this route, you might as well buy a first-class ticket, as those lounges are more luxurious than business-class.)
After using your first-class ticket to enter the lounge, you can cancel it before the flight’s departure time, receiving a refund on the purchase price.
Though this method is a pretty foolproof way to get into a luxury lounge at zero cost to you, it’s a bit sneaky and should probably only be used as a last resort. (As in, your flight suddenly gets delayed by six hours, or you really need to finish a project.)
How to put this into action:
- Figure out which airline’s lounge you’d like to use. (To help you decide, you can use some of the tools mentioned in the next section.)
- Go online and search for an international, first-class, fully-refundable ticket that is departing from the airport that same day.
- Carefully read through ALL of the rules and regulations to ensure that you will receive a full refund for the purchase price (with no fees).
- Check that you have enough room on your credit card or money in your bank account to cover it. (Though unlikely, there’s a chance that the refund may not appear for a few weeks.)
- Purchase the ticket, then head over to the transfer desk to have your boarding pass printed out.
- Show the boarding pass at the entrance to the luxury lounge.
- As soon as you’ve entered successfully, call the reservations line and cancel your ticket.
Tools & Tips
Though the three ideas listed above are the best ways to get into luxury lounges for free, there are many other ways to enter lounges at a minimal cost.
Here are some tools and tips to help you:
- Before deciding which lounge you want to enter, check reviews on sites like Skytrax or LoungeGuide.
- If you have an iPhone, the Loungebuddy app will tell you everything you need to know about a lounge, including amenities, photos, reviews, hours, and more. If you enter your information (flight itinerary, elite statuses, credit cards, etc), it’ll also tell you which lounges you can access — and for how much.
- Elite status with an airline (silver, gold, or equivalent) is another way to get free access to airport lounges. This is the best option for frequent travelers who only fly with airlines in the same alliance.
- For discounted access to luxury airport lounges, you can buy your passes on the airline’s website in advance, or check FlyerTalk/Craigslist/eBay for cheap passes.
The world of frequent flyers and airlines is constantly changing. To stay up-to-date with credit card rewards, lounge access tips, and more, you should follow your favorite airlines on Twitter and Facebook, add frequent flyer blogs to your RSS reader, and sign up for newsletters like The Credit Card Fly.
By staying on top of the game, you’ll be sure to find ways to access airport lounges and make your flying experiences more pleasant and affordable.
But for now, use the three tips listed above to get into luxury airport lounges for free — and have a drink on us.