Last updated: 10:22 AM ET, Mon July 27 2015

First Class For All: The Rise of Pay-In Airport Lounges

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | July 27, 2015

First Class For All: The Rise of Pay-In Airport Lounges

Photo via Flickr/TravelingOtter

You have probably experienced “lounge envy” before. You are sprawled out at a food court table or in a chair at your gate enduring a longer-than-expected layover. You see a few people flashing boarding passes or frequent flier membership cards and entering a doorway that is protected by a hotel-like front desk.

Maybe you have experienced an airport lounge before, or maybe you have only heard stories from other travelers. Either way, you want in.

For casual travelers who usually fly coach, airport lounges seem out of reach. However, pretty much anyone can get in....

You can pay your way into almost any airport lounge

Actually, most lounges, even those associated with specific airlines, allow passengers to buy an admission. For example, United offers one-time access to its United Club lounges for a $50 fee. You can also pay with frequent flyer miles. A day pass costs 7,000 miles. Annual United Club memberships are also available for $550 or the equivalent value in miles. 

Airline-specific lounges are not quite as exclusive as people think, and a relatively new phenomenon has further democratized the airport lounge scene. Companies like Hong Kong-based Plaza Premium operate pay-in lounges that are not associated with any carrier. 

The rise of independent lounges

As the term “pay-in” suggests, people who want to use the lounge simply hand over the admission fee and go in, no questions asked. 

Over the past 15 years, travelers have embraced the independent lounge idea. Plaza Premium was one of the first companies to try this business model. They began in the late 1990s with two lounges. One was opened in Hong Kong International and the other in Kuala Lumpur. By the end of 2014, Plaza was operating 90 lounges spread across 23 airports. Most of these venues are in the Far East, the Middle East and Canada. Toronto Pearson has no fewer than five Plaza Premium locations.

These lounges are not merely photocopies of airline clubs. Yes, guests will find comfortable seating, fast Wi-Fi and complimentary refreshments, but the lounges also offer other perks such as workstations with wired connections. Showers are another common feature at Plaza Premium locations. Some of the lounges even offer shower packages specifically for people who want to “freshen up” during a layover or before they leave the airport.

An option in almost every airport

Plaza Premium has different packages. Admission prices vary depending on how long you plan to stay and what type of services you plan to use. Some of the lounges have private VIP rooms, for example, that cost extra.  

Airlines have taken notice of these independent players. Some carriers have partnered with Plaza or one of its peers in airports where they do not have a club. Premium-class fliers on that airline get complimentary admission to the Plaza lounge during their layover or before takeoff.

The Club is one of the largest independent airport lounge chains in the U.S. It has many of the same features as Plaza. Club lounges can be accessed with a “day pass” that costs around $35. Many of these lounges (in airports like Sea-Tac, Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix) have shower facilities. In addition to guests who pay their way in, people with certain types of credit cards or club memberships can gain entry. Complimentary admission is available to people who have Diners Club cards or who have a Priority Pass membership. 

Other first-class services are for sale too

Swissport, a contractor that handles a number of airport services from baggage handling to pay-in lounges, has become another entrant in this increasingly crowded niche. All the main players are attempting to expand by offering an a la carte menu of other VIP airport perks like limo ground transport, concierge service and spa treatments.

If you are a budget traveler, pay-in lounges might seem like a frivolous expense. Finding that comfortable and hidden corner with plush chairs in the airport is part of the adventure of traveling, right?

At the same time, independent lounges are a growing phenomenon that shows that people are willing to pay for first-class perks even if they are not willing to pay for a first class ticket. At the very least, you will always have the option of paying-in. Think of it as an instant cure for lounge envy and layover-induced depression.  


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