I’ve been flying regularly for almost twenty years now, yet until last year I’d never had access to an airport lounge. I never had enough points to fly business class, and don’t have enough loyalty to any particular airline to get status.
After nearly two decades of noisy terminals, terrible food, bad Wi-fi, and the world’s least-comfortable seats, I decided it was time to try a different approach, and bought a Priority Pass membership. There are only so many miserable layovers a person can handle in their lifetime, and I think I’d reached my limit.
My year’s subscription is up next month, so now seemed to good time to reflect on my experience with the program, and how well (or otherwise) it’s worked.
What Is the Priority Pass, Anyway?
In brief, the Priority Pass is a global membership program for airport lounges. Rather than being tied to your ticket type or airline status, you get access to any of the lounges in the program regardless of who you fly with.
Along with a physical membership card, there’s a companion app that lists every available lounge, with descriptions and details on how to find them. That app also provides a digital version of your membership card in case you’ve left yours behind — although not every lounge accepts them, many do.
Where Can You Use It?
Priority Pass boasts access to “over 900 lounges in 400 cities across 120 countries”. That number is increasing all the time — my app has updated every month or two, with several more lounges each time.
Obviously those lounges aren’t evenly spread around the world — there are hundreds in the US and Europe, for instance, but very few in Australia and New Zealand. Still, it’s been rare for me to be travelling through a decent-sized airport that doesn’t have at least one lounge, and most of the big ones have two or three different options.
If your travels regularly take you through particular airports or countries, take a look at the site to see how many lounges you’ll be able to access before you buy.
How Much Does It Cost?
The program has three annual membership tiers, based on how much you expect to use it. The Standard $99 tier just buys access to the program, but doesn’t include any lounge passes. You’ll pay $27 every time you use a lounge, charged to your credit card.
If you suspect you’ll visit a few lounges throughout the year, it’s worth springing for the Standard Plus option. This is the one I chose, which includes membership and ten lounge passes for $249. After that, it’s that same $27 fee per use. Passes don’t carry over from year to year — use them or lose them.
For those flying a lot, the Prestige membership gives unlimited access. If you’ll get to more than 15 lounges in a year, this option will save you money. This top-tier version also means you don’t need to try to get the most “value” out of your lounge visits — if you’ve only got a short layover, you can pop into a lounge to grab some food and drink on your way to the gate. If the lounge gets busy, you can switch to a quieter one. There’s no need to ration your usage.
Note that regardless of the membership tier you choose, each pass only covers the person whose name is on the card. If you want to take a partner into the lounge you can, but it’ll cost an extra $27.
Memberships are priced in local currency around the world, so you’ll pay £69 for a base membership in the UK, for instance, or €99 in Germany.
What’s It Like in Reality?
The membership pack arrived in the mail within a couple of days of purchase, and contained some explanatory information and the all-important membership card. My first opportunity to use it came in Los Angeles, before a late-night flight to Mexico City. I’ve spent enough time at LAX to know it’s far from my favourite airport, so was interested to see whether the lounges were any better than the rest of the terminals. That’s not a high bar to jump.
I used the app to quickly find which lounges I had access to, and cross-referenced with LoungeBuddy for unbiased reviews. The Air Canada Maple Leaf lounge looked good, and made the most sense, since it was in the same terminal I’d be departing from.
Once through check-in and security, the location instructions in the app were easy to follow. After a swipe of my membership card and showing my boarding pass at at reception, I was ushered into an oasis of calm. Due probably to the time of day, there were only half a dozen other people in the lounge. I hadn’t had dinner, so helped myself liberally to the hot and cold buffet, and equally liberally to the wine selection, before settling into a chair to work and charge my gadgets for a couple of hours.
The Wi-fi was fast and reliable, the seats were comfortable, and it was one of the quietest places I’ve ever found inside an airport. Literally the only problem was the 10:30pm lounge closing time, which meant having to return to the din and bright lights of my boarding gate for an hour before getting on the plane. At least after three glasses of wine, it wasn’t hard to take a nap.
After arriving in Mexico City at 6am, spending two hours in a non-airconditioned immigration line and then another hour sitting on the floor waiting to recheck for my onward flight, it’s fair to say I wasn’t at my freshest. Fortunately, the Grand Lounge Elite lounge wasn’t hard to find. Even more fortunately, it had super-clean shower facilities. Most fortunate of all, it had chilaquiles on the menu, my breakfast extravagance of choice whenever I’m in Mexico.
