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Airport lounges are back and 'at their best,' experts say: Why now is a good time to pay a visit

"Right now, in some ways these lounges are at their best."

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Just a few months ago, members-only lounges at U.S. airports were looking pretty sad. Lounges were some of the first things that U.S. airlines curtailed during the pandemic, restricting hours and cutting back on perks such as free food and alcohol. Some airlines closed their lounges altogether. The rationale made sense: They were expensive to maintain, few people were flying, and it was unclear how safe they even were.

But those days seem to be over, according to Nick Ewen, senior editor at The Points Guy. He cites his recent visit to Delta's Sky Club at the Salt Lake City airport — one of the carrier's biggest and newest lounges — as an example. "This spread was impressive," he says. "They had small sandwiches. They had soups. They have a huge array of food, and you could easily have made a meal out of it."

Some lounges are still not offering their full range of pre-pandemic amenities, but many have bounced back, and Ewen says it's become more common to find menus like the one in Salt Lake City. And because business travel continues to be depressed, the lounges aren't as crowded as might might have been pre-pandemic.

"Right now, these lounges are at their best, in the sense that I have not found them to be incredibly overcrowded," Ewen says. Given the recent surge in leisure travel, they offer some key advantages for both comfort and social distancing. "We're out of the hustle and bustle of the terminal if our flight is delayed. We're not sitting on the floor and leaning against the wall because the gate area is mobbed."

If you've never considered getting access to airline lounges — be it with frequent flyer miles, an airline-branded credit card, or a third-party membership — now might be the time to consider stepping behind the velvet rope and checking it out.

Here's what you need to know to make the most of your pandemic lounge experience.

Food? Check. Drinks? Check. What else can I get?

Lounges have evolved significantly in the last few decades, Ewen says. Once they solely catered to the highest-paying customers, but they now serve more types of visitors, like frequent business travelers. And as they've grown in popularity, airlines and travel companies are using them to build a devoted followings.

Back in the day, "Delta used to have solely prepackaged snacks, like prepackaged hummus, prepackaged cheese, prepackaged crackers. If you wanted to drink the complimentary wine, they were pouring it out of these 1.5-liter magnums that you could buy at Walmart," Ewen says. "It was fine, but it wasn't great."

The situation has changed, Ewen says: "A lot of these lounges have actually stepped up their game significantly, because they recognize that it's a way to differentiate."

A lot of these lounges have actually stepped up their game significantly, because they recognize that it's a way to differentiate.
Nick Ewen
Senior editor, The Points Guy

While the complimentary food and drinks are lovely, Ewen says, one of the best things about lounges are the customer service agents that are dedicated to exclusively helping lounge customers, which could be particularly helpful these days as delayed and canceled flights continue to be common.

"If you have a missed connection, if you have a flight delay, if you have some issue with your trip, they can help you oftentimes more quickly" than the normal customer service line, Ewen says.

Airlines aren't the only ones using lounges to court customers. American Express, for example, has reopened many of its lounges and is even opening new ones, despite the pandemic.

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"We have continued to invest in our travel offerings because we know that travel is core to our business and our customers' lifestyles," says Pablo Rivero, vice president of loyalty travel experiences and benefits at American Express. "In fact, since the pandemic started, we've expanded our Centurion [Lounge] network, with new openings at New York's John F. Kennedy and Denver's International Airport." American Express has also struck a deal with private lounge company Escape Lounge, which will rebrand those spaces as Centurion Studios.

Since they're not owned by cost-conscious airlines, these lounges can be pretty flashy. The new Centurion Lounge at JFK spans more than 15,000 square feet across two floors, including a speakeasy-style bar and a fitness room co-branded with luxury gym chain Equinox.

That sounds great, but how do I get into an airport lounge?

If you're keen to try a lounge for the first time, the old-school way is to spend a little extra or fly a lot. A first- or business-class ticket on a long-haul flight usually comes with lounge access. For people who fly one particular airline frequently, signing up for that carrier's loyalty program can also get you into a lounge, if you spend enough money and fly enough miles.

But there are ways to circumvent getting lounge access through a specific airline. One way to lounge-hop is by joining a third-party membership service like Priority Pass, which charges users both a monthly membership fee and a per-use entrance fee to access its network of more than 1,300 lounges.

