Are Priority Pass Perks Really Worth The Price?

Perhaps you've recently walked through an airport and passed a mysterious set of doors that lead to an exclusive airline lounge. What exactly lurks inside for lucky premium cabin denizens, as well as passengers with frequent-flyer status? Is there premium beer, wine, and liquor available free for the asking? A tantalizing selection of buffet items, while you were planning to grab some McDonald's? Sometimes, accoutrements like this do indeed exist, but for a cost — the cost of Priority Pass.

Assuming you don't otherwise qualify for lounge access based on 1) your cabin class or 2) status with an airline network, there is always the option to buy your way inside the realm of exclusivity using a product called Priority Pass, which advertises free or discounted entry into over 1,400 airport lounges worldwide. Presently, a Standard membership costs $99 per year, plus $35 for each lounge visit made by members and their guests. For example, a couple traveling together would pay $70 total to enter a qualifying lounge, in addition to one of them having already paid the annual fee.

The next step up is the Standard Plus membership, which costs $329 per year. This priority pass includes 10 free lounge visits for the member, with additional visits and/or guest visits billed at the same $35 rate as the Standard membership. Finally, there's the Prestige membership for $469 per year, which grants unlimited lounge access for the member, though guests still pay $35 each visit. That's a considerable expenditure, so is it worth it? Like most things in life, it depends.

Some lounges are better than others

While Priority Pass boasts access to more than 1,400 airport lounges worldwide, the quality and amenities of said lounges can vary widely. Typically, lounges run by airlines are of high quality, particularly those catering to international flights and destinations. Expect to find in these lounges comfortable seating (and sometimes even dark rooms with chaises for naps); a large selection of complimentary food and drinks, including alcohol; and even spa services and private shower rooms to freshen up in between flights. On the other hand, Priority Pass also contracts with independent third-party lounge operators (not affiliated with an airline), which sometimes offer guests much fewer amenities, such as a quiet space away from the main terminal with soft drinks, coffee, and snacks like chips.

Consider that for the price of a Priority Pass annual membership, plus additional fees to actually enter lounges, occasional travelers may be better off buying a day pass from the lounge operator directly, if offered. For example, American Airlines sells day passes to its Admirals Club network of lounges for $79, while some independent lounges offer day passes as inexpensively as $29.

Finally, whether you're a Priority Pass member or planning to purchase a day pass on your own, access to lounges isn't guaranteed. If the lounges become overcrowded, operators may deny entry outright or add guests to a waiting list, which may or may not grant access within your required time frame. As you might imagine, airline passengers who can access the lounges organically through premium cabin travel or frequent-flyer status will have priority (pun intended) over other guests.

Membership is free with certain credit cards

Note, if you have an ultra-premium travel credit card, you might already have free Priority Pass membership. That exclusive list includes the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, as well as the American Express Platinum, Capital One Venture X Rewards card, and a few others. The type of Priority Pass memberships offered complimentary by ultra-premium credit card issuers don't necessarily fall into any of the categories that Priority Pass offers for sale directly. Rather, these credit card cardholder bespoke plans are called "Select" and vary slightly between credit card issuers.

For instance, American Express Platinum grants unlimited free lounge access to the cardholder and one guest, while Chase Sapphire Reserve permits access for the primary cardholder and two guests, free of charge. The Chase Sapphire Reserve version of Priority Pass — considered among the best of the Select variants — also provides additional perks like free meals (typically up to $28 per person) at select airport restaurants and discounts on spa services.

Priority Pass alone may not be worth the expense

Besides a complimentary Priority Pass membership, ultra-premium travel credit cards also offer cardholders a plethora of additional perks, including annual travel credits, travel insurance, and automatic VIP status at select rental car agencies and hotel chains. That said, the annual fees can be steep, ranging from $395 to $695 per year. However, if you're seriously considering purchasing a Standard Plus or Prestige Priority Pass membership anyway, or making a habit of visiting airport lounges, opening an ultra-premium credit card that provides a free Priority Pass might be a better option since the annual cost is roughly equal to an a'la carte Priority Pass membership and you'll be allowed at least one free guest (sometimes more). Plus, you'll get other benefits from having the credit card.

As for buying a Priority Pass membership directly, the relationship of benefits versus cost isn't as clear. Consider how often you'll be flying in the near future, as well as the quality and quantity of lounges at the airports you're likely to visit. If it's mostly smaller, third-party lounges or you'll only be flying occasionally, there's always the old-fashioned approach of just buying a meal and a few beverages in the terminal while you wait for your flight to depart. A complete list of participating lounges can be viewed at the Priority Pass website.