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Free or Cheap Airport Lounge Access

You don't always have to fly first or business to get in

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Sally | Edited by Guy

Updated March 2017

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Holidays are great but airports can be anything but. Rather than put up with the chaos, you could try free or cheap airport lounges, leaving you time to enjoy a coffee or food with your feet up before you jet off.

Read on for our top tips and see how you can start your travels in comfort, without paying through the nose for a first or business class ticket.

Warning: This is the first incarnation of this guide. Please give us feedback, suggest improvements and share your tips in the airport lounge tips forum thread.

You don't always need to fly business or first to relax in a lounge - and when you're in, standard facilities and some food tend to be free

Lounges at airports are often seen as reserved for those who can afford luxury travel. True, you often need a business or first class ticket - or be a serious frequent flyer - to get into an airline lounge run by the likes of British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, etc.

But there are also airport lounges, usually run by companies who own lounges in terminals, such as No 1 Lounges and Swissport who run the Aspire lounges. These are open to all, regardless of ticket class, and as we explain below you can often buy one-off passes or even get in free.

It's airport lounges that this guide is mostly focused on given airline lounges are usually reserved for business or first class passengers (with the odd exception).

Whichever type of lounge you're in, food and drink is usually free once in. You may also be able to take a shower or watch TV, read a paper and charge your devices in peace and quiet. Sometimes you have to pay for the really high-end stuff such as a haircut or massage.

virgin lounge

But not all lounges have spas and champagne

As a general rule, airline lounges tend to beat airport lounges but it's not a universal rule, especially as quality can be a matter of opinion. We'll start with airport lounges that you've more chance of getting in.

Airport lounges - usually less luxurious but still relaxing

Here, lounges tend to be more basic as not all have the five-star treatment, but they can still be a good escape from the airport hustle-bustle.

For example, at Gatwick's Aspire lounge you can pick up a newspaper or magazine to read while you enjoy a drink (including beer and wine) and snacks including pasta, fruit and pastries.

To work out whether it's worth paying for a lounge, check out reviews from TripAdvisor* and sites like Lounge Buddy or SkyTrax. Let us know your experiences too, by posting on the airport lounge thread in the forum.

Here are some of your favourites so far:

Used No1 Lounges at Heathrow T3 over Xmas. £20 to enter and got a shed load of Avios. Good Lounge. - Alex via Twitter

The lounge at Malta airport is fantastic. Small but perfectly formed. - CV via Twitter

The Mastercard airport lounge at Prague - it's amazing. - Maureen via Facebook

Airline lounges (from BA, Virgin etc) - where you're more likely to find the real luxury

BA lounge

Here, you're more likely to find fancy spas, manicures, showers or bubbly - as well as free food and drink, and a place to relax. But airlines themselves sometimes have tiers of lounges. Usually something like:

  • First or Upper class lounges: these are superior and access is only usually allowed if you have the relevant ticket, or if you hold elite frequent flyer status.
  • Business class lounges: For people with a business class ticket or with high or elite status on that airline's frequent flyer programme. These are usually very pleasant places but without the gold-plated touch of a first class lounge.

While there can be differences between the two types of lounges above, even within a category facilities can vary. For example, , the British Airways business class lounge at San Francisco airport has showers but the Dubai one doesn't.

And as a general rule, airline lounges tend to be better at airlines' main hubs as that is where they plough most of their investment in. This is likely to be at their home airport or someone they fly a lot. For example, the BA and Virgin lounges at Heathrow are highly rated.

When outside of an airline's main hubs, you may be pushed to a lounge housed by another airline.

Two free passes with Amex Gold at airport lounges

gold card

The Amex Preferred Rewards Gold* charge card is free for the first year, but £140/year after that, and if you cancel before the year is up you're not charged.

It comes with two lounge passes/year at any Lounge Club affiliated lounges (see which lounges you can use). The lounges are airport lounges, not high-end airline ones and again facilities can vary, so check reviews beforehand.

You'll be sent a membership card soon after you successfully apply for the charge card. Scan it when you go to a lounge (you don't need to take the Amex with you). It won't charge you for the first two visits (or one visit for two of you). Additional guests or visits are usually £15 each and are charged to the credit or debit card stored on your Lounge Club account.

The good news is you don't need to book a space - and you couldn't even if you wanted to - you just rock up.

As it's a charge card, you have to pay it off in full every month otherwise there's a £12 late fee and a possible mark on your credit file. It gives points on spending which can be converted into frequent flyer points or miles, or vouchers for retailers such as Selfridges or Amazon.

One-off airport lounge passes for around £20 - it could cost less than food, drinks and airport snacks

You can buy passes through holiday sites such as Lounge Pass*, Holiday Extras* or Lounge Buddy to use at airport lounges. Passes start from around £20 but it varies depending on the lounge you book - the better the facilities, the more expensive it is.

