A Travel Nightmare: Free Airport Lounge Access to the Rescue!

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A Travel Nightmare: Free Airport Lounge Access to the Rescue!

We had a travel fiasco last summer on our way back from a month-long stay in Boquete, Panama. One small element of bad weather caused a delay that turned everything into an overnight mess.

Exhausted, both physically and mentally, we ended up finding some sort of redemption the next morning thanks to a free credit card perk we have… airport lounge access.

If you’re not aware of how nice airport lounge access can be when traveling, you’re missing out. But knowing that several credit cards offer this as a free benefit can make it even more worthwhile!

We haven’t always had airport lounge access but as we’ve become more frequent travelers, we’ve found it to be something worthwhile to have for our trips and vacations.

I’ll tell you the benefits of lounge access and why we enjoy it, as well as the train wreck travel debacle we had that made it even more worthwhile. I’ll also tell you how and why this might be a no-brainer perk to get through a credit card.

What do you get with airport lounge access?

Back in my early 20s, traveling wasn’t something I could afford to do frequently but when I did, it was always a blast. I remember some great long weekend trips to Vegas in those days!

I also remember 25 years or so ago when I applied for and got a Continental credit card. If you’re too young to remember, Continental was a great airline that ended up getting gobbled up as part of a merger with United in 2012. The credit card had a few useful perks including two airport lounge passes to Continental’s Presidents Club at the airport you would get every year.

On one of the trips to Vegas, Lisa and I went into the Presidents Club with these passes a couple of hours before our flight and we felt like rockstars. When we first walked in, we could see how elegant and quiet the place was (unlike the rest of the airport). We sat down at a bar and drank for free and even ate a meal there (as opposed to the snack you can get now). We were relaxed and having a great time – it was the perfect start to our vacation.

Back then, that was the big highlight for us – using those two passes each year when traveling.

One year, I didn’t fly anywhere and the passes I had were about to expire. So a buddy and I went to the airport just to use them up instead of letting them go to waste. This was before 9/11 and you didn’t need a ticket to get anywhere in the airport.

We sat at the bar in the airport lounge drinking for hours for free and randomly pointing at the flight information display while joking that our fictional flight was canceled and we’d like another beer. Pathetic, right? But maybe pathetically awesome, too! Life is good, my friends!

Nowadays, that isn’t going to float. You need a ticket to get past security and some clubs require that you have a ticket with that airline showing a departure or arrival time of only a few hours before or after a flight. Not as fun, but still worthwhile for most folks.

That brings us to some of the differences with today’s airport lounge access options. There are generally three types of clubs:

  • Airline-Affiliated Lounges – These are lounges offered by a major airline specifically for their customers such as the Admirals Club from American Airlines and the Polaris Club from United Airlines.
  • Credit Card-Affiliated Lounges – These are lounges exclusively for holders of a particular credit card such as the Centurion Lounges by American Express, the Capital One Lounges, and the Chase Lounges.
  • Independent Lounges – These are not tied to any specific airline or credit card company. They often offer pay-per-use access or annual membership programs. Priority Pass is a well-known lounge program that partners with a large number of these lounges.

So what do you get with airport lounge access that you wouldn’t have otherwise at the airport? Some of the common perks include:

  • Comfortable Seating – You know those uncomfortable seats at all the airport gates? Yeah, you don’t find those in the lounges. Instead, you’ll find much more comfortable seating areas away from the hustle and bustle of the main terminal.
  • Quiet Environment – Speaking of hustle and bustle, the lounges are so much quieter and more relaxing than the main terminal, which makes it great for reading, working, or just chilling out.
  • Complimentary Food and Beverages – Many lounges offer free snacks or possibly a light meal. They also generally have free beverages, too, including alcoholic drinks.
  • Business Facilities – A lot of times, airport lounge access will give you a good environment to work in. You’ll find quiet areas with charging outlets, Wi-Fi (different than the regular airport Wi-Fi), and comfortable seating to catch up on work needs.
  • Entertainment Options – Some lounges have TVs, newspapers, magazines, or other entertainment.
  • Shower Facilities – This seemed like such a random thing to me at first, but with long days of flying (maybe international or having long layovers), I can see how access to showers might be useful… more on this later in the post!
  • Assistance and Concierge Services – Lounge staff can assist travelers with various services, such as flight reservations, rebooking, and general travel advice.
  • Relaxation Amenities – Premium lounges may feature additional amenities such as spa services, massage chairs, sleeping pods, and relaxation rooms, allowing you to rest and rejuvenate before your journey.

