Is Airport Lounge Access Really Worth a $450 (or More) Annual Fee?
by Matt Frankel, CFP | Aug. 29, 2019
You might be surprised by the value airport lounges can deliver.
One of the major differentiators when it comes to ultra-premium credit cards is airport lounge access. The majority of premium credit cards with annual fees greater than $450 per year offer some type of airport lounge access -- some offer airline-specific lounge memberships, some have other lounge network memberships like Priority Pass, and some have their own proprietary lounges like American Express’ Centurion Lounge. And some offer a combination of these.
In many cases, credit cards with similar benefits can be had for a fraction of the cost -- but without the lounge access. This begs the question: Is airport lounge access really worth the hefty additional annual fee?
What do you get in an airport lounge?
To be fair, the level of benefits offered by airport lounges varies considerably. For example, there are some airport lounges that offer a minimal level of snacks and beverages, while others have full buffets and essentially open bars.
That said, there are some benefits of airport lounges that can be given a dollar value, while others are more convenience-oriented. Here’s a rundown of some of the benefits you might find at an airport lounge.
Quantifiable benefits of airport lounge access
- Free food: As I mentioned, airport lounges typically offer some free food. In lower-end lounges, this could mean just a few snacks, but many airline-run lounges and others offer hot meals. In many cases, the food is quite good. If you typically buy food in the airport during layovers, this could easily save you $10, or much more.
- Free drinks: Some lounges offer complimentary nonalcoholic drinks, as well as certain beer and wine options, while others stock a wide variety of free cocktails to choose from. If you typically have a few drinks between flights, this could be a big money saver.
- Newspapers: Lounges typically offer free newspapers, which can save you a bit of money and time as well.
- Wi-Fi: Even in airports that offer free Wi-Fi, the quality of Wi-Fi offered in lounges tends to be far superior.
- Spa services: Some higher-end lounges offer spa services such as massages and manicures, either for free or for prices lower than you can expect to pay elsewhere in the airport.
Other perks that can add value
- Showers: Many airport lounges offer shower facilities, which can feel like a priceless benefit if you’ve been traveling all day.
- Workspaces: My number one reason for using an airport lounge is that it’s a quiet place to work. When I’m connecting through a busy airport like Atlanta’s or Charlotte’s, simply having a place to sit and get some uninterrupted work time can be tremendously valuable. Many lounges have separate workspace areas that are located in quiet areas, which can be extra nice.
- Places to rest: Some lounges have designated napping areas, or nap pods, but even those that don’t typically still have comfortable seating so you can kick back and close your eyes for a bit.
- Superior customer service: This is a benefit that’s especially available in airline-run lounges. For example, when I’m in a Delta lounge and need to make some sort of change to a flight, I’ve found it to be a far less aggravating experience than going to the customer service counter in the airport.
How much is a visit to an airport lounge worth?
Unfortunately, there’s no perfect answer. It depends on how many of the quantifiable perks you use and how much value you place on the other benefits of lounge access. Plus, there’s a time factor as well -- a one-hour visit to a lounge is far different from spending a five-hour layover in one.
For example, if I’m in an airport lounge on a two-hour layover, I’ll generally eat whatever food is there, which I conservatively assume will save me $10. I’ll probably also have two drinks in that time, which would probably cost me $15 to $20 elsewhere in the airport. Personally, I give access to a quiet workspace about $10 per hour in value, so let’s say another $20 for that benefit. So, between these three things, I value a two-hour lounge visit at about $50.
Is it worth it to you?
Here’s the most important question. Even the most luxurious airport lounge with the best food and drinks is only valuable to you if you’re going to use it.
Over the course of a year, I take about six to eight round-trip flights that require connections. So, let’s say I visit lounges 14 times per year. At $50 in value per visit, I’d say that I’m getting a total of $700 in value per year -- which is why my credit card’s annual fee that gives me lounge access is worth it to me.
The bottom line is that like any other credit card benefit, if the value you receive from airport lounge access exceeds the premium you pay to get it, it can be well worth the cost. If not, you’re probably better off getting a midrange travel credit card instead.
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