All of that was complimentary, as were the snacks, drinks and Wi-fi. After checking my emails and finishing my breakfast, I curled up in one of the chairs, set an alarm, and grabbed some of the sleep that had eluded me on the flight. Heading to my gate a few minutes before boarding time, I was much less smelly, hungry or tired than I had any right to be after an overnight flight.
I used that same lounge again on the way out of Mexico a month later, and spent a couple of hours answering emails while gorging myself on crackers and hummus in Miami’s Avianca VIP lounge while waiting for a flight to Madrid. The lounge was almost full, but the food selection stayed full and fresh, the mixers for the complimentary vodka stayed cold, and the Wi-fi stayed speedy throughout my stay.
So, all of those experiences were great, and vastly better than sitting in any departure area.
My Priority Pass experience hasn’t been flawless, however — not due to the program or lounges themselves, but because of the airports they’re in. I found a cheap flight from Taipei to Melbourne with Philippine Airlines, with an 11 hour layover in Manilla. I knew from past experience that the airport was one of the worst in the world, so was only prepared to endure that layover if I had a lounge to do it in.
My flights arrived and departed from Terminal 1, but the only lounge I could access with the pass was after security in Terminal 2. When I asked a staff member about the best way to get to that lounge, I was told, apologetically but firmly, that it wasn’t possible. Transferring between terminals takes over an hour, there’s no way of doing so without going back through security, and without a boarding pass for a flight departing from Terminal 2, I wouldn’t be allowed through.
The end result? Half a day stuck in a hot, fly-infested terminal, with half a dozen terrible food outlets that didn’t accept cards. Fortunately I had a few US dollars stashed away for emergencies, so I could at least eat the awful meals on offer, albeit via the worst exchange rate in the Philippines. Not quite the layover experience I was hoping for.
My advice would be to carefully check lounge locations against your arrival and departure terminals before booking flights, especially in larger airports. You won’t have this problem everywhere (in Miami, I was able to use the lounge in a different terminal with only mild grumbling from the TSA person), but since each airport has different policies, there are no guarantees.
Speaking of policies, the other thing to mention is that since lounge has its own set of rules and regulations, it’s worth reading the details carefully. Some have restricted opening hours, some limit you to three hours or less, some have food and drink limits, and some have no restrictions at all.
Who Should Buy It?
The Priority Pass isn’t for everyone. If you only fly once or twice a year, or typically use airports that aren’t covered by the pass, you won’t get enough benefit. Similarly, if you fly business class or have lounge access through your credit card or frequent flyer program, there’s no need to double-up.
For the rest of us, though, it’s a inexpensive way to dramatically improve the airport experience. If you work from the road, it’s a no-brainer — access to a quiet space with comfortable chairs, power sockets and free, reliable Wi-fi is a godsend, and you’ll likely make back your membership fee before you’ve left the first lounge.
Even if you’re not toting a laptop, being able to get away from the mayhem of most departure lounges is well worth the money, especially after overnight flights or on long layovers. The food and drink is better (and typically free), you can relax and nap in a calm environment, and when there’s a shower on offer, you’ll feel a whole lot more human by the time you board your next flight.
Note: Some airport lounges also offer day passes to anyone with a credit card. While it’s worth considering, in my experience such lounges are relatively rare outside the US, typically quite expensive ($50 seems to be a common rate), and often need to be booked in advance, especially in busy airports or at peak times. If you’re planning to rely on this option, do your research very carefully to ensure you’ll be able to get into a lounge when you want to.
Since buying my Standard Plus pass last August, I’ve used it four times. I’ll get another one or two lounge visits out of it before the twelve months is up, which is right on the line where I start saving money over the Standard plan. With fewer trips planned for next year, I may switch to the cheaper tier — I haven’t decided yet.
Either way, though, I’ll definitely be renewing the membership. Not being tied to flying with a particular airline or alliance to get lounge access means cheaper flights, which more than covers the annual fee. Even if it didn’t, the lowered stress levels, better food and drink, comfortable environment and improved personal hygiene would make it worth the money.
Anywhere I’ve used my pass, my time at the airport has been dramatically better. At a time when everything about the flying experience is typically so dire, having lounge access through the Priority Pass has been a rare pleasure.
Note: If you’re interested in the Priority Pass, the links and banners in this post will give you 10% off any membership.