Here’s an example of why I like having airport lounge access. Here’s a picture Lisa will probably punch me for sharing of her trying to take a nap in the main airport one time…

And here’s us napping in a private room at the Minute Suites at the airport in Baltimore Airport (included with our Priority Pass membership through my credit card)

Which looks more comfortable – the main airport or the private suite?

The problem with airport lounge access

There’s not a lot to complain about at these lounges… and that’s part of the problem. People love ’em and this has become a great perk companies continue to offer, which is now causing over-saturation.

It used to be that you needed to be an elite traveler by flying routinely or flying first class to get into these lounges. The majority of the people you found in the lounges back then were going to be business travelers because of that.

But now, signing up for certain credit cards or buying a membership gets you in – no elite travel or previous travel required. So now they’re becoming a lot more crowded – so crowded sometimes that you might need to wait in line for an hour or so to get into one.

The good news is that with some flexibility, you might not have any issues. We’re always taking advantage of our airport lounge access at every airport we go to that has them (including layovers), but we’ve only had to wait one time and only for a short bit.

The reason? We’re flexible with our travel and try to fly (and do all of our traveling really) during non-peak days. If you go to the airport on a Tuesday or Wednesday, you’ll see that it’s a ghost town. That’s wonderful in itself and it makes flying dramatically less expensive, but then we find the lounges easy to get into, too.

I know not everyone can do this, but know that time of day makes a difference as well. When you’re flying during peak hours, the lounges are understandably going to be a lot busier. So if airport lounge access is important to you, be aware of the days and times when booking a flight.

That time we got stranded at the airport overnight

Ok, so if you’re not someone who knows the greatness of airport lounge access, hopefully, this has enlightened you as to why it’s a nice perk to have.

Is it a necessity? Absolutely not. But is it a relief to get away from the business of the airport, relax, and maybe have a little food and drink? 100%!

But there was one time when having airport lounge access was such a comfort for us…

We spent a month last year back in Boquete, Panama house and dog-sitting for some friends last summer. It was great to be back there visiting old friends, dining at some of the restaurants we loved, and checking out the new places that have come up since. We spent time at the beach and got some hiking in as well. All-in-all, a thumbs up!

However, the flight back to Ohio… not as fun. It’s already always a long day to begin with that usually involves:

  • Taking a taxi 45 minutes to the airport in David, Panama
  • Security at the airport and then a short one-hour flight from David, Panama to Panama City, Panama
  • A few hours of a layover in Panama City, Panama
  • Going through security twice at this airport (once for the airport and once for the airline at the gate)
  • A flight from Panama City, Panama to somewhere in the U.S. for a connecting flight (usually Miami, Houston, Atlanta, or Newark)
  • Customs and all that fun plus security again at the connecting airport
  • A flight from the connecting airport to Cleveland, Ohio
  • A half-hour drive from the airport in Cleveland back to where we’re staying (wherever that happens to be at the time for us!)

This is a tough day or even two if we split it up. No matter how many times we’ve done it (or doing the reverse from Cleveland to Boquete), we’re always drained by the time we get to our final destination.

The only thing that could make it worse is if something were to go majorly wrong, which hasn’t really ever happened… until this vacation.

On this past trip back from Panama, we took a cab around 7 am to the David airport and went through the process you saw above and things were going well. But then on our Delta flight from Panama City to Atlanta (about a 4 to 4 ½-hour flight), we noticed on the in-flight map on the seat back screens that we kept flying right past Atlanta… uh-oh.

What was weird was that nobody said anything for the longest time. The pilot didn’t address it and neither did the flight attendants. I finally stopped a flight attendant who was hurriedly passing by and she said that there was a bad thunderstorm in Atlanta so we were heading to Charlotte, NC, and then walked on by.

So what did that mean? When we landed at the airport in Charlotte, we just sat there on the tarmac. Again, for an inordinate amount of time, nobody said anything. In the meantime, I started looking up flights from Charlotte to Cleveland for when we’d pull up to the gate… but that never happened.

The pilot finally got on the overhead and said that we landed in Charlotte to avoid the monster thunderstorm in Atlanta. He said that we would be leaving in a little bit to fly back to Atlanta. So we sat on the tarmac and waited… for hours! Even though we were supposed to stay seated, I finally led the charge to head to the bathroom for a minute. A bunch of other passengers soon followed… sometimes you gotta be the leader, folks!

Anyway, after hours of sitting on the tarmac, we finally took off toward Atlanta at about 11 pm. We were drained. We got to Atlanta about midnight and as we landed, I saw what I guessed was our connecting flight to Cleveland taking off (it was delayed until about that time).

