Greatest Escapes Week

The 9 Best Airport Lounges in America (And How You Can Get In)

What's behind the most elite doors in the airport — and how to open them.

Forget fluorescent lighting, faux-leather furniture, day-old pretzels, and the endless hunt for a free electrical outlet to charge up between flights. Airlines are raising their lounge game, both abroad and in the U.S., in the hopes of wooing high-paying high-fliers with perks like classy cocktail lounges, celebrity-chef menus, spa treatments, shirt pressing, and more. Here are nine of the best lounges in the country, the epic amenities you’ll find there, and how you can get in.

1.  American Express Centurion Lounges

In the past few years as American Express has renegotiated its agreements with airlines like Delta. It has also built and opened sophisticated lounges at seven U.S. airports (and a few international ones) just for its own cardholders. As of now, Amex has opened Centurion Lounges at the airports in Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, Miami, New York LaGuardia, Seattle and San Francisco, with more on the way in Philadelphia, and possibly Los Angeles.

Among the special features of specific lounges are menus by celebrity chef Michelle Bernstein and Exhale Spa treatments at the one in Miami; seasonal menus by James Beard Award-winning chef Daniel Patterson and an exclusive Napa Valley wine-tasting station as well as cocktails by mixologist Jim Meehan in San Francisco; and dishes like green chili udon noodles and burrata on crostini created for the lounge at New York LGA by chef Cédric Vongerichten. The décor tends to be pretty swanky, too, with design touches hearkening back to the golden age of travel.

How to get in: Access is free for Platinum, Business Platinum, and Centurion cardholders with ID and a boarding pass for same-day travel, as well as immediate family or up to two guests. Consumers with other Amex cards can purchase $50 one-day passes at the club on day of travel that also include children under 18 for free.

2.  Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, New York JFK

Virgin Atlantic has long cultivated its image as a cheeky alternative to legacy carriers for folks flying across the Atlantic. But the fun starts on the ground thanks to it gorgeous Clubhouse lounges, including the one at New York JFK. This lounge has a marble-topped cocktail bar serving complimentary cocktails including classics like bellinis and martinis, but also bespoke libations like the signature Virgin Redhead with Bombay Sapphire gin, framboise liqueur, lemon juice, cassis, and a Champagne float — perfect for a pre-flight toast. The full-service menu in the dining room changes throughout the day, with breakfast items in the morning, and heartier fare in the afternoon and evening, including dishes like chicken tikka masala and the Clubhouse burger.

There’s a futuristic area with pod-like cocoons and high-profile privacy booths for the worker bees, while folks who want to sharpen up before their flight can take advantage of the Bumble and bumble salon, or spa treatments using Dr. Hauschka skincare products as well as massages. You can get a complimentary 15-minute treatments or pay for longer services.

How to get in: For access here, you’ll need to be flying Virgin Atlantic Upper Class, be a Gold elite member of Virgin’s Flying Club, or a Diamond, Platinum, or Gold Medallion with Delta flying a same-day non-stop flight to the U.K. operated by either Virgin or Delta. One workaround: If you’re an Elevate Gold member with Virgin America or flying the airline in First Class or Main Cabin Select that day, you can pay $75 per adult per adult to get in as well.

3.  United Polaris Lounge, Chicago O’Hare

United is in the midst of a major rebrand of its business class this year, which it has named Polaris, and which includes not only all-new seats and amenities on its planes (though the rollout of the seats will be a slow process), but also exciting new amenities and services at its lounges.

The first of nine planned Polaris-branded lounges opened at the airline’s hub at Chicago O’Hare in December. Among the unique touches is an installation on the ceiling mimicking the Chicago night sky by artist Wolfgang Buttress.

Privacy is paramount here, with single-person lavatories, and seating “pods” in the main lounge area containing a single armchair and an adjustable table/desk with a lamp as well as electrical outlets for recharging. So you don’t have to look anyone else in the eye or ask them to move their 16 carry-on bags off an empty chair.

For those feeling more social, there’s also a large dining area with a buffet and à la carte dining throughout the day, as well as a long bar where attendants will mix up destination-inspired cocktails. Among the coolest amenities here? Private wine lockers that will be offered to frequent lounge visitors.

If you need some R&R, there are relaxation rooms with chaise lounges and Saks Fifth Avenue pillows and blankets, as well as private shower suites with heated floors. Lounge attendants will even launder or press an item or two for you while you wait.

How to get in: The access policy here is meant to be restrictive… er, we mean, exclusive. You’ll have to be flying United Polaris or business or first class on a Star Alliance carrier to enter.

4.  Oneworld Lounge, Los Angeles LAX

This lounge managed by Qantas is understated and chic, and one of the best parts about the new Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX. It’s got a sexy mid-century modern aesthetic, and actually contains both a larger business-class lounge and a smaller Qantas-branded one for first-class passengers.

The main lounge centers around a large atrium for a little natural lighting that’s surrounded by seating areas and loungers. The dining area is anchored by huge cold and hot buffets with food and menus overseen by Aussie celebrity chef Neil Perry and a dining area with café-style tables.

There’s also a big black-tiled bar right by the entrance, just where you want it, and you can order complimentary cocktails or enjoy a selection of California wines. A short walk from there is a chalet-style indoor fire pit, in case you’re in need of an intimate tête-à-tête along the circular banquettes before your flight. Meanwhile, there are 16 shower suites stocked with Aurora Spa products for freshening up. Among the amenities specifically for first-class passengers and Oneworld Emeralds (as well as Qantas Platinum, Cathay Marco Polo Club Gold and Diamond and British Airways Executive Club Gold elites) are shirt pressing, shoe shines and shower-access propriety.

