Reader Request: The Best U.S. Domestic Lounges
Several weeks ago I wrote a few articles on airport lounges and how to gain access to some of them. You can view two of these articles here: United Club Access, and Dulles Club Options. In response, one reader asked if I could write an article on the best U.S. domestic lounge. Although most major airports have at least one or more lounges–they are certainly not all created equal. To make this article a little more realistic, I am going to focus on the best lounges in the U.S. not operated by a foreign flag airline, thus limiting the competition to all of the U.S. based airlines and any domestic third-party lounges.
Note: I have not personally been to all of the lounges discussed below, but did extensive research, compiling reviews and opinions from several different sources.
What makes a good airport lounge?
In general, most U.S. domestic lounges pale in comparison to many international airlines and the lounges they provide to their customers. A typical lounge experience in the U.S. consists of a basic assortment of snacks (pretzels, chips, peanuts, etc), complimentary well drinks and domestic beers, a place to sit with power access, and decent WiFi. Now, this is nothing to sneeze at, especially when you are getting access for free, but once you have been to a great lounge, you realize that there can be a pretty stark difference between a top-tier lounge and a typical U.S. domestic experience.
I would argue that a great lounge experience starts with excellent service. When you arrive at the front desk you should be greeted by name after showing your boarding pass and lounge access identification. The agent should offer to look up your flight information and provide gate location, unless there is a line or other pressing matter.
When you enter the lounge there should be several different seating sections. First, an enclosed family section for those traveling with children. This section should have books/toys/entertainment for the kids and also have places for the adults to sit and relax while keeping an eye on the kids. Second, their should be a work section with desks/cubicles complete with power plugs and comfortable chairs. Third, there should be a nice quiet area to relax or sleep, removed from the work and family sections. Finally, there should be the general purpose area with comfortable chairs designed for people to talk to each other, eat snacks, drink, watch the news, talk on the phone, etc.
A good lounge will also have a nice selection of both hot and cold food depending on the time of day. A selection of fresh fruit should be available at all times, and during meal times there should be a heartier selection, for example: soup, sandwiches, rice and stew, etc. Also, the lounge should have a selection of sweets (cookies, candies, etc).
The bar should be well stocked and the basic drinks up to mid-shelf liquor should always be complimentary. There should be a couple choices of both red and white wine, as well as some local and national beers. Ideally the lounge will have a complimentary signature cocktail that they are featuring that week or month.
The WiFi should be fast. If I want to download music or a television show prior to my flight, it should not take hours.
There should be an agent dedicated to flight changes/re-routing/seat change requests, etc. They should be happy to help you with your travel plans.
These are obviously some pretty lofty ideals for a lounge experience, but not out of the ordinary for several of the top-tier International carriers like Lufthansa, Etihad, Emirates, Swiss, etc.
Are there any domestic lounges that can compete?
The Best Domestic Lounges
American Express Centurion Lounges
All photos in this section courtesy of the Centurion Website.
American Express currently operates 5 Centurion Lounges. They are located in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami, Dallas-Fort Worth, and New York-La Guardia. They also operate one Centurion Studio (a smaller versionin Seattle-Tacoma.
Centurion lounges are considered by most travel experts as the best overall U.S. Domestic lounges due to their design, functionality, food and drink selection, and space. Each one of the Centurion lounges boasts fresh food, a premium bar, showers, televisions, reading materials, a family room, conference space, workspaces, high speed WiFi, and more. Some of the lounges even offer spa services.
According to the Centurion Website, access to the lounges is available to the following:
“Complimentary for global Platinum Card® and Centurion® Members. All other Card Members with a valid American Express® Credit or Charge Card are eligible to purchase access to the Lounge for $50 per day, subject to capacity. Access to The Centurion Studio is exclusively complimentary for global Platinum Card® and Centurion® Members. To access The Centurion Lounge or The Centurion Studio, the Card Member must present The Centurion agent with the following upon each visit: his or her valid Card, a boarding pass showing a confirmed reservation for same-day travel on any carrier and a government-issued I.D.”
Access also includes up to two guests for members. If you purchase a pass, only one child under 18 may accompany you. Any other adult guests would have to purchase their own pass. The Centurion lounges do not offer a membership–the only way you can access them is by holding an American Express card.
If you want to guarantee access to the Centurion lounges, the best way is by applying for either the personal or business version of the American Express Platinum Card. This Platinum Card is currently offering 40,000 membership reward points after spending $3,000 in purchases in the first 3 months. The card comes with a hefty $450 annual fee, but includes several ways to more than make up for that fee. Each year you get a $200 Airline fee credit, and you also get a $100 Global Entry or TSA Pre-Check credit. You have the benefit of Centurion Lounge access, Hilton and Starwood Gold Status, and numerous other benefits.
Delta Sky Club: New York-JFK
JFK is one of the busiest airports in the United States, and is certainly not my favorite to transit through. JFK’s train system and long distances between terminals/gates is always a hassle. Luckily, one of the nicest airport lounges in the U.S. is available to deal with the stress of a JFK flight or connection. For a legacy domestic airline, Delta really does a nice job on this flagship lounges. It has nice amenities, and also both has a really cool Sky Deck feature where you can sit outside, have a drink and watch airplanes!
The lounge in JFK is large and spacious (24,000 sq ft to be exact) and is located in Terminal 4, across from gate B33. Delta boasts that this lounge has “more than 400 seats, 50+ work spaces, six shower suites, a relaxation room, a private VIP room and stunning views of New York City.” When I visited it was crowded, but there were still plenty of seats available, power plugs were easy to access, and the seats were comfortable. The food is above average for a domestic lounge, but you will not confuse it with anything too fancy either. I tried some soup and light snacks with a glass of wine.
Access to any Delta Sky Club is limited to annual club members and/or Delta’s or Sky Team Alliance Elite members; however, you can also purchase a single visit pass.
Virgin America Loft at LAX
The Virgin America lounge at LAX is another consistently top rated domestic lounge experience. I have not yet a chance to explore this lounge, but day passes are available for $30 per visit unless you are flying a full-fare first class flight or a Virgin Elite Member. If you have a Priority Pass Lounge membership, you are also welcome (Priority Pass membership is a free benefit of the Citi Prestige Card, discussed here). It is located just past security in terminal 3 on the upper level. The club offers customized cocktails in addition to standard beer and wine and also has a for-purchase food menu.
There are many domestic lounges out there, but the vast majority of them offer a relatively mediocre experience when compared with international lounges. However, there are certainly some standout lounges out there, and I am sure that I missed a few other U.S. lounges worthy of recognition. By far, the Centurion Lounges in the U.S. get the best reviews online and seem to have the most consistent product. If you travel even a few times a year through locations with the Centurion Lounges, you may be able to get great value out of an American Express Platinum membership.
Please let me know what your personal favorite domestic lounge is and share your experiences. Safe travels!