Airline club lounges are part of the ecosystem around which many frequent travelers construct their routine. If you haven't been inside of one, you'd perhaps recognize the spruced up door to one as you scuttle through the airport terminals beyond the security line. They really change the airport experience, offering a quieter and more comfortable respite from the bustling gate areas. Today we're breaking down the basics.
The major American carriers American Airlines, Delta, and United each offer a network of airline club lounges branded as the Admirals Club, Sky Club, and United Club respectively. Alaska Airlines also offers its Boardroom lounge, albeit in only four airports owing to the airline's smaller size. Many of the big international flag carriers also offer lounges in their busy airports. Southwest and jetBlue, alas, do not. The presence of an airline's lounge in a particular airport is pretty directly related to how big a presence a particular airline has at the airport. For example, there are ten Sky Club locations in Atlanta's Hartsfield Jackson International Airport where Delta is the largest carrier at the world's busiest airport... American and United each have just one. Logically, you'll find lounges strategically located in high traffic areas for passengers flying on that lounge's particular airline. It's pretty straightforward.
So is it worth it?
In general, yes. Club lounges are a terrific value if you either travel more than once a month, regularly experience long layovers, or enjoy having a few glasses of wine (or something else) at the airport. Lounges generally offer complimentary house-level alcohol at the bar, and a buffet of light snacks that make a break breakfast or, at least, a hold-you-over for lunch and dinner. More premium beverages and some full meals are available at extra cost (though on the meal front, I recommend grabbing something from a restaurant and bringing it in with you). We of course think the price of admission pays for itself on complimentary wine, and that's before you've factored in the intangible price of comfort on things like plush seating, space to spread out, quiet space to work, and immaculately well kept restrooms and changing rooms.
Getting through the door
Airlines that brought you ticketing and frequent flier schemes that practically require a PhD to understand can't be trusted to make lounge access straightforward, either. We'll break it down in broad strokes, though. It's really important to note the difference here between membership and access. Lounge membership generally means that you may use the lounge any time you are in the airport, even if you're flying on a different airline that day. Lounge access generally means that you may use the lounge when flying that day on that lounge's airline, and boarding passes are often required as proof. This distinction won't matter much to folks who pretty consistently travel on one airline, which you should be doing anyway if you travel enough to make lounge membership worthwhile in the first place. For travelers with options, though (looking at you folks in big cities whose airport hosts hubs for multiple carriers), this distinction may cause some pain.
The most straightforward (and expensive) way to get through the door is with an annual lounge membership with one (or more) of the airlines. In general, your options for membership are to either carry an airline's premium branded credit card (which usually command an annual fee in the $450 range) or to join outright (usually in the $400 to $600 per year for an individual). We recommend the credit card route so that you can pick up the other travel perks cards like the AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard from Citi,
Credit Card Access
We recommend travelers take advantage of the myriad schemes out there that get you membership or access via a particular credit card you carry. The advantage here is that you get to use the lounges as part of a package of additional travel perks associated with these cards that often have annual fees approximately the same as just buying an annual lounge membership (more for your money!). The disadvantage is that you need to take some time to understand all the little caveats. For example, the AAdvantage Executive World Elite Master Card from Citi (affiliated with the airline) offers Admirals Club membership to the card holder, while the Citi Prestige MasterCard (not affiliated with the airline) offers only Admirals Club access. There are pros and cons to any combination of cards, so we'd just underscore the need to make sure you know what you're getting before you sign up.
Travelers wanting to get into a lounge where they have neither access nor membership via some other means can opt for a day pass. Delta and United offer these at $59, American at $50, and Alaska at $45. Be careful, though, because while membership and access schemes generally allow at least several of your traveling companions to enjoy the lounge when accompanied by you, day passes convey no such benefit. Paying separately can add up quickly when traveling with coworkers or families.
Airline Status, Premium Cabin, Reciprocity, etc
Here's where this gets crazy. In general, if you have reached a certain level of frequent flier status with an airline, you are therefor granted access to the lounges of that airline and all other airlines in the same airline alliance as your airline, but in some cases only when flying internationally. What?! There are so many rules here, and in most cases you have to fly a given airline such an insane amount that we're going to assume that special subset of the traveling population has already taken the time to figure this out, and offer this simple advice: don't count on your frequent flier status getting you lounge access, because for all but the most frequent travelers, it won't. It's best for your sanity to think of frequent flier status and lounge membership as two entirely separate products offered by any given airline.
Slightly less onerous rules allow passengers in premium cabins, i.e. first or business class, to access lounges with a boarding pass for that airline on that day. Your best bet here is to just ask at the front desk, because different airlines apply slightly different rules for passengers in this situation.
The only exception to the complicated nature of these arrangements (that I've been able to find) is for Alaska Airlines Boardroom members. They have access to many American Airlines Admirals Clubs.
...so is it still worth it, even after all these rules?
We think so, though we'd cite this as further evidence that it pays sanity dividends to stick with your one or two preferred airlines so that you can master their quirks and eccentricities.