Oh, the allure of the airport lounge. For some, it’s that mystical place behind the counter that’s never seen. For others, it’s a regular bi-weekly stop to and from their business destination. Is the airport lounge really that special? Is it worth paying for?

The allure

I’ve been on both sides of the lounge counter. For several years, I traveled for business and was fortunate to attain tiered airline status that enabled me to access the lounge. I must say, it does feel special to zip up the elevator and swish into the lounge. On the way past the entry counter, you pick up the latest newspaper, then drop your bags beside a comfortable couch with a beautiful sunset view and make your way to the counter to request a glass of wine. Complementary, of course. After settling into the couch, you call home to talk about weekend plans. After the call, you saunter up to the food counter and help yourself to sandwiches, cheese and crackers and maybe a wine refill. If you have to travel for work and be away from home missing your home life and your children’s events, then this is a small consolation.

Then seven years ago, my business travel days ended and I lost my airline status AND my lounge access. I must confess, I did miss it, but hey, at least I was home more often and still lucky enough to be able to take regular vacations.  But trips through the airport no longer included the lounge.

A second chance

Recently, I’ve received a second chance with limited lounge access. Last July, I received an ‘almost free’ credit card from my bank. If you do a certain amount of business with some banks, they either drop or subsidize the yearly renewal fee for their credit cards. The card I found offered no foreign exchange fees on card purchases and it also offered a handful of lounge passes. OMG, finally I can return to the lounge.

The first lounge

Great, on my annual trip home from Mexico, I tried two lounges. The first was in a very small airport and it was surprising that this airport even had a lounge. Unfortunately, that lounge wasn’t worth using especially since I had just a handful of lounge passes to last all year. The food was mostly packaged, there was one person covering both the entry desk, the bar, and food service. It was 10:00 am, so I wasn’t offered, nor did I want, an alcoholic drink.

But, as with lounge experiences, something interesting can still happen. I was sitting on a sofa, facing another couple two rows away. They were facing the lounge entrance. Suddenly the woman becomes all smiles and elbows her husband saying, ‘Look! I’m going to get a picture!’ A group of people had just entered the lounge and the woman ran up to them and asked if she could have her picture taken with them. I glanced over but didn’t have a clue what the big deal was. The group passed through the ‘regular’ lounge disappearing through another door into the (likely) more elite lounge.

I went up to the food counter for something else and on my way back stopped to speak with the lady who had been so animated. When I asked who they were, she said they had played in concert last night and they were ‘whatever’ Band. A Mexican band I’d never heard of nor was I interested enough to commit their name to memory. Nevertheless, it was fun to feel that I was in the presence of some famous group, whoever they were!!

And on I go

Off I went to hop on my flight home which included a three-hour layover at a large hub airport. Great, another chance for a better lounge. After landing, I found customer service and asked how to find the lounge. The service rep pointed and said, ‘it’s that way, up one level, but it’s not a very good lounge.’ Darn, I almost didn’t bother finding it. If it was like the one I’d just been in, it truly wasn’t worth the extra walk or worth one of my lounge passes. But I had THREE hours to spare! I found it and I’m happy I did.

This lounge felt like my lounges of yesteryear. It included a buffet of good sandwiches, a salad bar, soups, and specialty coffees as well as desserts. The bar looked to be fully stocked so I was happy to indulge in a glass of wine with a side of soda water. I grabbed the newspaper, logged into the free WiFi and called home. I chatted away while looking out over the airport activity. Now, this was more like it. The experience I remembered.

Is it worthwhile?

Is it worth it? I’d say yes, but perhaps only in the larger airports. Is it worth paying for? Maybe, but probably only if you take advantage of more services than I tend to use. Premium lounges can include business centers, showers, private rooms with beds, massages and some offer escorted access through the airport to your flight gate. Lounges help pass the time and make you feel special.

There are three ways that I know of to gain airport lounge access. One is to have tiered access through regular travel on a particular airline. The other is to pay your way into the lounge. Typically that costs between $30 – $75 per visit. And the third way is to use a credit card that enables access.

If you are interested in finding a credit card with lounge access, these lists can help – Canadian Credit Cards and U.S. Credit Cards. If the lowest annual fee is an important consideration for you, then start by looking at your bank’s credit cards first. Ask your bank if they will waive the fee or at least reduce it.

It’s true, a lounge can be the one experience that makes business travel time more enjoyable. Or it can cheer you up during that dreaded trip home from vacation.

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