American Airlines’ erstwhile chairman C.R. Smith launched the first VIP airport lounge in 1936 to reward his best customers and supporters, upon whom he bestowed the honorific “Admirals.” Back then, membership was at the discretion of the sales force. Today, however, anyone with enough money can join. They’re expensive, but considering the chaos of the typical airport terminal, especially when flights are delayed or cancelled, well worth it–a definite step up from sitting on the floor next to the gate, fighting over the last available power outlet. In addition to comfortable workstations and cushy chairs, they offer perks like free beverages and WiFi, and civil reservation agents. But is that worth the price of admission? It might be if you travel often.
You can buy annual club memberships using money or frequent flyer miles. Memberships cost $450 with Delta, US Airways and Alaska; $500 at United and American. There are also “spousal” memberships and multi-year options; however, it looks like the lifetime membership is a thing of the past.
“Initiation fees” (always with the fees, these airlines) may also apply (typically $50 for first time members), but there are discounts if you’re an upper tier member of the airline’s frequent flyer program. There are also short-term memberships, applicable to full-year dues, for less (for example, a 30-day pass might cost $90 with Delta, or a 90-day pass $120 on US Airways).
However, if you’re an infrequent flyer, but still want to wait comfortably and work productively, the best solution is a day pass, which costs $50 per person for Delta’s Sky Club, American’s Admirals Club and United’s Red Carpet Club, or $29 with US Air if bought on line in advance ($50 at the door). Delta offers discounted passes for $25 with the Delta-branded Gold or Platinum American Express card.
Airlines also offer access to passengers traveling in the premium cabins on a same-day international (considered transoceanic or intercontinental) flight, plus customers traveling in first class or on full-fare Y class tickets on specific routes to/from JFK (Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Denver, and Las Vegas) can enjoy access at JFK or one of the eight aforementioned airports. Passengers booked on United’s p.s. (premium service) flights in business and first class between JFK and SFO or LAX get free access on the day of travel.
Alaska Airlines grants access to full-fare first class passengers at any of its Board Room clubs.
As an added bonus, some airlines offer reciprocal admission to other facilities although there are a few fine point restrictions. For example, Delta Sky Club members enjoy access to Alaska Board Rooms and vice versa when traveling on the other carrier. Although this could change when and if US Airways merges with American Airlines (since USAir will presumably join the OneWorld alliance), as of this writing United and US Airways offer reciprocal privileges with each other and with Star Alliance lounges throughout the world.