For Australians, the actual act of travelling anywhere other than Australia is … not great, to put it mildly. If you were to travel from Sydney to LA, you’d be spending 14-plus hours crammed inside a plane and a few more in various airports. Even travelling to somewhere else in Australia is arduous – it takes more than five hours to fly from Brisbane to Perth!
Airport lounges are near the top of people’s lists when it comes to satisfying air travel – 22 per cent of respondents in the International Air Transport Association’s 2018 Global Passenger Survey said that access to airport services (such as lounges) would best improve their travel experience, while a similar survey from Priority Pass found that nearly two-thirds of frequent flyers considered airport lounges a ‘very important’ or ‘important’ factor when selecting airports.
It’s not hard to imagine why. These lounges can be the height of luxury – while the other schmoes slum it at the gate, lounge guests get to enjoy more than a few creature comforts such as free food, alcohol, wifi, charging stations, showers and, above all, some peace and quiet. For passengers on long-haul flights, relaxing in the sweet embrace of a comfy lounge chair can be a dealbreaker.
The good news is that one of the many perks offered by certain credit cards is complimentary access to some of these airport lounges. If your card holds this feature and you’ve got a trip coming up, it can pay to know how it works and what the limitations are.
How does credit-card lounge access work?
Airport lounge access is a feature offered by select credit cards, alongside other features such as rewards programs, travel insurance, concierge services and more. This feature offers either free or discounted entry to certain airport lounges both domestically and overseas – depending on the card you can also purchase access with your rewards points. Having such a feature is an easy way to get into these semi-exclusive areas hassle free, but there are usually some limitations, so check your card’s terms and conditions:
- you will probably have to buy the plane ticket with the credit card, and the ticket may have to be valid for that day
- you might also have to reach a minimum spend limit each year to be eligible
- you might be restricted to certain airlines (e.g. only Qantas, no Virgin)
- you might have to enrol in programs such as Priority Pass to be granted entry
- you might be restricted to one guest per cardholder, so families might not be granted access for every member
- there may be a limit to the number of visits per year (this tends to be around two to four).
Since airport lounges can be fairly fancy places, there will probably be a dress code you’ll need to adhere to as well. That means no thongs!
Which lounges can you access?
This again will depend on the card. Some of them grant you access to a wide variety of lounges, while others just a few. For example, Qantas-branded credit cards will allow you to enter the Qantas Club, but not the Virgin Australia lounge. Conversely, Virgin-branded cards won’t let you into the Qantas Club. American Express cardholders, meanwhile, can access two American Express lounges in Sydney and Melbourne airports.
Some cards, however, grant customers access to more than 1000 airport lounges across the globe through Priority Pass. This is a paid service with an annual fee, but certain credit cards can grant subsidised or free memberships to this program, which greatly expands the number of airline lounges you can use and the number of countries you can use them in. If your credit card gives you Priority Pass membership, then you can use the airport lounges in countries such as China, the USA, the UK, Thailand, Singapore, Japan and more.
Note that this membership may sometimes exclude Australian airport lounges.
Which credit cards offer access to airport lounges?
There are more than a couple of dozen cards that offer airline lounge access, and pretty much all of them are premium cards, meaning that they are more likely to attract higher fees. Looking at the market, there are no cards offering this feature that also have a $0 annual fee, so the term ‘complimentary’ should be used loosely. Having this feature means you’ll always be paying something in the form of an annual fee, although there are exceptions:
- some cards waive the annual fee in the first year
- some cards can waive your annual fee to keep you from switching.
Annual fees on these cards can be higher than $700 in some cases, although these cards can sometimes compensate for this high fee by offering lower international fees.
In terms of interest rates, those are also higher too. You’ll be hard pressed to find such a card offering a non-promotional purchase rate below 18 per cent, with the exception of some charge cards offered by Diners Club. So, while these cards might grant you access to airport lounges, they’re rarely (if ever) free. You’ll need to determine if using this feature actually provides value to you.
So, let’s say you have a credit card with an annual fee of $400 – not cheap by any means. If you’re a frequent traveller, chances are you’ll have the opportunity to use the Qantas Club. This annual fee is already lower than the annual fee of a Qantas Club membership.
Similarly with Priority Pass, an unlimited yearly membership currently costs about $553, which is quite expensive but still lower than the annual fee on some credit cards with an attached Priority Pass membership. Even if the annual fee is higher than the cost of a membership, it could still cost you less than a couple of hundred dollars a year for potentially unlimited lounge access.
Airport gates are hardly enjoyable places to be, and it’s easy to feel like you’re Tom Hanks in The Terminal if you spend too much time there. This is especially true if you travel a lot for business – they might pay for your flights, but there’s still an awful lot of waiting around to do.
Access to airport lounges can make travelling much more enjoyable, relaxing and comfortable, and if you can get it through your credit card then all the more power to you. You do need to be wary of seeing airport lounges as a ‘need’ rather than a ‘want’ though.
Airport lounges are a bit of a status symbol, and it’s easy to see yourself as a big shot when you’re in one, and easy to see others as one when you’re not. Who doesn’t want to sit in comfort drinking martinis next to a suited stockbroker reading the Australian Financial Review?
But if you’re not getting any value out of an airport lounge beside the status, is it really worth it? You have to consider whether the annual fee you’re paying for your credit card is worth the number of visits you make to the lounges.
For someone who travels a lot, this decision might seem like a no-brainer: paying a couple of hundred dollars a year for something that can cost hundreds more for a membership seems like a pretty good deal. On the other hand, someone who travels once a year interstate might want to reconsider such a card, as you won’t even be at the airport for very long anyway.
Ultimately, the decision is up to you. Who knows, maybe it’s worth treating yourself to a lounge visit every so often. It might just be cheaper to do so without the credit card.
William Jolly is a finance journalist, formerly at Canstar and now at savings.com.au. Much of his work is centred on helping to improve the financial literacy of Australians and provide them with resources on how to save more money in their daily lives.
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