Understanding Lounge Access For Canadians
Airline lounges are a place to relax, charge your devices, and have a place to relax away from the hustle and bustle of an airport. Sometimes seen as exclusive spaces, this guide will try to debunk that myth as you don’t need to fly business class or have super high status to gain entry to most airlines lounges.
Lounge access is one of the most confusing flying subjects because many things can offer access. Select credit cards provide limited access, flying business class sometimes does, having a certain status, and others require payment at the door.
Confusingly, some cards tout lounge access as a card benefit but only provide one the ability to enroll in the lounge program for free; actual lounge access comes at an additional per-use cost. For this reason, this guide will focus on cards that provide enrollment to different lounge programs and provide free passes.
This guide will focus on credit cards that provide access. While one can sometimes enter under other circumstances, this guide will not focus on this.
Four Main Types of Canadian Lounge Programs
American Express Global Lounge Collection
The American Express Global Lounge Collection provides access to more than 1,300 airport lounges across 130 countries. It is the most global program. I like to say that it is a “collection of a collection of lounges.” Makes sense?
This program provides access to Centurion Lounges, “basic” American Express Lounges, the Priority Pass program, Plaza Premium lounges, Delta Sky Clubs, Escape lounges and Airspace lounges.
Centurion Lounges are “upscale” lounges, but there are only 24 worldwide, the bulk found in the United States. Priority Pass is a collection of 1,300 individually operated lounges, and this program offers access to the lounges but does not provide restaurant access. More on that later. Delta Sky Clubs access comes only if flying Delta and Plaza Premium is a popular lounge for Canada travel.
Priority Pass membership is included in the American Express Global Lounge Collection but can be joined separately. By itself, the program offers access to more than 1,300 individually operated lounges across the world. Priority Pass contracts independent lounges to provide access to their members.
Priority Pass members can also use their lounge entitlement to receive discounts on select restaurants inside airports. The amount varies depending on airport and currency, but usually is around $40 (billed in local currency) off a bill, excluding gratuity. It is important to note that no American Express cards with Priority Pass access offer this restaurant entitlement.
Mastercard Airport Experiences: LoungeKey
Mastercard has partnered with LoungeKey to provide airport lounge benefits for their cardholders. Like Priority Pass, LoungeKey contracts independent lounges at airports worldwide, but their footprint is smaller, around 1000 worldwide. Many of the LoungeKey lounges are also affiliated with Priority Pass.
Maple Leaf Lounge Access
While there are many options to enter Air Canada’s Maple Leaf Lounges (for complete terms, see here), our focus is on those holding an Aeroplan Black card. Maple Leaf Lounges are in 16 airports across Canada, the United States, and Europe.
Best Canadian Cards for Lounge Access
Frequent World Traveler: Unlimited Access For The World
Undoubtedly the king of airport lounge access is either the American Express Platinum or the American Express Business Platinum. These cards offer unlimited access to American Express’ Global Lounge collection for the primary cardholder and a guest. Secondary Platinum cardholders also get this benefit and bring in additional guests.
It is hard to stomach the up-front cost of $499 and $699, but the benefits are there. Welcome bonuses are frequently in the six digits, helping offset the annual fees. The card paid out over $1800 in insurance when I was stranded in France at the onset of the pandemic. There are favourable earning rates in almost every category, world-class insurance, and other travel perks such as hotel and car rental status are worthwhile.
The card is a worthwhile investment if you are a very frequent traveler and want the absolute best.
Frequent Domestic Canadian and US Traveler
Recently revamped for the launch of the new Aeroplan in November 2020, the Aeroplan Black Cards consist of four cards: The TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite Privilege Credit Card, CIBC Aeroplan Visa Infinite Privilege, the American Express Aeroplan Reserve Card, and the American Express Aeroplan Business Reserve Card. These cards have unlimited access to Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounges in Canada and the United States.
Taken directly from American Express’ terms, “Aeroplan Black cardmembers are entitled to complimentary access to any Maple Leaf Lounge located in Canada and the United States, including International Maple Leaf Lounges in Canada and the United States when traveling on an international itinerary.”
Note, the wording of “international” in this case refers to lounges in Canada and the United States in the international terminal, not lounges located internationally. You do not gain access to lounges outside Canada and the United States as a Black cardmember.
These cards are all relatively similar, but each has subtle differences. All cards have hefty annual fees of $599 each, but the welcome bonus and other Air Canada benefits help offset this fee.
Interestingly, these four cards offer complimentary membership to Priority Pass, and the TD and CIBC cards offer six free lounge entitlements. The Reserve family only provides complimentary access to the program - additional access is charged at the prevailing rate.
This card is specific to Air Canada frequent fliers and will offer the most benefit to travelers who frequently fly to/from Canada and the United States. Other benefits include priority boarding, baggage handling, and extensive insurance coverage.
My favourite card that offers Priority Pass access is the Scotia Passport Infinite. Frequently first-year free, this card is among the most generous on the market, offering six free Priority Pass visit entitlements. These visits are counted on a per person per visit basis, meaning you can use your entitlement for a guest to join you. After this, each entry is charged at USD 32.
The card has other travel benefits, such as a no-foreign currency charge on non-Canadian dollar purchases and comprehensive insurance that help offset the annual fee.
American Express Platinum
American Express Global Lounge Collection
Unlimited (+ 1 guest)
American Express Aeroplan Reserve
Maple Leaf Lounge
TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite Privilege
Maple Leaf Lounge/Priority Pass
CIBC Aeroplan Visa Infinite Privilege
Maple Leaf Lounge/Priority Pass
Scotiabank Passport Infinite
BMO World Elite Mastercard
What to Consider
Above are my recommendations based on what type of traveler you might be. What if you don’t fit those boxes? Find below what you should consider before getting a card that offers lounge access and compare it to the chart found above.
How frequently do you travel? Do you frequently come to the airport early and think it would be nice to grab a bite to eat or drink before a flight? Consider how often you have connections 2 hours or more in length, because anything shorter usually isn’t worth it, and if your frequently visited airports even have an accessible lounge.
Many credit cards have minimum income and healthy credit scores to apply. American Express infamously has no required minimum income, but Visa Infinite Privilege cards come with a required household income of over $200 thousand yearly.
Annual Fee Justification
Cards that come with unlimited lounge access command a substantial annual fee. Is it worth it to you? Many of these cards offer large welcome bonuses in the first year that make the yearly fee easier to justify, but after that, the value might not be there if you don’t travel much. Consider other card features, such as other priority services and insurance coverage.
Consider the airports you travel to and note what lounges are there. What lounge program are they included in? If you’re unsure, you can search your airports on the American Express Lounge website, Priority Pass website, LoungeKey website, and the Maple Leaf Lounge website to see what fits your habits.
Understanding lounge access doesn’t need to be so complex. If you identify as one of the traveling persons in this article, great, enjoy your access!
If not, after careful consideration of what you want, you will be enjoying a drink before your flight, anytime.