Big airports are among the world's most hostile civilized environments. Crowds, noise, long lines, inadequate seating and garbled announcements are the norm. Fortunately, even occasional travelers can avail themselves of the road warriors' refuges: VIP airline lounges. Mostly, you'll have to pay, but an oasis of calm can be worth a few bucks.
Most large airlines maintain a chain of VIP lounges at their more important airports. Typically, they feature a quiet space with comfortable seating; most now offer no-charge drinks and snacks. For entertainment, they provide lots of magazines and newspapers, several TV sets, computers with printers and Wi-Fi Internet access. If you need help, most are staffed with agents who can arrange seat assignments, upgrades, cope with missed connections and such -- typically, more quickly than agents on the outside. Most are on the "air side" of security, near the sponsor airline's terminal or gate area, but a few are "land side" as well.
If you're a frequent traveler, you probably already know about the lounge programs of the big three domestic airlines. They pitch annual memberships, which provide unlimited access to lounges in their own system plus those of any lines belonging to their major alliance. The drawback here is a stiff yearly fee -- typically $400 to $500 for an individual and an additional $200 or $300 for a spouse -- that is high enough to discourage once-or-twice-a-year vacation travelers. Smaller lines, including Alaska, Hawaiian, Frontier and Virgin America operate small-scale lounge programs, at somewhat lower fees, but even those are high. Most large foreign lines feature similar programs, also at high prices.
Fortunately, you don't have to pony up $500 to get into a lounge for just one or two trips. Most of the big U.S. airlines sell one-day membership passes for $40 to $50 a pop. You can buy them online or at the door; some lines let you pay with frequent flier miles. You also see them advertised on eBay or Craigslist: As I'm writing this, eBay is listing one-day passes for Delta ($14.99 bid) and United ($27.99).
For many of you, however, a premium credit card or an independent program may be the more useful approach:
[bullet] Priority Pass (www.prioritypass.com) is the largest independent airport club operation, with more than 600 participating lounges at more than 300 airports worldwide, including many in the United States. Some are airline-run lounges; others are independent VIP centers. Priority Pass offers three membership options: $99 a year plus $27 per visit; $249 per year, including 10 visits; and $399 per year for unlimited use; guests of members always pay $27 for entry.
[bullet] American Express Platinum Card provides no-charge access for you and up to two guests at "participating" worldwide airport lounges operated by American, Delta and US Airways on the day of flight when you're ticketed on the airline, with locations in most big U.S. airports. This card also offers no-extra-charge enrollment in the top level of Priority Pass.
[bullet] Premium credit cards from Continental and United (soon to be combined) include admission to the combined lines' lounge clubs.
[bullet] Diners Club gets you and guests into more than 250 airport lounges around the world, but for a fee of around $30 each time.
In addition, many airport-run lounge clubs around the world offer one-time access. Several websites, including U.K.-based Lounge Pass (www.loungepass.com) and TripExtras (www.tripextras.com/airport-lounges), provide search functions listing airport lounges available on a one-time basis at major airports around the world. Participating lounges are a mix of airline and independent locations. Typical fees are in the range of $30 (officially priced in pounds) per visit.
Obviously, if you're really keeping costs to a minimum, a lounge club is an extravagance. But for some people, finding added personal service plus peace, quiet and comfort is well worth the cost.