With all the extra time required these days at airports for security checks and other delays, what are travelers to do if they find themselves ready to board but still with an hour or two to wait before departure?
That hallowed institution, the restricted-access airport lounge, suddenly looks inviting. What better way to wait for a plane, instead of being perched on a bar stool or at the crowded waiting area by the gate?
A quiet luxury lounge with newspapers and magazines, data ports for laptops, free local phone calls and work desks, not to mention free snacks and nonalcoholic drinks, offers a much more desirable--and productive--retreat.
"If the choice is a crowded airport bar or, heaven forbid, the boarding area, then an airport club is a no-brainer. Choosing the relatively calm, comparatively commodious surroundings of an airport club makes me feel like the smartest man alive," writes Randy Peterson, publisher of InsideFlyer magazine and a veteran frequent flier, in a recent column.
"That said, I feel like an absolute fool when I'm in an airport terminal and I don't have access to an airport club."
Most airlines offer complimentary lounge use for first-class passengers and for those flying business class on international flights. But what about the rest of us weary domestic travelers paying coach steerage?
There are several ways to join, depending on the level of frequent-flier status obtained. Starting prices vary widely among the top five carriers, from $325 to $475 a year; memberships with frequent-flier status are cheaper. (The higher your status, the less the annual fee.)
Members can pay or use frequent-flier miles. All clubs allow members to bring in spouses and children younger than 21, or two guests.
Here is a look at the five biggest U.S. airlines in terms of passenger volume (prices given are for basic membership, which is the most expensive):
American Airlines Admirals Clubs (www.aa.com,  237-7971): $450 a year, 43 clubs around the world. Many have children's playrooms with computers for the kids. No reciprocal agreements with other airlines, but accepts valid Ambassador Club memberships of TWA, which American absorbed last year. Day rate: $50 per person.
United Airlines Red Carpet Clubs (www.united.com,  822-5827): $450 a year, 44 locations in North America. United also offers reciprocal privileges with 13 partners including Air Canada, All Nippon Airways, Delta Air Lines, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines. Day rate: $50 per person.
Northwest Airlines WorldClubs (www.nwa.com,  692-3788): Annual membership on sale for $375 a year through April; a 60-day trial is $85. Access to 94 WorldClubs and certain lounges run by KLM, Continental Airlines, America West Airlines and Air China. Day rate: $45 per person, or $65 for a day pass good at multiple airports.
Delta Air Lines Crown Room Clubs (www.delta.com,  496-2225): $475 a year, lounges at 34 airports, mostly in the U.S. Members can cash personal checks for up to $50 at the ticket counter. Reciprocal agreement with United's Red Carpet Club. Day rate: $50 per person.
Continental Airlines Presidents Club (www.continental.com,  322-2640): $325 a year, eight private clubs and 40 affiliated lounges including reciprocity with Northwest. Day rate: $45 per person.
Other programs to consider:
Two credit cards also offer airline club privileges: the $300-a-year American Express platinum card ( 843-2273) allows access to Northwest and Continental lounges, along with immediate family or two guests. The catch: You have to be flying Northwest or Continental that day.
Diner's Club card ($95 a year,  234-6377) also offers access to 100 lounges worldwide, but the only ones in the U.S. are in Newark, N.J., and Miami. One guest or family member is allowed; additional guests cost about $10 each.
A sensible program for travelers who tend to use two or more airlines is the Priority Pass for $99 a year (www.prioritypass.com,  352-2834), which allows a $24 per-person, per-visit charge for participating lounges at 41 U.S. airports and 300 lounges around the world, or a $295 membership that grants free access to all participating lounges.
In the U.S., these include all lounges of Northwest and America West and most Delta, United and US Airways clubs. Overseas, the clubs are run by other airlines such as AeroMexico and Korean Airlines, or are independently operated.
Priority Pass is also available through the International Airline Passengers Assn. (www.iapa.com,  821-4272). Membership includes discounts on hotels, car rentals and insurance. IAPA costs $49, $99 or $299 a year; the lowest two levels allow a Priority Pass standard membership for $75 instead of $99; members still pay $24 per lounge visit. IAPA's top membership includes free access to Priority Pass lounges.