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Are Airport Lounge Passes Worth it?

Recently I had the opportunity to take a short trip to hang out with my family in Ontario.  Up to this point, I was perfectly content to travel in economy class and hang out at the gate with everyone else.

On my way home, I had a similar flight time with my sister who happened to have a number of lounge vouchers with Priority Pass.  Being the good sister that she is, she offered me a guest voucher which I more than happily accepted.  I’ve heard whisperings that these lounges offer a quiet environment with plush chairs, free WiFi, open bar, and best of all, free food!  Needless to say, this frugal guy was pretty excited.

The Lounge

Upon entering the lounge (domestic departures), I was greeted by a serene environment that ultimately exceeded my expectations.  The chairs were comfortable, the WiFi was fast, the booze was plentiful, and the food was above par.  To talk a little about the offerings, they had two different types of soup, two hot trays (a rice and korean beef bulgogi), cereal, cookies and muffins, fruit and veggies, crackers, coffee/tea/lattees, juice, canned pop/club soda, and an open bar.

Surprisingly, I always thought that these lounges were exclusive to business class passengers, paid memberships, or users of elite credit cards. However, in reality, anyone who is willing to pay the entry fee can join in the fun.  The lounge that I was invited to charged $40+tax for 2 hrs of use, $50+tax for 3 hrs, and $70 + tax for 6 hours.  Honestly though, I’m not sure how they keep track of how much time each person uses.  While I was there, I didn’t notice anyone policing the elapsed time.

The Value

So seeing the entry price, it got me thinking – is $40+tax worth access to a lounge for a couple of hours?

In short, no, I wouldn’t pay that much.  But how much is it worth?  The value is really in the food and the beverages.  So having lunch with an alcoholic beverage at the airport will probably cost you around $25. As I only occasionally have an alcoholic beverage, I would be willing to pay around $20 to enter a lounge providing that I had a long lay over.

How to Get Lounge Passes

Being the deal hunter that I am, I started looking into ways to lower the cost of lounge access while I was sitting in the cushy lounge chairs.  Besides flying first class with Air Canada to access their Maple Leaf Lounges, here are some ways to get lounge passes:

Membership

For Priority Pass, frequent travelers may get value out of purchasing a membership.  The membership levels are ($USD, and all levels have $27 guest visit fee):

  • Standard: $99 annually + $27 per visit.
  • Standard Plus: $249 annually for 10 free visits, then $27 per visit (essentially $99 membership fee plus $15 per visit for first 10 visits).
  • Prestige: $399 annually for unlimited visits (need at least 16 visits to make this option worth it).

Points Programs

For Marriott and HHonors points collectors, you can use points towards Priority pass memberships.

  • Marriott requirements: 20k for Standard, 55k for Standard Plus, and 85k for Prestige.
  • HHonors requirements: 36.5k for Standard, 101.5k for Standard Plus, and 161.5k for Prestige.

If you are a frequent traveler with Air Canada and reach “Status“, they offer free access to their Maple Leaf Lounges along with a number of other perks.

Credit cards

There are some premium credit cards that offer Lounge access, but they often come with a hefty annual fee.  Here are some examples:

  • CIBC and TD Aerogold Visa Infinite (annual fee ~$120/year, TD has waived fee for first year): When claiming Aeroplan rewards, these cards offer guest passes towards Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounges .
  • A number of high end American Express cards (annual fees range from $300-$900): Too rich for my blood.
  • BMO Air Miles Elite (annual fee $120) and World Elite MasterCards (annual fee $150):  The air miles card will give you a Standard Priority Pass membership and 2 free passes annually.  The World Elite card will also give you the Standard membership, but 4 free passes annually.  These annual fees are waived if you have a premium bank account with BMO.

Pay Cash with a Coupon

This and the credit card option above is the most likely way that I’ll enter an airport lounge next.  A quick google search came up with an easy $10 off coupon.  So essentially, a $40 entry fee becomes $30. This is bordering on acceptable if I were travelling by myself, but not if I were travelling with the whole family (of four).  Also, if you are a CIBC credit card holder, you just need to flash the credit card to the Lounge attendant (at Canadian airports), and you’ll get 25% off ($10 off $40).

What are your thoughts on Airport Lounges?  Are they worth the cost?

 

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FT About the author: FT is the founder and editor of Million Dollar Journey (est. 2006). Through various financial strategies outlined on this site, he grew his net worth from $200,000 in 2006 to $1,000,000 by 2014. You can read more about him here.

{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Steve Blaismith April 18, 2016, 1:15 pm

    Short answer – not worth it.