So we got off the plane, went through customs, and then headed to the check-in counter. Bear in mind that the airport was essentially closed for the most part. But we needed to get a new flight to Cleveland for the next day. They had graciously brought in some other folks to help at the counter and we waited in the line that had hundreds of people in front of us.

While waiting, I tried to rebook on the app to no avail and tried to get a hold of customer service on the phone but that wasn’t working either (I can’t remember if it wasn’t open or if we just sat on hold). In the meantime, one of the workers was directing and telling everyone that because this was weather-related, don’t wait in line – they’re not giving out free hotel rooms or anything. Only stand in line to change your flight. Ok, fine.

I waited in line for 3 hours – it was now 3 am! At the Delta counter, they told me that there were no available flights until 6 pm… 6 pm!!! We looked at all sorts of options, including flying into other airports and there just wasn’t a better alternative.

Well, what else are you going to do? I could barely even think by that point and Faith was sound asleep next to Lisa along a wall nearby.

A Travel Nightmare: Free Airport Lounge Access to the Rescue!
Faith and Lisa waiting on the sidelines shortly before Faith conked out for a snoozer…

We were trying to decide what to do and I happened to check my email. You’ll never believe what was in there – food vouchers, a hotel voucher, and Lyft vouchers from Delta that had been emailed to me even before the guy was telling everyone that they weren’t giving out vouchers. Ugh. If I had known that, we would have just gone to a hotel and rebooked after a little rest.

In the meantime, the vouchers showed the previous date as the date they were good for (remember it’s now 3 am the next day). All the hotels we checked with were booked until we finally got a hold of one that said they had room and would honor the voucher but we would have to do some legwork with Delta to ensure the different date was accepted. We started working on that and then tried to use the Lyft vouchers and those refused to work.

All of us were exhausted and flustered. We finally just decided to wait it out in the airport. It was now 4 am and we wouldn’t have a flight until 6 pm. I kept thinking of the movie The Terminal with Tom Hanks where he’s trapped in the airport and can’t leave (good movie, btw!).

Nothing was open so we became the people you see passed out asleep on the airport floor. We found a spot off in the corner and set up shop. It’s crazy to me that I didn’t take any pictures of Lisa and Faith on a bench and me laying on a towel on the floor but I think we were all just too exhausted to even think about anything unnecessary at that point.

After a few hours of some much-needed sleep, we got up at around 7 am. We used one of the food vouchers and got a little bit of breakfast.

Then came the clincher. I went down to a random Delta gate desk (this one was for a flight to Jamaica) and explained our situation. The guy and gal at the counter felt some empathy and clicked away at the computer. He then said they had plenty of flights to Cleveland throughout the day and put us on standby for a 1 pm flight. He said that if we couldn’t get on that flight, they could push us back to a 3 pm flight, then to a 5 pm flight, etc.

He was confused as to why that wasn’t offered to us last night at the other counter. In other words, we probably could have gotten onto an earlier flight in the morning through standby if we had been given that option.

I thanked him profusely and went back to tell Lisa and Faith the good news. So now we just needed a place to rest up for a few more hours. And with everything finally opening up for the day, we of course turned to our airport lounge access.

Through my credit card, we have unlimited use of the lounges through Priority Pass and I can bring two guests for free as well. We had already used it at Panama City airport the day before but this visit was needed a lot more.

Since this was a busier day/time to be flying, the airport was hopping and they told us at the lounge they’d text us when they had room. Within a half hour, we got that text and headed in. We relaxed and regrouped, had a little food, and then Faith even went and took a shower there. She said she was feeling gross and thought that would be good.

We signed her in and then they called her when it was her turn. They thoroughly clean the showers after each use. She came back and sat down like a new person! I guess there are good uses for showers at the airport!

Being able to spend time in this lounge turned out to be just what we needed. Although we were still tired, we felt like we were now back on track.

After 2 or 3 hours in the lounge, we headed over to our gate, were lucky enough to get on the standby flight, and got back to our apartment by 4 pm.

With as much as we travel, I would expect us to run into more problems like this, but this was the worst one we’ve ever had. And all I can say is that thanks to those folks at the Delta counter for the flight to Jamaica and the rejuvenation time at the airport lounge, it ended on a much better note.

Credit cards with airport lounge access

Ok, we’ve established that these lounges can be a nice luxury when traveling and a good way to step up your trip a little. But how can you get access?

As I mentioned earlier, you can pay for membership access through clubs like Priority Pass. Priority Pass offers access to over 1,500 airport lounges around the world! There are annual passes that you can buy ranging from about $100 to over $450 with various benefits.