How to get in: Business-class passengers on Oneworld flights departing Tom Bradley International Terminal as well as Oneworld Emerald and Sapphire elites flying in any class on a Oneworld carrier can get into the business-class section; while the first-class section is reserved for first-class passengers flying out on Oneworld carriers and Oneworld Emerald members flying in any class on a Oneworld airline.

5.  Lufthansa First Class Lounge, New York JFK

Lufthansa’s first class has to be one of the best in the world, so is it any wonder that their on-the-ground experience excels as well?

This one is actually a little lounge-within-a-lounge on the third and top floor of the larger Lufthansa business-class lounge at New York JFK. Because of that, it’s fairly compact, but once you see what’s here, you won’t want to venture anywhere else. If you do get bored, you can always use the main lounge amenities, including two shower suites.

Not only is there an entire cold and hot buffet as well as a self-serve bar with top-shelf spirits and wines, but there is also a dedicated dining room with à la carte menus of made-to-order options like lobster bisque, and roasted black sea bass with wilted spinach and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms.

How to get in: This is one of the most restrictive lounges on our list. To get in, you’ll need to be flying first class on Lufthansa, or be an über-elite HON Circle member with the airline’s Miles & More program.

6.  Star Alliance Lounge, Los Angeles LAX

We’re back to LAX’s Tom Bradley International Terminal for this one, which is a pretty great alternative to the Oneworld lounge there. This one also contains both business- and first-class sections that accommodate a combined total of 415 guests.

Among the lounge’s show-stopping features are an outdoor terrace with a waterfall and fire-warmed bar counters with views out toward the Hollywood Hills. On the other side of the lounge is a sort of café-style balcony with a bar and tables overlooking the main terminal concourse. The main part of the lounge, however, features a variety of seating areas, an extensive buffet with snacks and drinks, and a little library room where you can borrow iPads. There’s also a media room with TVs showing news and sports, and even a secret celebrity hideaway room for folks who want to avoid the hoi polloi in the business lounge. The shower suites here are large and bright and stocked with Soaptopia products.

How to get in: You’ll need to be either a Star Alliance Gold elite member flying a Star Alliance carrier in any class of service that day, or flying business- or first-class on a Star Alliance airline.

7.  Delta Sky Club Concourse B, Atlanta Hartsfield

Delta has really been upping its offerings at its Sky Clubs throughout the U.S. lately, and while previous lists might have included the Sky Clubs at JFK or at Atlanta’s international terminal thanks to their outdoor Sky Decks (with bars from which you can watch planes take off and land), we’re including this newest U.S. lounge for the time being thanks to its novelty.

The Concourse B lounge is not only huge and airy with enormous windows letting in tons of natural light, but it’s also got one of the best plug-to-passenger ratios we’ve ever seen. Practically every surface has a power port on it, so you won’t leave feeling drained either physically or electronically. Throw in some décor touches like local artists’ works on loan from Atlanta galleries, cool furnishings like high-profile banquettes that function as both work and napping spaces, a lively bar scene including an enomatic machine with wine selections chosen by the airline’s Master Sommelier, Andrea Robinson, Starbucks coffee being served round the clock, and a healthy choice of snacks and dishes at the buffet, and you’ve got yourself a pretty great lounge.

How to get in: You’ve got plenty of options if you want to see this place. Delta Sky Club and Diamond Medallion elite members get in, as do passengers flying business class on international or transcontinental routes on Delta or its SkyTeam partners. You could also get in as a SkyTeam Elite Plus (Gold, Platinum, or Diamond-level) member flying a SkyTeam carrier that day. Cardholders of a Platinum, Business Platinum or Centurion card from Amex are also allowed entrance. Or hey, you could just purchase a day pass for $59.

8.  Cathay Pacific Lounge, San Francisco SFO:

Cathay Pacific is based in Hong Kong (and you should see its network of lounges there!), but it also operates a U.S. lounge at San Francisco International Airport that’s well worth a visit.

The lounge was expanded to twice its original size in 2015, and is now over 9,000 square feet, though it accommodates just 175 guests at a time, keeping it rather cozy. The overall aesthetic seems to be contemporary Zen, with touches like black granite floors and walls, Carrara marble tables with bamboo stools, and signature semi-circular Cathay Solus-style Poltronona Frau leather chair-booths for the utmost privacy.

Guests will also find six shower suites and other typical touches like work stations and free high-speed Wi-Fi. Among the other Cathay-specific offerings is the airline’s noodle bar where you’ll find specialties like spicy dan dan noodles made to order. There’s also a large dining area and espresso bar along with a self-serve buffet.

How to get in: The lounge is primarily for passengers flying in first or business class on Cathay Pacific or one of its Oneworld partners, as well as Oneworld Sapphire, or Emerald elite members.

9.  Virgin America Loft, Los Angeles LAX

Virgin America opened this little “loft” back in 2012, and it remains one of LAX’s best lounges thanks to some fun elements like a mood-lit bar where guests can order signature tongue-in-cheek cocktails like the Mile High Margarita. There are also a new menu snacks and full meals for sale, such as a crunchy kale salad for the health nuts, or a chipotle pineapple pizza with chicken. And if you just need a moment of quiet, this is definitely the place to relax... since children under 12 are not allowed.

How to get in: The good news is, you don’t need to be flying first class or be a super elite to get in. However, it is free for those in first class, as well as Elevate Gold members traveling on Virgin America. Otherwise, you’ll pay $15 as an Elevate Silver elite, or there are $30 day passes available to everyone else traveling out of Terminal 3.

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