Annual memberships start at $99, with a $32 entrance fee for each visit. However, "generally speaking, that is not the best way to get into a Priority Pass lounge," Ewen says. "The much better way is by getting a premium credit card that includes access to those lounges."

While a lot of those cards require top-notch credit scores and have hefty annual fees, Ewen says the extra cost and hassle can be worth it for frequent travelers. "For Priority Pass, if you pay the initial fee and then you do the à la carte version, after only a few visits, you're already getting up to or surpassing the annual fee on one of these premium credit cards," Ewen says. "And you also get a bunch of other benefits on these cards, like bonus miles."

For Priority Pass, if you pay the initial fee and then you do the à la carte version, after only a few visits, you're already getting up to or surpassing the annual fee on one of these premium credit cards.
Nick Ewen
Senior editor, The Points Guy

That said, paying an annual fee that is usually between $500 and $1,000 can be a daunting prospect, especially if you're not sure whether your home lounge is up and running.

Check out the list below to see which companies have lounges open.

Domestic lounges run by airlines

Alaska

Alaska only has lounges at six U.S. airports, but they are all open.

  • Anchorage, Alaska
  • New York (JFK)
  • Los Angeles (LAX)
  • Portland, Oregon
  • San Francisco
  • Seattle
  • Tacoma, Washington

American

American offers three tiers of lounges. The two upper tiers, Flagship First dining facilities and Flagship lounges, remain closed, but the airline has begun reopening its more ubiquitous Admirals Clubs. More than 20 are currently open in the U.S.

  • Atlanta
  • Austin
  • Boston (Logan)
  • Charlotte
  • Chicago (O'Hare)
  • Dallas-Fort Worth
  • Denver
  • Houston Intercontinental
  • Los Angeles (LAX)
  • Miami
  • Nashville
  • New York (JFK)
  • New York (LaGuardia)
  • Newark, New Jersey
  • Orange County, California
  • Orlando
  • Philadelphia
  • Pittsburgh
  • Phoenix
  • Raleigh-Durham
  • San Francisco
  • Tampa
  • Washington, D.C. (DCA)

Delta

All of Delta's 35 domestic Sky Club lounges are currently open, according to Delta.

United

United has closed most of its United Club locations, with the exception of its lounges at at the following airports:

  • Austin
  • Chicago (O'Hare)
  • Cleveland
  • Denver
  • Honolulu
  • Houston Intercontinental
  • Las Vegas
  • Los Angeles (LAX)
  • Newark, New Jersey
  • Orlando
  • San Francisco
  • Washington, D.C. (Dulles)

Domestic lounges not affiliated with airlines

In addition to maintaining its own Centurion Lounges, American Express includes Priority Pass as a perk on some of its cards. Amex also recently signed an agreement with Escape Lounge to rebrand its spaces as Centurion Studios.

American Express Centurion

American Express closed all its lounges at the beginning of the pandemic, but has slowly begun reopening them across the U.S. At present, 12 locations are open to eligible cardholders, according to TPG.

  • Charlotte
  • Dallas-Fort Worth
  • Denver
  • Houston Intercontinental
  • Las Vegas
  • Miami
  • New York (JFK)
  • New York (LaGuardia)
  • Philadelphia
  • Phoenix
  • San Francisco
  • Seattle

Note: While the lounge at LAX in Los Angeles is listed as accepting guests, it's currently closed for construction, according to TPG.

Escape Lounge (soon to be Centurion Studio)

Only three Escape Lounge/Centurion Studio locations are currently open, according to TPG: Phoenix, Palm Beach, and Reno-Tahoe.

Priority Pass

In addition to hundreds of partnerships with airlines around the world, Priority Pass also operates 24 of its own lounges across the U.S. and U.K. At present, 11 of its U.S. locations are open, according to TPG.

  • Atlanta
  • Baltimore
  • Cincinnati
  • Charleston, South Carolina
  • Dallas-Fort Worth
  • Jacksonville, Florida
  • Las Vegas
  • New Orleans
  • Orlando
  • Pittsburgh
  • Seattle

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