    I have been fortunate enough to have my employer pay for a number of flights for me when travelling for work. We’re always allowed to fly business class if it’s >8hrs flight. These tickets include lounge access. It doesn’t take many long haul flights to accumulate status on Air Canada so you’ll have it year round. My experience has been mixed. Some lounges are very nice with showers, beds, tons of food, great bar selection, offices, private rooms, and are practically empty. Others have lousy food, service, etc. and are so jammed you can’t even find a seat. I’m sure some of this is a function of the airport – I find Munich especially busy – and the time of your flight. At any rate, I’m a frugal guy and if my company wasn’t paying for these perks, I could hardly justify the expense for a few hour layover.
    What I would one day consider is a business class ticket vs. economy ticket. I’ve flown overnight for 16hrs and being able to recline your seat into a bed makes a huge difference for me. I have trouble sleeping on flights and the flat bed seat in business class allows me to sleep a good 8-10hrs. You arrive a heck of a lot more refreshed than if you don’t sleep. I’ve never flown a personal flight for that long and had to pay out of pocket. If I’m being honest, I don’t think those 10hrs of sleep are worth the extra several thousand dollars for a return flight in business class at this stage of my life. Maybe when I’ve completed my million dollar journey…

    • FT FrugalTrader April 18, 2016, 2:40 pm

      Thanks for your feedback. Have you tried both Priority Pass and Maple Leaf Lounges (Air Canada)? If so, can you comment on which you preferred?

      • Steve Blaismith April 20, 2016, 12:06 pm

        Yes, I have. I would give a slight edge to the Maple Leaf (AC Lounges) but I think this is a function of them being located predominantly in lower volume airports in Canada. I like the one in Heathrow though – it is quite large and the staff are usually kind.
        My experience at large Continental European hubs has been mostly negative – these tend to be non-AC lounges (Swissport, etc.), but you get access when travelling AC Business Class based on airline associations. From my experience, I’ve found the following airport lounges to be overcrowded and underwhelming: Munich, Frankfurt, Zurich, Amsterdam, London Gatwick
        These are ok: Sofia, Johannesburg
        These were good: New York (JFK), Washington (Dulles), Toronto (Pearson), Vancouver

        I wouldn’t make any specific assumptions based on my anecdotal experiences. There are often multiple lounges in large airports and I may have just gotten the lousy ones AC has association with. My previous post makes for a better all-encompassing guideline.

  • Sarlock April 20, 2016, 12:09 pm

    I’ve used the Maple Leaf Lounge many times. The ones in Canada are excellent and have a great selection of food, are spacious and relaxing. I use my Aeroplan points to book business class flights – so the net cost to me is essentially zero. Would I actually pay for the use of the lounges? It depends. If I was on a 3 hour layover in Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal, absolutely. Otherwise, there are plenty of nice places to go in the airport that are cheaper and offer just as relaxing an atmosphere.

  • NeoGeo April 25, 2016, 10:31 am

    Great article as it is timely since I am starting again to travel more within US/Canada. The problem with flying within NA is that it is harder to get status vs doing the Europe/Asia trips. I can spend more money in NA tickets per month but because status is based on miles flown, I get nothing relatively.

    The solution, credit cards but the Aeroplan Infinite cards only give you access to lounge and priority boarding for REWARD tickets. Not tickets you purchase with the card. You need to upgrade to the Aeroplan Infinite Privilege cards at a whopping $400/year or AMEX as noted. But there are promotions for the first year (CIBC 50k Aeroplan points) to help with that. But I figure that within 2 years of flying you can cancel and sign up with another promotion Privilege card. You don’t get AC Lounge access unless you redeem on a REWARD ticket but there are other lounge access available. Most importantly though, when you purchase a ticket with the Privilege, you actually get priority boarding. Important because you have a better chance of securing carry on space. There are some other benefits and most are similar to the Infinite card as well.

    This is my temporary solution to alleviate some travel headaches.

  • Scooter June 4, 2016, 11:49 am

    I actually got one of those Amex platinum cards once – the 60,000 aeroplan point signup bonus let me book business class rewards tickets for my wife and me, so the $500 was steep but justifiable. I kept the card for 11.5 months and cancelled.
    While I had it, I had access to both maple leaf lounges and priority pass, both for free – I covered quite a bit of NA, Europe and Asia that year and I wouldn’t put one membership over the other consistently – it totally depends on where you’re flying. Priority pass only has 3 locations in Canada (or did) so if you’re traveling to smaller cities here you’ve got better chances with maple leaf – that said I find the ML lounge in Montréal awful: it’s always jammed full and it’s one of the less comfortable options, while the Admirals Lounge across the hallway was completely abandoned with much more comfortable seating. I’ve never been super impressed with the food in any lounge, but it’s nice to have light snack fare and a drink.

    All of that said, would I pay for a membership? No way – most airports have nice comfortable restaurants or pubs where you can hang out for as long as you want for a $10 beer, and the ones that don’t probably don’t have a lounge either.

  • Tom Drake June 5, 2016, 11:54 pm

    I’m already a huge fan of using the BMO World Elite MasterCard for getting 2% back, especially since I shop quite a bit at Costco. The 4 Priority Pass entries are one of the many perks that are icing on the cake!

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