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Airport lounges: How to get in the door

Airport lounges promise to bring a little of the luxury air travel was once associated with, but do you still need to be a VIP to get access? Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel, reveals all.

By Rory Boland
Published 29 Jun 2019, 08:00 BST
An airport lounge
An airport lounge.
Photograph by Getty

I’m not a ‘somebody’. Can I just pay to get in?

Not to the best ones. The lounges you really want access to are run by the airlines — they tend to be a lot better than the airport lounges run by independent companies. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are the UK carriers with the most locations. But you can’t just slip them £20 at the door and march in. You’ll either need to book a business- or first-class ticket, or be a member of their frequent flyer schemes, unfortunately. 

So, frequent-flyer status is better than an airline credit card?

Correct. Even flashing a British Airways or Virgin Atlantic-branded credit card won’t get you inside. Instead, aim to join a carrier’s frequent flyer scheme. 

You’ll need to become a Silver Executive Club Member with British Airways, which requires 600 tier points. The bad news? Flying economy won’t get you far. You’d need to fly return between London and New York City 15 times (in a year) to hit 600 points. And you’d need to love the Big Apple even more with Virgin — it’d take 20 economy-class flights to get the Gold status you need for lounge access. 

However, there are shortcuts. Look for business-class promotions, which earn more tier points. For example, four Club Europe return tickets with British Airways on European routes could cost from £1,200 collectively and would instantly get you into the Silver Club. Frequent flyer website Head for Points lists promotions. 

But don’t reach for the scissors just yet; your credit card could still get you into an airport lounge. 

Are you downgrading me?

Not necessarily. While airline lounges are usually more polished than those run by private companies at the airport, that’s not always the case. Undercover inspectors from Which? Travel rated the British Airways Galleries Club Lounge at Heathrow Terminal 5 three stars out of five — exactly the same score as the Plaza Premium pay-to-enter airport lounge in the same terminal. 

Pay to enter, you say?

Exactly. The Plaza Premium costs £40 for one-off access, for example. But don’t cough up until you’ve checked those reviews. There’s a lounge in almost every UK airport, usually run by Aspire or No1, but of the 21 inspected by Which?, less than half managed a three-star rating. 

You told me not to cut up my credit card.

That’s right. Some credit cards, like the American Express Platinum Card and United MileagePlus Club Card, include access to airport lounges, as do some packaged bank accounts, like the Barclays Travel Pack (six visits). 

But do your sums first. The American Express Platinum Card has an annual fee of £450 while Barclays Travel Pack accounts cost £126. With lounges charging around £30 for each visit, you’d need to fly fairly frequently to get good value for money. And if it’s just regular lounge access you’re interested in, then a membership card might make more sense. 

Read more:

Airport lounge membership clubs: Are they worth joining?  

You’ll need to be a regular flyer. Priority Pass is the best-known airport lounge membership scheme and it charges £339 for unlimited access. That promises you entry to 1,200 lounges worldwide run by the likes of Aspire and No 1. More realistic is its ‘standard membership’, which costs £179 for 10 visits. 

Other schemes include DragonPass, which has around 1,000 airport lounge locations and offers basic membership for £68. For that you get one free entry and subsequent visits cost £19.50 each.  

You can also sign up to loyalty schemes run by the airport lounge brands themselves. Aspire , which has the most lounges in UK airports, has a rewards programme built into its app. Each entry earns you points and you’ll need anywhere from seven to eight paid visits to gain one free entry.  

Published in the July/August 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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