Plane travel tips and advice: How to get into airport lounges when you're not flying business or first class

Airport lounges are the gilded uplands of air travel, refuges of calm, quiet and comfort where the food and drink are free, the seating is well padded and the loudest noise is the hiss of the barista's espresso machine.

Especially so for the lounges of the prestige carriers, for whom a razzle-dazzle, five-star enclave lets them show off the style and personality that sets them apart from their competitors.

Of course if you're travelling in premium class you're in, as are elite-level flyers who travel frequently with a particular top-tier airline, no questions asked, but there are other ways to gain access to these privileged domains.

Join the club

Qantas Lounge, London.

Qantas lounge, London Heathrow. Photo: Qantas

One solution that works well for anyone travelling frequently within Australia is to join either the Qantas Club or Virgin Australia's lounge club, which gives access to you and a companion at lounges operated by those respective airlines at airports all around the country.

Members also get entry to affiliated airline lounges overseas. In the case of Qantas those lounges can be found in 20 cities including Beijing, Bangkok, New York, Dubai, Tokyo Haneda, Osaka and Shanghai. There's nothing in Europe, but for anyone travelling frequently around Australia, membership makes good sense.

Joining fee for the Qantas Club is $399, with an annual fee of $540. Virgin Australia charges a $330 joining fee for Velocity Red flyers, waived for Velocity Silver members, with an annual membership fee of $300 for Silver members, $420 for Red flyers.

Virgin Australia also "sells" Single Entry Lounge passes for its domestic lounges for a payment of 10,000 points. That might be a reasonable option if you've got tons of points but be aware that you might be better off using those points to upgrade from economy to business instead. For example you can get a one-way Economy Reward flight between Melbourne and Sydney for 9300 points, or put yourself in a business class seat for just 5400 points more and thereby ensure entry to the Virgin lounge.

Qantas Frequent Flyer will sometimes receive email invitations to purchase a lounge access pass 2-5 days before flight time.

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Lounge Passes

Priority Pass is the big kahuna for the traveller looking for lounge access, offering an entrée to over 1,000 lounges around the world.

Standard membership costs $US99 ($A126) per annum, on top of which you'll pay $US27 for each lounge visit. Standard Plus costs $US249 pa and gives you 10 free visits in a year, with a fee of $US27 for each subsequent visit. Prestige membership costs $US399 for unlimited access. All Priority Pass members can bring a guest to any participating lounge for a fee of $US27.

For the most part membership of Priority Pass gets you into lounges under such brand names as Plaza Premium, Aspire and Marhaba rather than the lounges that the premier-league airlines operate for the benefit of their business-class elite, although there are exceptions.

Is it worth it?

Plaza Premium lounge, Brisbane Airport.

Plaza Premium lounge, Brisbane Airport.

Most of the lounges to which Priority Pass gives access are located in Europe, and Priority Pass is headquartered in the UK. There's a fair coverage in North America and a reasonable spread of lounges across China and South East Asia but less so in Australia and New Zealand.

Priority Pass claims lounges in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Cairns and Darwin, but that bears closer inspection.

In Sydney's domestic and international terminals for example, Priority Pass advertises that its lounges include Better Burger, the Peroni Bay, MoVida and Bar Roma. And yes, these are all food outlets, open to all. A Priority Pass cardholder is entitled to receive a discount of $36 on their food and bevvie bill, however they'll be charged as if this were a lounge visit – which could mean that $36 "discount" will cost you $US27.

At Melbourne Airport the Priority Pass will get you into Bar Pulpo, Café Vue and Urban Provodore , once again all food and beverage outlets, with the same deal as at Sydney Airport. Considering that Melbourne Airport now has a pay-for-use Marhaba Lounge in international terminal T2, it would be reasonable to assume that Priority Pass members might be entitled to access but that's not so.

At Brisbane International Airport at least, Priority Pass members have entry to the Plaza Premium Lounge. That's a decent option, however several international airlines also use this lounge for their business class flyers and it gets crowded at peak periods. At Cairns International Airport it's the Reef Lounge, another worthy contender, and the Catalina Lounge at Darwin International, and that's definitely worth considering because the only place worse than the truly awful public areas at Darwin International on a crowded day would be a night in a dumpster.

Dubai Airport in the busy small hours is a great case for lounge access, especially if you're coming off a 14-hour flight. Priority Pass members have a choice of the Marhaba and Ahlan lounges.

Reviews of Dubai's Ahlan lounge on TripAdvisor reveal an astonishing number of five-star reviews, many of them by reviewers with just a single post to their credit. Any organisation that games the system so flagrantly has something to hide.

By contrast, Dubai Airport's Marhaba Lounges do nothing to paper over their shortcomings by salting review sites with favourable comment. From personal experience, the three-star rating for Marhaba's Dubai lounges on TripAdvisor feels about right.

For anyone travelling frequently in Europe or Asia or passing through the Middle East, a Priority Pass membership could be a worthwhile investment. Many of the terminals you'll be travelling though are crowded, with limited seating room, but a lounge can make all the difference.

Lounge Pass is similar to Priority Pass although the network is smaller, at around 400 worldwide, and it operates on a pay-per-use basis rather than membership. In essence Lounge Pass is a one-stop shop for Aspire, Plaza Premium and a handful of other lounge brands, many of which can also be accessed with Priority Pay membership. Prices start at $US19 per person and Lounge Pass claims an average of around $30 per visit.

While Lounge Pass offers a strong selection of lounges throughout Europe, and the UK especially, the network dwindles with distance. In Australia, the sole Lounge Pass member is the Plaza Premium Lounge in Brisbane's international terminal.

Credit Card Access

Delta Sky Club.

Delta Sky Club. Photo: Delta

The right credit card will also get you past the gatekeepers and into an airport lounge. The list includes the American Express Velocity Platinum credit card, the ANZ Frequent Flyer Black credit card and the Citi Signature Qantas credit card among others, but free entry is restricted to two visits per year.

Prestige membership of Priority Pass comes gratis with the American Express Platinum card. This card will also get you into Virgin Australia lounges, Delta Sky Club lounges and American Express lounges around the world, although the annual card fee is a hefty $1200.

Pay-for-use lounges

For the occasional traveller, pay-for-use lounges are another option, offering respite when and if you need it.

Plaza Premium lounges are located in 150 airports in 16 countries. Most of those are in Asia and the Middle East, plus Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Coverage in Europe and North America is thin.

The Plaza Premium Lounge in Hong Kong costs $US75 for two hours, $US100 for five hours. The Plaza Premium lounge at New Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport is a much better deal, at $US27 and $US44 respectively. In Abu Dhabi, the figures are US$32 and US$53.

Aspire lounges are found fairly extensively throughout Europe, in particular in the UK, with a sprinkling in the rest of the world. Prices start from £24.22 at Calgary in Canada, from £28.49 in Helsinki, from £34.99 At Heathrow and £24.00 at Amsterdam's Schipol.

Whether a lounge is worth it or not depends a lot on the airport, how long you're in for and what you're getting for your money. In a great airport like Singapore's Changi, with vast open spaces, plenty of seating and relaxation areas plus add-ons such as the butterfly garden, free movies and free showers, it's questionable. However there are no other airports like Changi. Most are packed, jostly and not fun to hang out in. If you're stuck in one of those for a couple of hours or more, a calm lounge with a decent food and drink selection, fast internet and showers is going to make a difference to how you feel at the other end, but check reviews on TripAdvisor, standards and amenities vary wildly.

See also: Inside the secret, invitation only Qantas lounge for high-flyers

See also: Why I love flying economy class

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