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Airport lounges are less exclusive. Not everyone is happy about it.

Frequent fliers have complained of overcrowding and long lines as travel has roared back

(Illustration by Jiaqi Wang for The Washington Post)
6 min

The airport lounge serves many purposes: a quick place to nap ahead of a long flight, a cheap way to eat or have a cocktail without paying exorbitant airport restaurant prices, or to call into a meeting thanks to free WiFi.

Like many premium travel experiences, lounges changed significantly during the pandemic. Pre-covid, these spaces were hangouts for business travelers ahead of a flight — and airport lounges catered to this demographic of travelers, who often had corporate accounts to pay for access.

Today, the lounge experience is much more inclusive as credit cards, lounge networks and one-time passes give more people access beyond business travelers. But not everyone is happy about it.

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As air travel came roaring back (with high prices and crowds to match), viral tweets and videos have shown lines that rival TSA screening queues to access lounges. Members of the travel website FlyerTalk, a network for frequent fliers, have lamented that the lounge experience isn’t the same, bemoaning long lines to get in and overcrowding.

More credit cards, more access

The right credit card can get you into an airport lounge, giving more travelers more access — and contributing to crowds. Major credit card issuers offer lounge benefits for their premium card members. American Express has the Centurion Lounge network in more than 40 airports across the globe. Capital One and Chase have lounges in Dallas-Fort Worth and Hong Kong respectively, with more openings at other airports in the coming months and years.

Priority Pass gives premium credit card holders access to a network with more than 1,300 lounges worldwide; a membership can be purchased for $469 to use all participating lounges.

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This is all in addition to holding status with your preferred airline, being guested in by a travel companion or paying a daily fee.

The American Express Platinum card with its $695 annual fee is one of the most expensive of all publicly available travel rewards cards. Others earn lounge access through elite status or by paying hundreds (or thousands) of dollars or frequent flier miles for a seat at the front of the cabin.

Travelers who fly frequently may find the high prices to be worth it. Instead of sitting at the gate or airport restaurant, they can access myriad perks after scanning their boarding pass and presenting an eligible credit card.

How lounges are changing

All-you-can-eat food and drinks may be the most consistent selling point, but airport lounges have evolved over the years. They’ve gone from a quiet place to watch planes take off, pillage the buffet or take a phone call to multi-thousand-square-foot spaces with amenities like a spa at the Centurion Lounge at Miami International Airport to a Moet & Chandon bar at the Emirates lounge in Dubai.

Even the smaller amenities, like shower facilities found at many airline lounges or nap rooms, can be a boon for weary travelers. What could be a $30 meal per person at a restaurant in an airport can be “free” in an airport lounge.

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Travelers, including families with small children, say lounge perks can offset hefty annual credit card fees or a yearly lounge membership. Several Delta Air Lines lounges now have nursing rooms, while some American Express lounges have “family rooms” where children can decompress away from the main seating area. Even adult travelers need to decompress; there are wellness rooms at some lounges with spaces for meditation and yoga.

But with more people having access to airport lounges, some say the experience has diminished. It wasn’t unheard of for some travelers to arrive to the airport hours before a flight just to visit a lounge — now, some just head straight to the gate.

Lounge-goers have in particular criticized Priority Pass for contributing to overcrowding and offering access at odd hours — and some lounges won’t accept members of the service at all.

“Bottom line, there are great benefits, and still are if you can find a lounge that will accept Priority Pass and allow you entry, but if I had to pay for it, it would be a no,” said Matan Bodek, a Los Angeles-based product manager who has access to the lounge network through his credit card.

Credit card issuers and airlines have taken notice of flier frustrations and are trying to woo back their most loyal lounge customers. How much you spend can determine whether you can bring a guest — or if you can you have lounge access at all.

Last year, Delta Air Lines raised elite status requirements and restricted who can access its SkyClub lounges to prevent overcrowding. Before this year, anyone could buy a membership — no elite status required. Now, only Delta Medallion members can purchase one. Additionally, even if you do have a membership, Delta is making it harder for passengers flying on its cheapest tickets to enter. Basic economy travelers can no longer access the SkyClub lounges, though this requirement is waived if you have an eligible American Express credit card.

Delta is making its airport lounges more exclusive

But the most notable change, perhaps, comes from American Express. Earlier this year, the issuer introduced a new policy significantly limiting access to consumer and business Platinum card guests. Guests over 18 must pay a $50 entry fee, while guests between 2 and 17 will be charged a $30 fee. (Guests below age 2 are still free with proof of age). According to the credit card issuer, card members may only bring in a guest without paying a fee if they spend $75,000 (or more) on their card in a calendar year. This restriction can be waived, but travelers can expect to pay a pretty penny if they want to bring a guest in for free.

Still, consumer needs have changed, and some lounges are now trying to cater to travelers in a rush. Chase opened an indoor and outdoor space earlier this year at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, dubbed the Chase Terrace, which features grab-and-go food options. Delta has also started to roll out to-go options in some locations to combat overcrowding and accommodate rushed travelers.

Capital One, which has several lounges in construction around the United States, said it is prioritizing travelers on the go. Jenn Scheurich, the head of travel at Capital One, said the issuer noticed that many lounges didn’t have options for travelers who wanted the lounge experience in a limited time frame.

“They still want that great cup of coffee; they still want something healthy,” she said. “When we designed our lounges, we said ‘We want this to be amazing for people, whether they’re coming in for 15 minutes or two hours.’”

Victoria M. Walker is a Brooklyn-based travel writer. You can follow her on Twitter: @vikkie.