You can also sometimes buy a one-time pass from the major airlines to their lounges. You can usually expect to pay $50 or more for that one-time use… per person. So for a family of four, you’re looking at $200 for a single visit.

Some credit cards also offer a couple of airport lounge access passes per year such as some United-branded cards through Chase.

I prefer getting access to the lounges though from credit cards that offer the membership benefit instead. Some credit cards offer limited access to Priority Pass such as the:

  • U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve Visa Infinite Card

The benefit you get varies depending on the credit card. But as an example, you might only get 8 free Priority Pass visits per year. This could be adequate for folks who don’t travel often or have a lot of companions (each companion would burn up one pass).

Other credit cards offer unlimited access though, which of course is a little better – especially for the avid traveler. Here are some of the personal credit cards that offer that:

  • Capital One Venture X
  • Chase Sapphire Reserve
  • The Platinum Card from American Express
  • Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express

Of these, I think the Capital One Venture X card is still the best bang-for-your-buck credit card. Although the $395 annual fee might sound steep, it’s one of the cheapest (if not the cheapest) of the so-called “premium” travel cards out there.

For folks who enjoy traveling, the Capital One Venture X is a fantastic value and can absolutely be worth the annual fee. Between the sign-up bonus, the $300 annual travel credit, the $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, and the unlimited airport lounge access with guests through Priority Pass, you can easily come out far ahead.

If gaining airport lounge access as a credit card benefit sounds appealing to you, my suggestion is to sign up for a free account at Travel Freely. I’ve written about why I think this service is the #1 best way to track credit card rewards, but it’s also an easy way to figure out the right credit card to sign up for based on your needs. I’ve been using Travel Freely for about three years now and can’t say enough good things about it… and since it’s 100% free, that’s even better!

You can find all the cards I’ve mentioned above (and more) through Travel Freely.

If Travel Freely doesn’t interest you though for whatever reason, here’s a direct link to sign up for the Capital One Venture X card:

Capital One Venture X sign-up link

Please note that if you apply with my link and get approved, I may get a referral bonus (at no cost to you, of course).

I love this credit card and it’s the only card I have with an annual fee that I’ve been renewing just because of the great value it gives us.

Regardless of how you do it, if you’re someone who likes to travel but haven’t had the opportunity to try out airport lounge access, it’s time to see what you’ve been missing!

If you enjoyed this post, consider jumping on the email list. I’ll send you a bunch of freebies in the welcome email, including the Credit Card Rewards Tracker spreadsheet I use as a complement to my Travel Freely account…

Plan well, take action, and live your best life!

Thanks for reading!!

— Jim

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8 thoughts on “A Travel Nightmare: Free Airport Lounge Access to the Rescue!”

  1. I just got the Venture X card a month ago and flew through Mexico City yesterday. I tried two cobranded lounges that offer Priority Pass access. They both told me they were full and did not offer waiting lists. Finally got into a 3rd lounge that put my name on a waiting list. I was not all that impressed with the lounge. Crowded and nothing special. Maybe bad luck for me. Will have to see how my next experience goes!

    1. Not a great first impression for you, Dean! I can assure you though that it’s not always like that, especially if you can travel during non-peak days/times. Hopefully, your next experience goes a lot better! 🙂

  2. What a tough day(s)! I’ve never had a card with priority pass, but it may be worthwhile to get it when my husband retires and we are flying more.

    1. Definitely, Kris – it’s probably not worth it if you’re not doing a lot of flying right now, but when that becomes something you’re doing more often, it’s really a nice way to be able to start each vacation!

  3. I had lounge access for a couple of years. It was nice, but we didn’t travel enough to take advantage of it. I’ll check the Capital One card. I haven’t signed up for a new card for a long time. It might be time to get a new card. We’re heading to Japan this year! Let’s see if the Capital One card has a foreign transaction fee.

    1. No foreign transactions fees on the Venture X card so that would be a nice card in your pocket for the Japan trip (of which I’m very jealous of! 🙂 ). I never thought I’d be someone who would pay for an annual fee card, much less a high annual fee, but between the $300 annual travel credit, the lounge access, TSA/Global Entry reimbursement, the minimum of 2x per dollars on purchases, etc., this one’s pretty much a steal for travelers.

      1. I used your link to apply for the Venture X card. It’ll be great for the Japan trip. My other cards have foreign transaction fees. We should be able to spend enough on the trip to meet the signup bonus requirement. 😉

        1. I love this card – it’s definitely my favorite by far. That should be great for your Japan trip. Once you get it, be sure to activate your Priority Pass access since that’s separate and don’t forget to use the $300 annual travel credit, too.

          And thanks for using my link – very much appreciated!! 🙂

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