The lounges aren't usually up to the same standard as the airline ones, but some come close. The No 1 Lounge at Heathrow Terminal 3 has showers and prosecco included in the entry cost, plus there's a spa and pod bedrooms if you want to treat yourself further (use isn't included).

When you buy the pass you usually pick the time you want to use the lounge so you know you can definitely get in. You don't have to book far in advance though they can fill up if you don't (most have a capacity limit).

You can also book directly with the lounge operators such as No 1 Lounges or Executive Lounges which run the Aspire Lounges, located at most UK airports.

Aspire also promises to match the price - including any offers, vouchers or discounts - with other lounge booking sites. It will also keep your spot in the lounge if your flight is delayed so factor that in to your decision.

If you can get a cheap pass, and the facilities are decent, it could work out cheaper than the £20ish a meal, drinks and snacks at the airport. And it throws in a comfier chair, quieter surroundings and perhaps even magazines or newspapers.

If you want to splash out, you can sometimes pay for one-off access to the posher airline lounges - not with BA or Virgin, though

Do a search on lounge specialist Lounge Buddy to see what ones are bookable before you get to the airport.

You won't always be able to pre-book, some are walk-up only so you pay at the lounge desk when you're there - the Delta lounge at JFK for example. Due to capacity limits, this means it's not certain you'll get in though, so bear that in mind. Lufthansa and United Airlines also allow you to pay for access.

You can find out exactly where they are though, and if they have the facilities you want. However, be aware that they have limits on the numbers they'll let in.

British Airways and Virgin Atlantic told us that the only way to enter their first/upper class lounges is to be booked in a first or upper seat, or be an elite member of their frequent flyer loyalty schemes. Neither allow you to pay for access.

Frequent airport lounge user? Consider annual membership

Unlimited membership to airport lounges (so not the posher airline ones) costs around £260/year.

With each pass costing around £20 - you'd need to use a lounge more than once a month to break even, so it's only good value if you'll go far more than that, say, if you go a lot with work.

We've rounded some membership costs below, but do check the airport lounge locations before signing up and let us know your feedback. The companies listed are booking services for specific airport lounges.

Membership Main locations Unlimited access annual cost/year Cost per guest
Priority Pass* 1,000+ worldwide £234 via our link (£260 usually) £15
Dragon Pass About 800 worldwide £268 £16
Executive Lounges About 45 mainly across the UK, Canada, Denmark and the Netherlands £260 for Aspire or Swissport lounges
£400 for those above plus AspirePlus
There's no extra cost for an additional guest.

Use frequent flyer points to pay for access or get discounts

air miles

If you're an Avios collector, access to 200 airport lounges worldwide starts from 3,250 Avios points, including access to some No 1 Lounges, which tend to be the top-end of the paid access lounges.

Based on £20 being the typical cost for a pass, that makes 1,000 Avios points worth around £6.

That's not too bad, but the value of Avios points can be be boosted to around £20 per 1,000 if you spend them on upgrades or first or business flights. See Boost and Max Avios for tips.

Virgin Atlantic's Flying Club also offers discounts for its members on No 1 Lounges. When we looked, the lounge at Heathrow Terminal 3 was £36 booked direct and £25 booked via Virgin Atlantic (you'll need to enter a Flying Club membership number to get it). Plus, if you collect Flying Club miles, you get 200-400 miles per booking. Full info can be found on the Virgin Atlantic website.

Use your charm, wit and charisma and ask for access - the worse they can say is no

airport lounge

Anyone familiar with MoneySavingExpert knows we love a good haggle, whether it's on the high street or with your broadband/mobile/breakdown provider. However it's not limited to those areas.

If you're on your honeymoon or celebrating a special anniversary or birthday, dress well, be polite and ask nicely at check-in to see if they'll let you have a couple of passes. It's likely to work better if there are only a couple of you as opposed to a larger group, but it never hurts to ask. Hopefully you'll get a yes, but if not you've not lost anything. Hey, why not ask if they'll upgrade the flight for you too?

Also have a think about whether you know anyone who works for the airline - you could get an upgrade that way.

We'd love to hear if you managed to get into a lounge this way so let us know in the forum.

Log your frequent flyer number on all flights - fly with work and you may hit elite status and get free access

Whenever you book flights, make sure you include your frequent flyer number, if the airline accepts it.

Elite flyer status isn't easy to obtain but some do manage it. To get it, you have to take a significant number of flights annually.

For each flight, you get tier points which added together can take you up the tiers. Reach certain tiers and you'll be given perks such as airport lounge access. For example, fly 50 times to hit silver tier membership with BA's Executive Club, giving you lounge access.

It is often only frequent business travellers that obtain elite status though. If that's you, make sure the person responsible for booking your travel has your frequent flyer details.

You can also earn points or miles on partner airlines under the same scheme which could add to your stash so check before you fly.

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