Why some cardholders are getting shut out of airport lounges

Priority Pass is one of the largest global lounge networks, offering members access to more than 1,000 airport lounges around the world. Access to the network is often a benefit on high-end travel cards.

But over the past few months some Priority Pass travelers in certain U.S. airports have been greeted by unexpected disappointment.

According to several accounts from seasoned travelers and online forums, Priority Pass cardholders are occasionally being turned away from lounges as a result of unexpected overcrowding.

“This is something I’ve been hearing about from my readers for a while now,” says Gary Leff, travel expert and founder of ViewFromTheWing.com. “And even though it’s been limited to only a handful of lounges at certain peak times, it’s still frustrating for travelers who think they’re getting this perk only to arrive and find out they can’t get in.”

For instance, one of Leff’s readers wrote to him last month about being denied access to the Alaska Airlines lounge in Seattle, which is where most of these complaints have originated. A sign was posted outside the lounge that read: “Due to space constraints in the Alaska Lounge we are currently unable to allow access to Priority Pass cardholders.”

“I think this is a growing-pain for Priority Pass in the United States as they work to accommodate so many more people that now have Priority Pass access,” says Leff. “Sure, there will always be challenges at certain lounges during certain peak times, but I think Priority Pass is working through this particular problem right now.”

A problem of ubiquity?

Priority Pass membership typically costs $399 annually and was once reserved for some of the world’s most elite and high-paying travelers. But complimentary membership has been an increasingly popular benefit for numerous premium credit cards, including the Platinum Card from American Express (a CreditCardForum advertising partner), the Citi Prestige, and, perhaps most notably, the incredibly popular Chase Sapphire Reserve.

“I think what you’re seeing is that Priority Pass has partnered with too many cards and the benefits aren’t sustainable,” says Richard Kerr, chief operating officer for the rewards-booking service ThePointsConsultant.org. “For instance, Chase says you get unlimited [Priority Pass] guests. So you’re telling me that I can also show up with 15 friends to enjoy the lounge? That’s just setting yourself up for failure.”

While it’s not the only card to offer the Priority Pass membership benefit, experts say the Chase Sapphire Preferred has gotten the bulk of attention when it comes to Priority Pass lounge access oversaturation.

“It’s insane how many people found out about Chase Sapphire with very limited marketing by Chase,” says Hudson Callaway, director of user success for RewardStock.com, a site aimed at helping people manager and take advantage of credit card rewards programs. “I don’t think they did anything wrong, I just think that even they were thrown off by how many people wanted this card and the benefit of Priority Pass access. Now these lounges are seeing all this new traffic and it’s like, ‘Oh crap! What do we do now?’”

To that end, Leff doesn’t think Priority Pass—which didn’t respond to requests for comment—could have foreseen this problem.

“The fact that Chase didn’t anticipate the extreme popularity of this card makes me think there’s no way Priority Pass could have seen it coming either,” says Leff. “The solution now is for Priority Pass to expand its U.S. footprint.”

Indeed, only about five percent of Priority Pass lounges are in U.S. airports, and of that 5 percent only a small handful of lounges have had to contend with occasional overcrowding.

“If you’re an international traveler you definitely shouldn’t lose hope because Priority Pass overseas is fantastic,” says Kerr. “I was in Sydney a few weeks ago and I got two separate meals that would have cost $36 each, and four cans of Jack and Coke to take with me on the plane. That’s about $150 in free stuff just for walking through the airport!”

Sorry, but it’s in the fine print

While denied Priority Pass lounge access may be frustrating, there’s really no recourse for consumers.

For instance, the terms and conditions for the Alaska Airlines Seattle lounge clearly state that “access may be restricted due to space constraints.” Unfortunately, says Callaway, travelers who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time can’t do much about it.

“Just consider the common sense perspective of this,” says Callaway. “These lounges have fire codes and they can only let a certain number of people inside. And if they have to start limiting access they’re going to go down the status chain and accommodate their frequent fliers and high-paying first-class customers over people with a complimentary Priority Pass membership through their credit card. That’s just the reality.”

That said, Callaway thinks overcrowded lounges should provide some advance notice whenever they anticipate this problem.

“Some people plan their flight routes based on layovers at airports where they know they’ve got lounge access,” says Callaway. “So if you planned a four-hour layover simply because you wanted to enjoy the benefits of your credit card, only to find out the lounge won’t let you in? That’s wrong.”

As the busy summer travel season approaches, Callaway says U.S. Priority Pass travelers might be wise to research any recent overcrowding issues at their intended destination.

“Chances are you won’t encounter this problem,” says Callaway. “But it doesn’t hurt to poke around online before booking your flights.”

What does this mean for Priority Pass in the long run?

To be sure, the Priority Pass overcrowding kerfuffle is ruffling some feathers within credit card and travel expert circles. Whether it will have long-term ramifications for the overall brand—or for credit card companies offering it as an annual benefit—remains to be seen.

“I thought this might be a blip, but if more and more cards continue to offer this as a benefit I think the frustration is here to stay,” says Kerr. “You already hear people starting to say that Priority Pass is a joke. And here in the states it kind of is. If they continue doing this, people will start to devalue that benefit.”

But according to travel expert Ari Charlestein, the future isn’t quite so dim.

“For those who aren’t deep in the weeds of the credit card and travel world, this isn’t that big of a concern—unless, of course, you happen to be someone who was turned away,” says Charlestein, who runs the points and miles booking service AwardMagic.com. “I do think the problem is going to get worse before it gets better. But the international network of Priority Pass lounges is still amazing, and if they continue to expand in the U.S. [the problem] will eventually fade away.”

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So the problem here is that the legal “cover your ass” line of access being restricted due to space constraints is misleading.

That makes me think that if the lounge is too full, anyone would be turned away, and I think that’s fair.

But… lounges are turning away PP members specifically as a category of people to SAVE room for other category of folks (first class, 75k gold, etc.).

You would never know this was going to be the case by just reading their legal line. This is discrimination! #firstworldproblems 🙂

Yes, will be interesting to see how people paying $450 or more for a card will react to being considered second-class, when it comes to getting into lounges.

They are denying entry even with empty or half empty lounges which is what’s happening in Seattle. The card is great but adding that lounge access puts it over the top in my opinion. Be interested to see if numbers drop

It’s clearly because we have a lack of domestic P.P. lounges. Internationally, they’re top notch. Here, they’re either absent or fairly poor. It’s sad, because a lot of int’l travelers rely on them and are often disappointed when visiting the US.